How much do ballet lovers on these shores owe to the Ballets Russes? As surely as Alexander the Great plowed through the known world in his day, those starving Russian emigres rolled across America and built a ballet audience where none had been before. A new territory was swiftly conquered. With its tireless whistle-stop tours, the Ballets Russes paved the way for American Ballet Theatre and, by extension, all the other outcroppings of that refined European tradition that took hold here and flourished.

This is all made clear in "Ballets Russes," an electrifying documentary by Dan Geller and Dayna Goldfine that lovingly and authoritatively brings to life an era of unequaled artistic excitement. This movie is not pedagogy aimed only at ballet buffs. It's spun out like a historical thriller, laying bare the politics, rivalries, tremendous egos and creative appetites that ultimately produced two warring troupes devoted to their art with truly fanatical passion.

The guides through this wonderfully messy world are the dancers themselves, many white-haired and aged, offering up tart and often funny anecdotes. Some were barely in their teens at the time, from families who had lost everything in the Russian Revolution. With a remarkable sense of urgency -- you can feel the emotional quality in the grainy performance clips, not to mention in the interviews -- a traveling empire of excitement, novelty, innovation and sexiness was built.

That sense of purpose, that desire to starve for art but get the art out there, at all costs, is gone now, it is fair to say. The great gift of this film is to present another view of ballet than what we see onstage today.

-- Sarah Kaufman

George Zoritch and Nini Theilade in "Rouge et Noir," with sets and costumes by Henri Matisse, circa 1939.