writers on dancing


Remembering the Ballets Russes

"Ballets Russes"
openiing in cinemas November 4, 2005

by Charlotte Shoemaker
copyright ©2005 by Charlotte Shoemaker

A testament to the impact of the first incarnation of the Ballets Russes is that when Diaghilev, its creator, died in 1929, people thought that ballet had died with him. What Dan Geller and Dayna Goldfine's new film "Ballets Russes" portrays is the next incarnation of this company that began in 1932 and lasted for 30 years. During a decade of that time it split into rival companies; one was the Ballet Russes de Monte Carlo, and the other called itself The Original Ballet Russes. They toured widely through Europe, North and South America, and Australia, creating, in small towns as well as major cities, an audience for ballet where there had been none before. Not only did they bring virtuoso dancing, innovative choreography, and sets and costumes designed by the likes of Miro, Matisse and Dali, but they were also the epitome of glamour. I am one of the millions of people who fell under their spell although I never saw them dance on stage. When I was a child, every time I visited my grandmother, I would curl up on the window seat and pour over her collection of their programs trying to somehow absorb them into my being. The cover of each one proclaimed—Sol Hurok presents the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo. Inside were elegant photographs of magical people like Alexandra Danilova and Leonide Massine moving in ways I had never even imagined, creating a world that utterly fascinated me.

This aura shines through the film. “Ballets Russes" is a lushly shimmering treasure trove, each jewel shining a bit of light on the memory of this fabled company and its valiant dancers who are now in their 70s, 80s and 90s. In 2000 they held a reunion, attended by Ballets Russes alumni from all over the world. Most of them hadn't seen each other in 40 years. The idea for this film was born out of that event and grew out of interviews with these lively people and the archival photographs and rare film footage that filmmakers Geller and Goldfine (as well as some of the dancers) managed to unearth. Alicia Markova tells us that she was paid very little but "when I can work with this one, and that designer, think how rich I am." In one particularly touching recollection Wakefield Poole chokes up as he remembers how moved he had been to simply be standing on stage in "Swan Lake" with "the music, the lights and the total rapture of the audience." It was when that aura failed due to exhaustion and bankruptcy in one company, and cost cutting and favoritism at the expense of art in the other, that the companies fell apart. Dance and creativity were no longer the center. The dancers moved on, the backers melted away and there was nothing left except memories.

I came to this film hungry to finally see the Ballets Russes dance. My one frustration with the film is that the actual dancing is secondary to the very engaging oral history. The dancer's recollections and their current teaching are liberally interspersed with clips of them dancing—but very brief glimpses. In this rapidly shifting kaleidoscope of grand turns and arabesques it is possible to see their consummate skill as dancers, but very difficult to get a sense of the choreography of the great ballets they danced. I was intrigued with one slightly longer clip of Massine's "Rouge et Noir" which Markova describes as the most modern work that had been done. It still looks contemporary today with its flowing movements and the simplicity of a lift in which Markova holds her body in a fluidly straight line as her partner slowly waves her in the air like a great wand. I want to see more. Massine is described in the film as having been considered to be the greatest choreographer in the world. His use of symphonic music, Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony, for his dance "Les Presages" created a furor at the time; now such musical choices are commonplace. Agnes de Mille said that "seeing a Massine ballet had become one of the great erotic pleasures of the London summer with fans unrestrainedly screaming, jumping up and down, beating the railing and slathering at the mouth." So we have these memories and this legend, perhaps that is all that is left now to save and pass on.

Many of the people who created the Ballets Russes are gone now; some, including Markova, have died since the filming. This is our last chance to hear the stories of the ones that are left, and they tell them with vitality and warmth. They speak directly to the camera and thus to us. Their collective outpouring of humor and joie de vivre is contagious. They loved what they did, viewing the hard work, privations and conflicts they experienced as a fabulous opportunity and a great adventure, one that continues into the present. Many of them are still extraordinarily active and committed. Marc Platt (renamed Platoff in the Ballets Russes days) and Frederick Franklin at the ages of 89 and 90 are still dancing character roles. Franklin sets Ballets Russes works on companies all over the world and is an expressive raconteur. Most of them teach. Nini Theilade makes an impassioned plea about the importance for young dancers of not simply striving to do 12, 14 or 16 pirouettes but of being warm, of telling her something. We see this warmth in a demonstration of a scene from "Giselle" at the reunion. Nathalie Krassovska and George Zoritch danced together a half a century ago. In their mid 80s any pirouettes would be few and stiff but the coy reticence as she draws her head away from his hand still speaks clearly as do the laughter and affection with which they approach their former roles.

Geller and Goldfine set out to recall a legendary era and succeed admirably. The warmth of this film continues long after the credits are finished. Hopefully the wide audience that "Ballets Russes" deserves will include not only dance lovers but also many people who will be inspired to find what dance can offer them today.

Volume 3, No. 39
October 24, 2005

copyright ©2005 Charlotte Shoemaker



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last updated on October 24, 2005