On Their Toes

Once more, with feeling: A scene from 'Ballets Russes'

Once more, with feeling: A scene from 'Ballets Russes'

In 1929, Serge Diaghilev, impresario of the famed Ballets Russes, passed away, and many at the time believed that ballet died with him. It was an understandable fear. Diaghilev guided one of the most influential artistic movements of his--or, quite frankly, any--era. Beginning in 1909, his troupe was the toast of Paris and featured some of the best dancers ever, including Vaslav Nijinsky, performing groundbreaking works such as "Les Sylphides," "The Firebird," and "The Rite of Spring." The list of choreographers reads as a veritable who's who of early 20th-century ballet: Michel Fokine, Léonide Massine, George Balanchine. And collaborators? Igor Stravinsky, Pablo Picasso, and Jean Cocteau, just to name a few. It was a rare convergence of creativity, and from this electric moment in history emerged the modern ballet.

Diaghilev's legacy did not go unnoticed, and, in 1931, two entrepreneurs, Colonel Wassily de Basil and Rene Blum, revived the company as the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo, naming Balanchine as ballet master. The choreographer recruited students, some as young as 12 years old, and indoctrinated them into his technique. His performers included three girls--Irina Baranova, Tatiana Riabouchinskaya, and Tamara Toumanova--who would go on to become the famed "baby ballerinas"--literal overnight sensations. Suddenly, the critics exclaimed, ballet existed again. Balanchine, however, only lasted a year and was replaced by Massine. Still, the troupe's popularity continued to grow until it became an international sensation. The rebirth of this storied company is the subject of Daniel Geller and Dayna Goldfine's Ballets Russes, a documentary that succeeds on many levels as it recounts important and often complicated events through interviews with many significant figures and a wealth of archival performance footage.

Ballets Russes begins with a reunion. Many of the dancers met up in New Orleans in 2000 when company member Frederic Franklin restaged a Ballets Russes favorite, "Gaîté Parisienne." Franklin, particularly spry in his early 90s, also has vivid recollections, as do Nathalie Krassovska, Mia Slavenska, Nini Theilade, Raven Wilkinson, Maria Tallchief, Marc Platt, Alicia Markova, Wakefield Poole, George Zoritch, and Yvonne Chouteau, among others, all of whom share the details of lives spent in dance with warmth and honesty, punctuating their words with graceful arm gestures, demonstrating just how ingrained dance is within their beings.

Explaining the history of Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo in roughly two hours is no easy feat. The Russians, as Franklin tactfully explains, were not nice to one another. There was a lot of intrigue aside from the brilliant dancing, starting with the replacement of Balanchine by Massine, and continuing with the coup, orchestrated in 1938 by Massine, that led to the splintering of the company into two competing entities. Massine won rights to the name and wooed away some of the top dancers from Colonel de Basil (whose former partner, Blum, also left to join Massine), but his rival did not give up, and stubbornly named his new company the Original Ballets Russes. Thus began the "ballet wars" with the troupes performing within blocks of each other in London. Balletomanes were in heaven as they rushed from theater to theater. World War II put a stop to the battle of the tutus, at least in Europe; each troupe toured extensively, especially throughout the United States, and the competition remained.

The war years took their toll, however, and the Original Ballets Russes folded in 1948. Massine left Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo and Agnès de Mille took over, creating her American-flavored work "Rodeo" (set to Aaron Copland's music), much to the Russians' dismay (although the ballet itself became an instant classic). Many of the dancers turned to careers in Hollywood and on Broadway, or left to join newer companies such as Balanchine's Ballet Society, which later became New York City Ballet. Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo gave its final performance in 1962.

Although the stories are fascinating on their own, the ability to hear from so many of the key players makes Ballets Russes an invaluable record. Each gives a sense of the demanding choreography that not only required the dancer's strong technique, but also his or her considerable sense of self. Although some of the dances may appear dated today, at the time they represented artistic breakthroughs in which ballet merged seamlessly with other elements including dramatic scenery. (Salvador Dalí contributed one astonishing backdrop.) The dance also transcended the "hothouse flower" image of ballet: Here, it wasn't just about being beautiful; it was about being willing to break with expectations. Sometimes the dances were traditional; other times they infuriated audiences. But all of the work was done with the sense of excitement that accompanies all experimental art movements.

Alas, nothing quite like the Ballets Russes exists today. We still see traces of its influence--Minnesota's own Ballet of the Dolls, for example, certainly embodies the glamorous spirit. Geller and Goldfine have done well to preserve the memories of so many who were there, to remind us of a truly unique period in dance history.