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‘Ballets Russes’ has the right steps

Documentary delights in the mystique of 30 years of Russe Ballet
/ Source: The Associated Press

Agnes de Mille was in London in the summer of 1933 when the new Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo came to town. For the young American choreographer, seeing a Leonide Massine ballet became one of the season’s “great erotic pleasures.”

Today, in a hyper-sexualized age which looks elsewhere for its superstars, the ballet is usually described in less racy terms. But during the first few decades of the 20th century, excitement and controversy surrounded the innovations of such luminaries as Massine, Michel Fokine and Vaslav Nijinsky, whose artistic collaborators ranged from Pablo Picasso to Leon Bakst to Igor Stravinsky. Who knew what might happen once the curtain rose?

“Ballets Russes,” a new documentary by Dan Geller and Dayna Goldfine, delights in this mystique without succumbing to the breathless theatrics that have marked many past film treatments of the ballet world. (“The Red Shoes,” anyone?)

The film, which covers roughly 30 years, begins with the dissolution of the original, much-heralded Ballets Russes, which disbanded in 1929 upon the death of its leader, the impresario Serge Diaghilev. In its wake came the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. Formed by René Blum and the difficult Col. Wassily de Basil, the new company boasted both Massine and (for a little while) George Balanchine, who hand-picked Irina Baronova, Tatiana Riabouchinska and Tamara Toumanova — the Baby Ballerinas. The company thus gained three formidable Russian mothers, who toured with the girls.

Audiences were dazzled, but all was not well between Massine and de Basil. After striking out on his own, Massine won rights to the name (but not most of his choreography), leaving the Colonel to rename his troupe the Original Ballet Russe. Blum backed Massine, and the dancers were forced to choose between the two companies, each of which would acquire international fame.

An elegant mix of interviews, still photos and priceless archival film, “Ballets Russes” owes its wonderful earthiness to these dancers. From a made-up, bejeweled Nathalie Krassovska (who, along with several of the other dancers, has since died) practicing at the barre in leotard and diaphanous skirt to George Zoritch remarking of the great Alicia Markova, “I was killing myself to lift that feather weight that weighed a ton,” all are irrepressible spokespeople for their art, mixing irreverence with an equal passion.

Frederic Franklin remembers meeting Alexandra Danilova, already a famous ballerina. She asked how old he was and, when he told her 23, she waved her hand dismissively and said, “Oh! When you are 30 we shall talk.” Thus began their legendary partnership, which would last nearly 20 years.

The film had its genesis at a 2000 reunion for the dancers, many of whom had not seen each other in years. In one scene, Krassovska and Zoritch practice a passage from “Giselle.”

“Don’t run away so fast,” he implores in Russian, laughing as she flits away. “I cannot catch you.”

Not all of their stories tell of a more glorious past. Raven Wilkinson joined the corps of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo in 1954, the first black woman hired as a permanent member of a major ballet company. She was promoted to soloist her second season, and seemed to have a promising career ahead of her. But the company was touring the United States at that time, and increasingly hostile Southern audiences made it impossible for her to go on stage. She would not dance with an American company until 1974, when she began performing character roles with the New York Metropolitan Opera, where she continues to perform.

Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo ushered in other firsts, such as Massine’s “Les Presages” in 1933. The first “symphonic ballet” scandalized many critics through its use of serious music — Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony, in this case. Modern ballet was coming; Balanchine, who had two brief stints with the company, would blow things wide open with his “storyless” productions. The Russian-born choreographer would someday be synonymous with contemporary American ballet.

But not yet. For a brief time, in America as elsewhere, the Ballets Russes ruled.