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. After World War II broke out and Europe's theaters closed, America was the dancers' salvation. And -- if it's not too grandiose to say -- they became ours. 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 unequalled 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. There is Maria Tallchief, round of face and white of hair but with every bit of the imperial bearing that made her one of the leading ballerinas of the 20th century. It was seeing the Ballet Russes that inspired her to dance. And Alicia Markova, who dates from the company's early years and who died just last year while the film was in production.
Others are less well known to today's audiences, such as Nathalie Krassovska, Irina Baronova and Raven Wilkinson, the first African American woman hired by a major ballet company. And we meet Yvonne Craig, otherwise known as Batgirl, from the "Batman" TV series. Remember her? She got her start in show business as a member of the Ballets Russes in the 1950s. Those high-flung kicks (ZONK!) in her bat suit were her own choreography.
Frederic Franklin, in his nineties, is truly at the heart of the film, and it serves as a long-overdue tribute to a man who has never stopped working. (He appeared here just last spring with American Ballet Theatre, where he regularly oversees rehearsals of Ballets Russes-era works.)
The film covers a lot of ground -- documenting in detail the 1930s through the '60s -- but there is scant mention of Sergei Diaghilev, the man who in 1909 started the company of expatriates in Paris. This strange omission is the film's one flaw. One can only guess that because there are few left alive to talk about it, and no films to show it, the story must move on to what still lives. "Ballets Russes" is not about Diaghilev's groundbreaking years with such artists as Picasso and Stravinsky and Vaslav Nijinsky, but the effort to revive the organization after he died in 1929.
It took two men to achieve this: A Russian, Col. de Basil, and a Frenchman, Rene Blum. A few years after Diaghilev's death, they cobbled together a company of refugees. Some of the dancers were barely in their teens, 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 -- they built a traveling empire of excitement, novelty, innovation and sexiness.
We hear how audiences went wild for Leonide Massine's symphonic ballets, bringing along folding chairs in order to endure the long lines for tickets. Choreographer Agnes de Mille was quoted as saying that seeing the Ballets Russes on an American tour was "one of the great erotic pleasures of the season."
A nasty split happened within a few years, resulting in two rival troupes: the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo and the Original Ballets Russes. The dancers had to choose, and separate tours were organized. Fate, however, put both companies on the same boat heading for America in 1939. De Mille joined one of the troupes as its new star choreographer, though her avant-garde ideas -- making American ballet about cowboys and barnyards, of all things -- didn't sit well with the Russian dancers. "Anyone who's not bedridden can be in 'Rodeo' -- what kind of dancing is that?" sniffs George Zoritch, referring to de Mille's enduring masterpiece.
More woes befell the dancers and their directors, who were always in a scramble for money and tour dates, and for the favor of the all-powerful impresario Sol Hurok, whose Ukrainian heart warmed to the Russians. One troupe ended up in South America and eventually folded. The other kept on, until the director's infatuation with a young corps member drove other ballerinas away. Facing pans from the critics and a dwindling public, it, too, took a final bow in the 1960s.
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.
"Be warm. Tell me something," exhorts former ballerina Nini Theilade, describing the chief comment she makes to her students. Dancers nowadays are preoccupied with turning multiple pirouettes rather than with refining the quality of their dancing, she says. And once those, like herself, from former, more belief-driven times have gone, she asks, "Where should they know it from? Tell me, where?"
Now, one place is up there on the screen.
Ballets Russes (118 minutes, at Landmark's E Street Cinema) is not rated.