Beauty and the Beasts

Ballets Russes exposes the seamy underbelly of classic dance

Behind the scenes of a ballet company lie intrigue and drama, casting couches and bizarre eating rituals. It's pure divalicious fun: mothers with their teenage daughters in tow, popping strange vitamins and warming up in ski attire (camping boots and Polartec vests are huge these days); anguished artists with no sense of time, money or responsibility; politics and money troubles galore; and, of course, artistic directors who suspect they might be God.

That said, no other world packs such a punch of beauty and creativity. Ballets Russes, a new documentary about the titular company that audiences slavered over for several decades in the early 1900s, paints the perfect Janus profile that is ballet.

The film, which is getting a special sneak-preview screening in Orange County to benefit Ballet Pacifica and the Newport Beach Film Festival, takes us back to the beginning of the 20th century, when the company followed the lead of Sergei Diaghilev, an impresario of the best kind. The Russian aristocrat took Paris by storm with his collection of great artists, dancers and composers.

They were truly epic in all three categories: Matisse—always with a paintbrush—Picasso, León Bakst and Miró rubbed shoulders with Stravinsky, Ravel and Rimsky-Korsakov, while choreographers and dancers like Balanchine, Fokine, Alicia Markova and Nijinsky channeled their passion into flaming (no pun intended) ballet. After Diaghilev's death, the company split into two dueling Ballets Russes. Can there be any more drama?

San Francisco-based, Emmy-winning filmmakers Dayna Goldfine and Dan Geller got the idea of pointing their cameras at classic ballet because they figured its octogenarian survivors would provide rich fodder for a documentary. After all, the ancient, like the young, are always willing to dish the dirt.

Luckily, we get full access to the seamy underbelly of ballet, told by ex-dancers with such fizzy personalities that even my forest-ranger roommate laughed out loud when we previewed Ballets Russes. Archival footage shows dancers performing in wild ballets, some to Dali's paintings. There is a birthing scene through the womb of a swan and costumes with huge pointed boobs, which nearly caused the company to be locked up in Middle America.

We learn that Dame Alicia Markova (a famous English ballerina with a Russian-ized name—every non-Russian added an -off or an -ova to their names in those days to acquire a veneer of respectability) would exhale when the male dancer was about to lift her so she felt like a ton of bricks. Raven Wilkinson recounts how, as the first African-American member of a major ballet troupe, the KKK would storm the stage looking for her.

Backstage was filled with madcap antics as well. Former director and choreographer Leonide Massine would travel with his dog and personal chef, and the gorgeous Nathalie Krassovska dodged advances by Charlie Chaplin and turned down a Hollywood contract because, she says, "I had trouble with men." Then the eightysomething woman, still in a leotard, skirt and hair in a low bun, starts giggling.

For a dance fan, the historical footage of Markova and many Russian and American Indian baby ballerinas (some only 12 and 13 years old) provides acute pleasure. Suddenly, you understand how ballet has changed, for better and for worse. The dancers may not have the same technique, race-car physiques and legs that go on for days, but the feeling and personality that they inject into their movements make them extraordinarily compelling. The soft landings from their jumps, the tilt of their heads and that gauzy look they give the audience speak volumes.

Ballerina Nini Theilade has it right in the documentary when she says, "The young ones, the pupils, I don't know if it is the way of living nowadays, or if the mentality is different, for them it is more important to do 12, 14, 16 pirouettes. But there is more to it than that. It's very difficult to make them warm. Be warm, I always say, tell me something."

They said plenty at the Ballets Russes—and displayed some crazy bacchanalian dancing.

BALLETS RUSSES WAS DIRECTED BY DAYNA GOLDFINE AND DAN GELLER AND PRODUCED BY JONATHAN DANA. IT SCREENS AT EDWARDS ISLAND CINEMA, 999 NEWPORT CENTER DR., NEWPORT BEACH. WED., 7:30 P.M. $20. SCREENING IS FOLLOWED BY A Q&A WITH GELLER, GOLDFINE, DANA AND PREMIER DANCERS GEORGE ZORITCH (BALLETS RUSSES), AMANDA McKERROW (BALLET PACIFICA) AND JOHN GARDNER (BALLET PACIFICA).

 
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