The superb 'Ballets Russes' is a documentary for people with no knowledge of - or interest in - ballet. An affectionate and absorbing study of the three companies that danced under the Ballets Russes name, it spans 60 years, four continents and interviews with some of the greatest dancers of the 20th Century.
Briefly touching on Russian impresario Serge Diaghilev's founding of the original Ballet Russes dance company in Paris in 1909, the film swiftly moves forward to his death and the company's disintegration 20 years later. The resulting void was filled by what became two companies - Colonel Wassily de Basil's Original Ballet Russes and the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, headed by dancer/choreographer Leonide Massine. Their struggle for dancers, audiences and promoters gives this film a wonderful impetus.
But the real focus here is the people. Filmmakers Daniel Geller and Dayna Goldfine have set candid contemporary interviews beside evocative archival footage, revealing the dancers' lives in all their glory and difficulty. Starting from a group of little Russian refugee girls in 1920s Paris and Balanchine's celebrated "Baby Ballerinas" (so named because the three dancers were all in their early teens), through the Ballets Russes' introduction of ballet to audiences in the Americas and Australia; the struggles and hardships of World War II and racial tensions in America (there were problems on southern tours with the company's first black dancer, Raven Wilkinson); old press photos, grainy footage, tattered programmes and newspaper clippings help to bring this tale to vivid life.
The interviews with the surviving Ballets Russes dancers - now in their 70s, 80s and 90s - are a joy to watch. Most are still involved in dance in one way or another and their juicy, gossipy stories of egos and styles, jealousies and partnerships put flesh on the bare historical bones of the Ballets Russes. They are all intensely passionate and memorable characters - "Baby Ballerinas" Irina Baronova and Tatiana Riabouchinska; the first American Indian ballet stars Yvonne Chouteau and Maria Tallchief; founder of the English National Ballet Alice Markova, the last surviving member of Diaghilev's Ballet Russes; the insightful and funny Frederic Franklin, still performing at 92; and Wakefield Poole who, post-Ballet Russe, went on to direct the landmark gay porn film, 'Boys in the Sand'.
A deeply satisfying watching experience, 'Ballets Russes' is a loving portrait of and a moving elegy to a golden age - and to the people that made it so. A film to remember.