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Ballet Russes’ entertains with real-life drama

Michelle Fordice | Monday, March 27, 2006

Filmmakers Dan Geller and Dayna Goldfine present a beautiful documentary in “Ballet Russes,” revealing the way art can mold the lives of those it touches. Its detailed look into the world of ballet may occasionally be a bit much for the average viewer, but when “Ballet Russes” turns to the dancers themselves it enraptures the audience. It manages to breathe life into history and to bring “high” culture down to earth.

“Ballet Russes” tells the stories of the dance troupes of the early to mid-20th century that made up the Ballet Russes. The film traces the Ballet Russes phenomenon from its origins with Diaghelev and his team that consisted of such famous artists as Nijinsky, Balanchine, Stravinsky, Picasso, Miró and Matisse through its peak in the 1930s and 1940s. It finally looks at its demise due to rising costs, internal mismanagement, egos, love affairs and outside competition in the 1960s.

Geller and Goldfine fuse together hazy archival footage and crisp present-day interviews with the veteran dancers to make a strong statement of the lasting effect this troupe had on ballet and the people who experienced it. The old film and photographs of these dancers in their prime stirs amazement among the audience as it watches the stunning movements and bodies of these dancers. Ultimately, though, it is their voices decades later that inspire the most attention.

From the interviews emerge characters that could not be more captivating if they were fictional. There is Nathalie Krassakova who says she “always wanted to dance” and still giggles, even though she is nearly a century old, as she speaks of her marriage to a violinist that lasted just weeks.

There is Irina Baranove who admits that she “never wanted to dance,” but her mother was never one to be disagreed with, so eventually it grew on her. There is Marc Platt who, after declaring he never would do it, allows his name to be “Russianized” into Platoff, so that he, the first American dancer, would fit in among the rest of the bill.

The Ballet Russes included dancers from so many different places and situations that no personality, from the stubborn egoist to the little girl yearning for home, is left out.

“Ballet Russes” reveals how art’s effects are never left behind. At the 2000 reunion of the Ballet Russes, partners who had not seen each other in years took up their old roles. This time they dance with a little more arthritis and re-enact the scenes that captivated their audience decades prior. Nearly all the veteran dancers teach dance today, even if they do so leaning on canes, and a few still perform in theatre.

That “Ballet Russes” is a Zeitgeist (or “spirit of the times”) film is exceptionally fitting. The story of the Ballet Russes reflects the events of the decades it spans. The original Ballet Russes is known for being a group of Russian refugees who had escaped the Russian Revolutions and had never danced in Russia. The later Ballet Russes troupes flee as Hitler begins conquering Europe. Raven Wilkinson becomes the first African-American to be a part of a major ballet troupe and also the first to be forced to quit because of the overpowering racial tensions in the southern United States that wouldn’t let her perform.

“Ballet Russes” is about more than just ballet. It tells the story of both the first half of the 20th century and a select group of dynamic and diverse people. It is a wonderful documentary that will make audiences laugh in delight and will inspire them through the determination and strength hidden inside such a delicate art form.