Daniel Geller/Dayna Goldfine, 2005, USA, 118mins
Review by Juliea Stewart
The early 20th Century saw the establishment of Sergei Diaghilev’s intensely innovative ballet company: ‘Ballet Russes’. Largely made up of Russian refugees fleeing the Communist Revolution, the Ballet Russes was based in Paris - considered the ‘home’ of a dance-form originally born in Renaissance Italy. Diaghilev’s company died alongside him by the thirties, leaving a reputation so convincing that the name and some elements of the original company were quickly resurrected and re-emerged in the form of two highly competitive splinter groups: the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo (led by Balanchine) and the Original Ballet Russe (led by Massine).
Diaghilev and those associated with his company - composers (Diaghilev discovered Stravinsky!), choreographers (including Balanchine and Massine) and dancers (Nijinsky, Pavlova and the ‘Baby Ballerinas’) - pushed the ballet to new levels of creative expression and artistry. Later, the split and intense rivalry between the two splinter companies (and the egos of their artistic directors) effectively extended, influenced and enhanced audience appreciation - throwing ballet to opposite ends of the earth. From Russia and the Balkans to Paris, Monte Carlo, the Americas and Australia, the incarnations of the Ballet Russe ballet company encompass a rich narrative engaging with broad historical and socio-cultural happenings: revolution and world war alongside vaudeville and the advent of motion photography.
The Ballet Russes documentary describes this formidable ballet company’s history from its inception, through to its fifty-year reunion. It documents their incredible creative output which continues to alter and influence ballet, picking out intrigues and colourful details and tracing many intertwined personal stories. As such, it’s a meaningful and important historical text.
The Emmy-Award winning filmmakers create more than a study of the history of a ballet company - their efforts also give us a history of the moving image as it attempts to capture the utterly transient, ephemeral nature of the dance. The documentary is pieced together from culled stills and footage from many different eras and many different sources. The filmmakers have certainly captured the spirit of this incredible sweeping dynasty. But I didn’t see the point of their occasional ‘pop-in’ appearances - four boom/camera-in-mirror shots which could have been edited around.
The narrative explores how, against the backdrop of historical circumstance, a passion for ballet together with vision and giant egos drove the dancers to ever greater levels of discipline and performance. If the dancers were challenged, even more so the audience - ballet, that most ancient art form, is also suddenly and vividly seen to be one of the most cutting-edge and dangerous arenas with the Ballet Russe taking unheard-of risks, introducing the first African-American and Native American Indian dancers to the American heartland. They created landmark productions and formed artistic collaborations with the Surrealists – some productions had set designs by Dali, others had costumes by Matisse. Most clearly, we see that ballet is paramount, everything else is incidental - including whether or not you get paid. The dancers say there is a price to pay, but they also speak of their art with humour and a sort of reverence, as a way of life, a privilege.
Various Ballet Russe members (of both companies) turned out for the fifty-year reunion. The discipline of the ballet was obviously good for the body and soul; these octogenarians are still dancing, still teaching, still archiving, still flirting, still bristling at old rivalries – keeping the heart of ballet beating. A particularly special moment is the reunion dance between Nathalie and George – utterly inspirational! We see glimpses of the future of ballet in the enormous amount of teaching going on at centres all over the world and ultimately the documentary has a powerful motivating impact – it makes you want to go out and see a ballet! All those snippets of dance act as a visual tease – a peep through a keyhole into another world.
This is an intensive and dense study of ballet and its idiosyncratic, disciplined players, the special circumstances under which they created these incredible spectacles and the boundaries that were tested and breached in pushing the performers and their audience. This documentary would probably be best in episodes, screened on mainstream commercial television. Ballet will always challenge its participants, both on and off the stage – this documentary illustrates that vividly. For now, at two minutes short of two hours, Ballet Russes is hard on the bum of the not-so-ballet-inclined.
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