- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 10, 2005

What’s going on?

Dance suddenly has plunged into the mainstream, scoring high in popular culture on TV with “Dancing With the Stars” and in the movies with this summer’s sleeper hit, “Mad Hot Ballroom.”

Both focused on the kind of dancing all of us fantasize we could do. The first paired a non-dancer with a professional ballroom veteran, the other showed a group of New York City fifth-graders blossoming as they struggled to learn to glide with their partners. Both proved to be unexpected bonanzas.

Now comes “Ballets Russes,” a documentary focused on a loftier enterprise, a particularly colorful chapter in 20th-century cultural history. Will it prove a crossover success like those two predecessors? Its distributors clearly are betting on it; the film opens at the E Street Cinema today and Bethesda Row next week.

After the death of Sergei Diaghilev and his Ballets Russes in 1929, two companies emerged, cutting a swath with tours across this country beginning in the 1930s and continuing into the 1950s. Their rivalry is part of the drama of the film, but there is much more.

Directors Dayna Goldfine and Dan Geller bring that era to life with priceless archival footage. Along the way, they offer a brisk history of the two troupes and paint a lively picture of their glamour, artistry, gossip, high spirits and intramural jealousies.

The most irresistible element in the mix is the dancers themselves — Russian, European, American, English and Latin American — a lively bunch of extroverts and vivid theatrical personalities who even into their 80s and beyond command center stage with their sharpness, wit and sheer joie de vivre. With the larger-than-life personalities that made them stars, they are the heart of this inspired film.

Snippets of dancing that the directors unearthed over the five years of making the film are juxtaposed with revealing interviews with the same dancers 60 years later, or shots of them in the studio still teaching and coaching younger dancers.

Age has not dimmed their power to hold our attention.

The two surviving “baby ballerinas” of the three discovered and celebrated by George Balanchine in the early 1930s when they were still in their early teens — Tatiana Riabouchinska and Irina Baronova — banter about their lives, followed by an imperious assertion by Alicia Markova that she was the original baby ballerina, preceding them by almost a decade.

Dancers Nathalie Krassovska and Frederic Franklin are among the many who are poster children for the rich afterlife that can follow living in front of the footlights.

Miss Krassovska, in a low-cut leotard and filmy dancer’s skirt, with generous stage makeup and resplendent jewelry, has a personality that lives up to her looks. Rolling her eyes and speaking with dramatic emphasis, she is a charmer who continued to run a ballet school until her death this year at 86.

Mr. Franklin, 91, one of the wonders of the dance world, is a marvelous raconteur with an astounding memory for amusing details of backstage life and an equally astounding memory for the literally hundreds of ballets he has danced. Still very much a public figure, he stages works for companies around the country and appears occasionally onstage in character roles with the American Ballet Theatre.

This remarkable film will be an enthralling show for ballet fans and the hordes of students enrolled in dance classes these days, but its appeal is broader than that. It’s an authentic behind-the-scenes peek at the glamorous, grueling life of a performing artist, an introduction to a cast of memorable characters, and a vivid tour through one of the most fascinating periods in 20th-century dance.

It just might turn larger audiences on to mad hot ballet.

***1/2

TITLE: “Ballets Russes”

RATING: No MPAA rating (Nothing objectionable)

CREDITS: Produced by Robert Hawk, Douglas Blair Turnbaugh, Dayna Goldfine and Dan Geller. Directed by Dayna Goldfine and Dan Geller. Original score by Todd Boekelheide and David Conte. Director of photography Daniel Geller. Narrator Marian Seldes.

RUNNING TIMES: 118 minutes

WEB SITE: www.zeitgeistfilms.com

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide