Like magicians drawing back a velvet curtain to reveal the most splendiferous surprise, filmmakers Dan Geller and Dayna Goldfine bring us the Ballets Russes in all their resplendent, mythic glory. A labor of love if ever there was, this documentary is chock-a-block with invaluable footage of historical performances and reminiscences by eminent survivors, gorgeous and awe-inspiring in their unquenchable life force.
The film's story begins in 1929 with the death of Serge Diaghilev, who founded the original Ballets Russes company, which gave to the world the collaborative wonder of Nijinsky, Pavlova, Stravinsky, Balanchine, Picasso, the designer Leon Bakst and so many other geniuses. Two subsequent companies took on the legacy: the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, run by the great dancer/choreographer Leonide Massine, and the Original Ballet Russe, under the direction of Col. Wassily de Basil, and it's to the credit of the filmmakers that their intensely complicated and competitive Byzantine history is delineated in such a clear fashion.
The two companies traveled the globe, bringing ballet to South America, Australia and the United States. They brought an unknown glamour with them as well, and that quality is the thrilling leitmotif of the film, beginning with the three achingly young "baby ballerinas," Tatiana Riabouchinska, Irina Baronova, and the darkly aquiline Tamara Toumanova, who thrilled early audiences with their dazzling technique and singular individual styles. The men, too, were no duffers in this area, and the beauty and elegant grace of such danseurs nobles as George Zoritch, Marc Platt and Frederick Franklin is recalled.
And how marvelous that so many of these dancers are and were alive to be interviewed for the film, which rather centers around a historic Ballets Russes reunion in New Orleans in 2000, chaired by dance historian extraordinaire Douglas Blair Turnbaugh, who also serves as one of the documentary's producers. These performers' miraculous, near-total recall of events which happened seven decades ago is epitomized in the statement of nonagenarian Dame Alicia Markova, who positively glows when she says, "Suddenly, it's like something opens, and I see everything as it happened then." We see Nathalie Krassovska at 87, still teaching ballet in Dallas, ever the glamour gal, with her pitch-black hair, hung with jewels, and the near-mythic Nini Theilade, also instructing young dancers in Denmark. Theilade danced the lead fairy in the magical 1935 Max Reinhardt-directed Warner Bros. movie of A Midsummer Night's Dream, one of the most exotically gorgeous, androgynously weightless creatures ever caught on film, and she retains every bit of her energy (as well as her intriguing, slightly cross-eyed mien), as she dishes the company's prima ballerinas: "Danilova was warm, warm, warm, warm. She loved us all. Alicia [Markova] was very much, 'Don't touch me, don't come near me. I am the star.' But the actual star was Danilova."
All was not applause, acclaim and flowers, however. The dancers were often poorly paid, and sans union, worked like slaves, especially on tour, in trains which transported the entire company, orchestra and crew from one exhausting whistle-stop performance to another. Advancing age could lead to abrupt termination as well, in this most cruelly youth-oriented of métiers. But most devastating are the reminiscences of Raven Wilkinson, the first black dancer in the companies, who recalls Montgomery, Alabama in 1956, when they arrived in the middle of a Klan rally "and these two men came down the aisle of the theatre and yelled up on the stage, 'Where's the nigger?'" No one said a word, but Wilkinson was subsequently sent home whenever they toured the South, and she eventually quit dancing in America and joined the Dutch National Ballet.