Roots, Squabbles, and Making It Warm
by Dale Brauner
Look into the history of many of the ballet companies in the United States and you’ll find roots in the Ballets Russes (and therefore, Russian ballet). Serge Diaghilev’s groundbreaking troupe might have died along with the impresario in 1929, but it found new life over the next 50 years in two homage companiesthe Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and the Original Ballet Russethat toured the country, as well as South America and Australia, often bringing ballet to towns that had never seen the art.
The filmmakers Dan Geller and Dayna Goldfine give an excellent survey into the influences, artistry, choreographers, dancers, financiers, power struggles and legacies in a new nearly two-hour release, narrated by stage actress (and former American Ballet Theater corps de ballet) Marian Seldes.
The first Ballets Russes offshoot group was founded under Colonel Wassily de Basil in the early 1930s. The choreographer was George Balanchine, who went trolling around the ballet studios in Paris looking for talent. The three “Baby Ballerinas” he found (Irina Baronova, Tatiana Riabouchinska, who are interviewed in the film, and Tamara Toumanova) were the gimmick or calling card of the new troupe. Balanchine seemed to celebrate the spirit of these young daughters of Russian émigrés with his ballet, “Cotillion” (1932).
Balanchine was replaced the next year by Leonide Massine, who was considered the greater choreographer with his new symphonic ballets and whose aesthetic of mixing the great arts of ballet, scenic and costume design and music more closely matched that of the first Ballets Russes. However, things got complicated in 1937, when Massine led a splinter group, with backing by money men Julius Fleischmann and Sergei Denham. De Basil forged ahead with his own group, the Original Ballet Russe. Law suits ensued and dancers were forced to choose between companies, who often performed in the same cities in rival seasons. Eventually, the old stars were replaced with fresh bloodmost were not Russian (although there names were!). Money dried up and productions grew stale. The film gives the high points (ballets by Massine, Balanchine, Frederick Ashton, Michael Fokine) and the low (the sad end of an era) with brisk clarity.
Other than the history of the companies, “Ballets Russes” brings to life the dancersstars and corps de ballet (some of whom have died since the filming took place, starting in 2000 at a reunion in New Orleans). We see Alicia Markova, who declared she was really the first “Baby Ballerina,” because she performed for Diaghilev at age 14, as well as George Zoritch, the dashing danseur noble. He is shown film-star beautiful in 1940s Hollywood musicals and in his 80sstill handsome as he reenacts the first act of “Giselle” with Nathalie Krassovska.
The movie also highlights the struggle of Raven Wilkinson, the first African American woman ever hired as a permanent member of a major ballet company. We are told Wilkinson had problems with racism when the Ballet Russe toured the South and had to leave the company. But then we are off to another dancer. We are left wanting more. I had the same feeling when Nina Novak is introduced. She was the girlfriend and protégé of Denham, who pushed her into leading roles. Some dancers hinted she did not have the talent to dance principal parts. Was it good manners that kept the film makers from making more of that story?
Any chance to see archive footage of this golden era is welcomed. I have read that Riabouchinska was never equaled in “Les Sylphides,” but, of course, never saw it. Now we get a glimpse, the same with Massine’s “Rouge et Noir,” “Cotillion,” Baronova as Aurora, Danilova and Franklin in Massine’s “Gaite Parisienne.” A great deal of footage was culled from Anne Barzel’s collection, relaxed behind-the-scenes action by former dancer Miguel Terekhov, and films taken secretly at Australian performances. The DVD is expected to have even more clips than the theatrical release, which was limited in time. With such imaginable riches, it feels mean to quibble, but I wished a greater effort was taken to match, where possible, the music to the film. Surely, with a well-known excerpt such as the prelude from “Les Sylphides” the filmmakers could have matched up the appropriate sound.
Why do we care about these old companies? Why are the names of Toumanova, Slavenska, Danilova and others spoken with such reverence? Dancers are “better” now then ever before. And they’ll be even “better” in 10 years, if better is lifting the leg higher, turning more, jumping higher. But to many of the Ballet Russe’s fans, that special thing called “it” can’t be improved upon. Just watch that clip of “Gaite Parisienne,” the gusto and certitude can’t be bettered, it can only hoped to be matched. The film closes with these words, from Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo dancer Nini Theilade (a teacher, like so many alums), “For them, it is more important to do 12, 14, 16 pirouettes, but there is more to it than that. It’s very difficult to make them warm. As I always say [to my students], ‘Tell me something.’ I try to make them understand. These things were taught to us and never left us. And the young ones, where should they know it from? Where? From whom?”
Volume 3, No. 40