“Ballets Russes” is much more than a specialty item for dance aficionados. Breathlessly canvassing the six-decade history of the various companies that danced under the Ballet Russe moniker, Dayna Goldfine and Dan Geller’s expertly crafted, years-in-the-making docu takes viewers on an ebullient odyssey from Russia to Australia to whistle-stop America, populated by a cast of charismatic, eternally young-at-heart ballet vets. Rare non-fiction feature that manages to sustain two hours without losing focus or repeating itself, enormously absorbing pic should accrue plentiful fest bookings en route to solid biz in upscale theatrical markets and healthy tube sales.
Beginning in 1909 in Moscow, with the founding of the original Ballet Russe by famed impresario Serge Diaghilev, pic flashes forward a couple of decades to Diaghilev’s 1929 death and the subsequent decision of two Monte Carlo entrepreneurs — Wassily de Basil and Rene Blum — to revive the company under their own stewardship.
Though this resurrected Ballet Russe never danced in Russia, it drew on the talents of many of the same dancers, designers and choreographers who had worked with the original company and who (like Diaghilev himself) had fled Russia to escape the Bolshevik Revolution. Thus the stage is set for the epic story of that most gypsy-like of ballet troupes — a community of expatriates that shepherded ballet to the most far flung corners of the planet and, over time, came to include such disparate visionaries as Picasso, Matisse, Stravinsky, Debussy, George Balanchine and Agnes De Mille in its extended family.
Serving as Geller and Goldfine’s guides on this scrupulously researched journey are more than a dozen surviving Ballets Russes dancers, now in their 70s, 80s and, in some cases, 90s. Yet they’re a uniformly spry, invigorated bunch, most of them still involved in dance in one way or another, and as they offer Geller and Goldfine their poignant reminiscences, pic conveys a wonderful sense of the symbiosis between the life of a dance company and the lives of its dancers.
The unexpectedly dramatic tale of the Ballet Russe itself includes the 1938 falling-out between de Basil and Blum that split the company in two, the harsh effects of WWII, the specter of America’s racial divides (with specific regard to the company’s first black dancer, Raven Wilkinson) and — in a particularly fascinating section — the dancers’ flirtations with Hollywood in the golden age of screen musicals.
The no-less-compelling individual stories of dancers feature Irina Baronova and Tatiana Riabouchinska, two of the three celebrated “Baby Ballerinas” plucked by Balanchine from a Paris dance studio in 1931; Yvonne Chouteau and Maria Tallchief, among the world’s first American Indian ballet stars; Broadway dancer and choreographer Marc Platt, rechristened Marc Platoff by Ballet Russe choreographer Leonide Massine; and Wakefield Poole, whose post-Ballet Russe career involved directing the seminal gay porn film, “Boys in the Sand.”
Most remarkable, however, is the wealth of archival footage Geller and Goldfine have managed to unearth, drawing from a treasure-trove of sources including the ScreenSound archive in Sydney and the personal collection of 94-year-old dance critic Ann Barzel, who filmed Ballets Russes performances with a hand-wound 16mm, film camera beginning in the early 1930s. Watching those images juxtaposed against Geller and Goldfine’s footage makes for the most elegant and touching sequences in “Ballets Russes,” as the dancers seem to join the ghosts of their former selves in haunting pas de deux.
Working as their own editors, with input from experimental film legend Nathaniel Dorsky, the directors sustain a vigorous pace and strong organizational flow, while crisp lensing of interview segs and a subtly effective original score by Todd Boekelheide and David Conte enhance a generally pro tech package.