Esprit de corps is charmingly – if somewhat superficially – evoked in this documentary about two of the three 20th century dance companies known as the 'Ballet Russe' (hence the film's plural title.) The first, most artistically important (and arguably still most famous) such enterprise, established in 1909 by the legendary Sergei Diaghilev, gets only very brief mention near the start. Instead, the main bulk of the film is devoted to the two companies which followed in the original Ballet Russe's wake: the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo (operated by Colonel de Basil) and Sergei Denham's Original Ballet Russe, this schism the result of a messy lawsuit.
The decision to give such very limited screen time to Diaghilev's Ballet Russe will come as a surprise to many viewers who might have been expecting to hear all about the company's illustrious collaborators such as Stravinsky, Debussy and Picasso. But Geller and Goldfine seem to have been guided in their approach by two factors: Diaghilev's troupe never toured in the USA (the outbreak of WWII meant that both Monte Carlo and Original spent a considerable amount of time in the States), and their film is very much made from an American perspective (which perhaps partly explains why it's been so rapturously received over there.)
Secondly, at the time the film was being made (roughly 2000/04) a large number of the Monte Carlo and Original dancers were still alive, often in remarkable (and inspiring/shaming) physical shape despite their advanced years, and very happy to reminisce at length about their experiences (whereas Diaghilev-era survivors were very thin on the ground indeed.) Indeed, many of the Monte Carlo and Original performers are shown assembling in New Orleans for a one-off reunion in 2001 – this event giving proceedings an occasional, slight, but unfortunate whiff of A Mighty Wind.
And it's the performers who make Ballets Russes so entertainingly watchable – including grande (and not-so-grande) dames like Alicia Markova (sounding eerily like a distaff Alfred Hitchcock), Mia Slavenska (gloriously self-aggrandising) and the three original Russian 'baby ballerinas' (Baronova, Toumanova and Riabouchinskaya). We also hear from American-born additions to the company such as Raven Wilkinson – who tells of how, as a black woman in 1950s America, her career suffered from southern-state prejudice: one of the few instances where the politics of the outside world intrude on the ever-so-precious, rarefied realms of ballet. Indeed, it's hard to know what to make of the comment that in the late thirties de Basil and Denham were engaged in what are described as "ballet wars" – when the whole world was poised on the verge of a much more serious kind of conflict.
But it's unfortunate that such moments stand out so vividly: Geller and Goldfine are always content to skim the surface of their material rather than delving into awkward or uncomfortable areas. Sexual matters, for example, are handled with a don't-ask-don't-tell discretion that's positively olde worlde – we deduce that many of the more prominent male stars were homosexual (and visibly associated with a 'feminine' profession) in an era that was notably hostile to such folk.
Deploying what might be most charitably described as a stolidly conventional small-screen style (Altman's dazzling The Company this most certainly ain't), the film-makers are content to plod chronologically (and hagiographically) through the years, hardly ever trying to put ballet into any kind of social, economic, artistic or political context – this despite the whole concept of the Ballet Russe being so intimately tied in with the decadence of Imperial Russia and its revolutionary aftermath.
The result is a diverting – if hardly challenging or thought-provoking – series of winsome vignettes, making copious use of archive footage and relying heavily on the beguiling appeal of the talking-head witnesses: the best value coming from the confidingly waspish, Liverpool-born Frederic Franklin who, on this evidence, deserves a documentary profile all of his own: his pained recollection of less-successful ballets ("Labyrinth!… not good!") is worth the price of admission all on its own.
1st July, 2006