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Film Review, 10-26: Russe(s) Reunited
"Ballets Russes" Opens Memory Box, with Gaps
Copyright 2005 Aimee Tsao
For me, it's not easy
being a dance critic, for many reasons. While some of my colleagues
seem to get a lot of mileage out of dismissing choreographers, directors
and dancers with a few nasty words, I cringe at the sight of those
artists in public after I have given them a less than thrilling
review, or they cringe at the sight of me for the same reason. There
are also a lot of internal difficulties that I rarely bother to
make public. Not all critics share my concerns, but I personally
feel a distinct obligation to be enthusiastic about what deserves
to be praised, as well as to break bad news as gently as possible.
Perhaps it's because I was once a dancer and know from experience
how painful it is to be dissected under the microscope.
But I come to my current
position because, besides having been a dancer, I have been an avid
reader of dance history for 40 years and have a broad view of the
field. And I have a real passion for it in all its many forms. This
is all by way of saying that I feel very conflicted in my opinion
of Dayna Goldfine and Dan Geller's documentary film "Ballets Russes,"
which opens today at the Film Forum in New York and November 4 in
the San Francisco Bay Area. (See the note at the end of this article
for more national dates.)
It is, of course, impossible
for me to view this mostly wonderful documentary as a member of
the general public, or even a balletomane. Not only am I a picky
Virgo, I'm also far too knowledgeable about dance history to let
details slide. (Unfortunately, since most of my applicable dance
history books and 50- to 70-year-old Ballets Russes programs remain
inaccessible in boxes after a complicated move, I must rely on my
memory and my editor's skill at ferreting out the details.) I am
truly grateful for the opportunity to see the many interviews of
former Ballets Russes dancers and the archival footage, much of
it shot by amateurs -- dancers and fans -- that miraculously surfaced
during the making of this film. I am genuinely touched by the obvious
love that went into this project and the love of dance that those
interviewed convey through their personal stories. For these reasons
"Ballets Russes" is definitely not to be missed by anyone who cares
about ballet or dance in general.
Theilade as Venus in the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo's "Bacchanale,"
choreographed by Leonide Massine, with scenery and costumes
by Salvador Dali, circa 1939. Photo by Maurice Seymour and courtesy
Zeitgeist Films, which also supplied photo captions for this
Russes" begins with the narrator poetically introducing the subject
of the film: "It is the nature of dance to exist for but a moment,
yet once there was something called the Ballets Russes which for
more than 50 years created some of the most extraordinary ballet
the world has ever seen, performed by some of the most legendary
dancers ever to have taken the stage." For the sake of clarity,
it might have been a good idea to explain that there were at least
three separate companies (depending on which sources you are consulting)
that used the phrase "Ballet Russe" or "Ballets Russes" in their
names. That 50 years encompassed 20 years of Diaghilev's Ballets
Russes company and about 15 seasons of relatively interesting new
work by the subsequent companies, but the last 15 years were hardly
on par with the first 35.
After the curtain rises
on a reunion of former Ballets Russes dancers held in 2000, the
narrator continues: "They were called the Ballets Russes. They were
Russians who had never danced in Russia, refugees in Europe who
became international stars, and in the end, they were Americans
who created audiences for dance where before there were none. Theirs
is the story of the birth of modern ballet, ballet as we know it
today. The story that begins in the late 1920s in Paris with a group
of little Russian girls who dreamt of a life in dance." This would
be fine except that it excludes Sergei Diaghilev's original company,
les Ballets Russes, who WERE Russians who had received their training
and had been dancing in Russia. That company began to perform in
Paris in 1909 and continued until Diaghilev's death in 1929. Without
this first company, the others would never have existed at all.
Diaghilev's brilliant talent in bringing together the best visual
artists, choreographers and composers to create groundbreaking work
has never been surpassed in the history of 20th-century ballet.
The film does go on to mention him and his work but without really
showing the entire artistic and social context which lead to his
forming his company and the subsequent influence it had on dance,
music, art and society in general, laying the foundation for Rene
Blum and Colonel Wassili de Basil's company, the Ballets Russes
de Monte Carlo, founded in 1932, and subsequent companies, respectively
headed by Blum; de Basil; and Leonide Massine and Serge Denham.
Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo performing "Rouge et Noir," choreographed
by Leonide Massine, with scenery and costumes by Henri Matisse,
1939. Pictured: Frederic Franklin (top), George Zoritch (middle),
Alexandra Danilova (bottom center) and corps. Photo courtesy
few minor annoyances, probably not particularly noticeable to most
of the audience for this film, are the music and the use of still
photos. Some of the archival footage has no sound, and I am assuming
that the correct music could have been found to accompany some of
those sections, though understandably, there were some for which
it would have been too difficult to find suitable recordings. However,
there is a scene of Sugar Plum's variation from "The Nutcracker"
with some other music. And then there is the sequence of stills
of George Zoritch in Nijinsky's "Afternoon of a Faun" jarringly
accompanied by an Offenbach can-can. Of course, when many short
clips are shown together, there needs to be a continuous musical
bridge to tie them into a smooth sequence and that is well done
for the most part.
As for the use of photos,
I find that the repetition of the same pictures over and over is
irritating. Given the enormous amount of photos available, I fail
to see why different shots couldn't have been used to liven things
up, and show different facets of the same people, unless the cost
of permissions for use was prohibitive.
Markova with Henri Matisse as Matisse designs his costumes for
the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo production of "Rouge et Noir."
Choreography by Leonide Massine. Photo circa 1939 and courtesy
the other hand, the interviews with such dance luminaries as Alicia
Markova, Irina Baronova, Frederic Franklin, Mia Slavenska, George
Zoritch, Nathalie Krassovska, Maria Tallchief, Nini Theilade, Marc
Platt, Yvonne Chouteau and Raven Wilkinson are absolutely riveting.
Not only are these past performers extremely articulate, but they
give us a chance to see into their hearts and souls, to understand
what it means to be a dancer, and to have been dancing with the
"Ballets Russes" plays tonight through November 8 at the Film
Forum in New York, and opens November 4 at the Embarcadero Center
in San Francisco. The film opens November 11 in Berkeley, San Rafael,
San Jose, Beverly Hills and Santa Ana, CA, and in Washington, DC;
November 18 in Chicago and Highland Park, IL, Bethesda, MD, Boston,
and Seattle; November 25 in Waltham, MA and Oklahoma City; December
2 in Santa Barbara and Salt Lake City; January 27 in Atlanta and
St. Louis; February 3 in Pleasantville, NY; and February 17 in San
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