Judge Jesse Ataide assures you that after watching this film, you'll be reaching for your tutu and toe shoes.
"Ballets Russes is more than a dance documentary: it's an
adventure film about two major ballet companies and some remarkable dancers who
were part of them."
My sister took ballet for years, which means that as a brother, attendance at ballet recitals were an inevitability throughout my childhood. But I found that as the years went by, I found myself looking forward to these annual events, recognizing that even in their amateurish way, my sister and her peers were able to project a little of what makes ballet so compelling in the first place—a dizzying, dynamic explosion of color and rhythm when music melds with bodies in motion.
I haven't had much experience with ballet since then, so Ballets Russes has served as a kind of revelation. Documenting the rise of the two Ballets Russes (the "Original Ballet Russe" and "Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo") that emerged after the original dance company of the same name revolutionized ballet under the leadership of Serge Diaghilev in the early 1900s, directors Dayna Goldfine and Daniel Geller have assembled not only rarely seen archival footage and countless publicity photos, programs, and newspaper articles, but have also sat down to interview many of the original dancers themselves. This in turn allows for the story of the rise (and subsequent, inevitable fall) of the fabled Ballets Russes to emerge naturally from their vivid remembrances and memories of their personal experiences.
And what stories they tell! Weaving together interviews from nearly three dozen individuals, Goldfine and Geller are blessed with multiple subjects who are endlessly fascinating to both watch and listen to. From the supremely elegant Dame Alicia Markova to the wonderfully Miss Havisham-esque Mia Slavenska , from the affable and knowledgeable Frederic Franklin to George Zoritch, still-cocksure at nearly 90Ñalmost every individual interviewed is charismatic enough to have warranted their own individual documentaries. Unsurprisingly, the camera (and the filmmakers behind it) in turn seem infatuated with their subjects, lingering in a loving manner over each anecdote and nostalgic musing.
However, this habit of deferring to the interviewee inadvertently sets up one of the film's major flaws: all too often it relies on the dancer's descriptions of the company's innovative and celebrated ballets instead of just allowing the archival footage to speak for itself. The viewer is fed constant clips of bodies bending, twisting and leaping in beautiful and unbelievable ways, but such glimpses seem to last for a matter of mere moments before there is a cutaway to another clip or the next round of interview footage.
Ballets Russes also suffers from an unfortunate habit of skimming surfaces. Historical context is lacking, as it seems that only an event on the scale of World War II was able to intrude into the rarified world of dance (though to be fair, there is some time devoted to how racism in the American South ruined the career of the company's sole black member). Additionally, all juicy behind-the-scenes drama seems to have been unceremoniously drained from the film—from such larger-than-life personalities and egos, one expects torrid lover affairs, bitter feuds and malicious double-crossings. All of these things are coyly alluded to in conversation but are never actually explored in any detail, and some major issues—the obvious homosexuality of at least several of the male dancers, for instance—are never even addressed at all. Of course some things must be sacrificed to time constraints, but one can never quite shake the nagging impression that there is so much left unsaid that would have allowed for a much fuller picture of Ballets Russes to be created during the course of this film.
But for all its flaws, it's impossible not to succumb fully to the film's many charms, reveling in the great pleasure of watching the interviews and the great dances of their youth. The enthusiasm the dancers have in relating their stories and the very tangible pleasure they have in recalling their past experiences have a kind of emotional buoyancy that carries the viewer higher and higher until it reaches a striking crescendo as horns blare and Alicia Markova beams into the camera and states, "I never received much money, but I think how rich I am." It's enough to cause one to burst into tears (or I nearly did, anyway). If it does nothing else, Ballets Russes is the story of a group of people who are given an opportunity during the twilight of their lives to testify with utter sincerity that they devoted themselves to something they were utterly passionate about, and that that thing ended up revolutionizing an entire art form is only icing on the cake.
As is the case with most documentaries, the quality of the image varies with what is being shown on the screen at any given time. As expected, the vintage clips are of varying quality and often quite poor, the image quality of the interview footage, however, is crisp, clean and bright. The surround sound audio track, on the other hand, wraps the viewer in music and sound, which perfectly compliments the dance sequences that flicker on the screen. But the real treat here is in the bonus features, with over an hour of additional interview material that fleshes out some of the topics presented in the film, as well as touches upon new subjects, rare archival footage, a gallery of over 200 photos and vintage promotional material, a 12-page booklet, and the now-requisite theatrical trailer. It's a treasure chest for balletomanes and casual fans of the film alike.
Ballets Russes seems to have an intoxicating effect on both critics and audiences, for indeed, mentioning to a friend of mine that I was reviewing the film, he told me how the film had left him elated for days. For me, the film's potency took a little longer too develop, and it was only several days later that I realized how comfortably the interviewees and the glimpses of on-stage magic had settled into my memory. In fact, several nights after watching the film I actually had a dream where I met Alicia Markova (!). At that point, it was impossible to deny that Ballets Russes had made an impression on me, and an indelible one at that.
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