Ballets Russes

As strange as it may sound, as one point it was controversial to mix ballet with classical music.  The troupe that combined the two elements was the legendary Ballets Russes, remembered fondly in this new documentary.  Beginning in the late 1930s, the Ballets Russes was responsible for popularizing and revolutionizing ballet to dizzying heights across the world.  It all began in Paris in the 1930s, under the direction of Sergei Diaghilev, who created a troupe of Russian expatriates who worked with the likes of Picasso, Stravinsky, Miro, and Matisse.  While it was already incredibly popular, Ballets Russes begins after Diaghilev's death, when Colonel Vassili de Basil and Rene Blum reconstitute the troupe in Monaco under the name The Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, starring Irina Baronova, Tatiana Riabouchinska, and Tamara Touranouva, three girls who were only in their mid-teens.

Two elements make Ballets Russes unforgettable; the dancers themselves and amazing footage that dates back to the Forties and Thirties.  Directors Daniel Gellar and Dayna Goldfine (Kids of Survival) spend a lot of time interviewing surviving members of the original troupe (sadly, a few have died since) after they attended a reunion in New Orleans.  Keep in mind, most of the troupe members are now in their 80s and 90s.  They clearly love ballet, and their enthusiasm for dance and fondness of their past experience is infectious.  Even now some are still able to do some simple steps, and many went on to great things in the world of dance subsequent to their experiences.

Gellar and Goldfine, who co-wrote the documentary with Celeste Shaefer Snyder and Gary Weimberg take the simple approach - they tell the story of the Ballets Russes chronologically, which is probably the smartest thing to do.  The history of the troupe is pretty amazing, full of tours across countries, discoveries of new stars, and in-fighting that led to the formation of two competing groups that toured simultaneously.  Over the course of a few decades, they would electrify the world with exciting innovations in ballet and introduce ballet to new audiences across the world (including smaller American towns and Australia).  Chief among the creative geniuses was Leonide Massine, who was able to create new ballets at a furious pace.

Ballets Russes is enormously engrossing.  The filmmakers chose to focus more on the dancers rather than the dancing itself.  By letting them speak about experiences, friendships, rivalries, hopes, and dreams, Gellar and Goldfine open up the film to everybody, making it very accessible to those unfamiliar with ballet in general.  This is not only a story about the history of a famous ballet troupe, it is the story of young people (some as young as fourteen) pursing their dreams.  And the footage!  Gellar and Goldfine discovered troves of wonderful footage from archival and personal sources.  Although the images are grainy, the grace that the dancers have is clear.  It is also a great opportunity to see the dancers in action at the prime of their careers.  Unfortunately, as events move closer to the present, it becomes clearer that the film is drawing to an end.  This is one of those documentaries that should just go on forever. There are so many interesting and absorbing stories around these people, and it is difficult to cram everything into two hours.

Mongoose Rates It: Really Good.
1 hour 58 minutes, Not Rated but contains little that would offend, probably a PG, possibly a G.

Back to Movies