Russians Bring Dance

To America

BALLETS RUSSES (2005): Documentary. Directed by Dayna Goldfine and Dan Geller. Written by Geller, Goldfine, Gary Weimberg and Celeste Schaefer Snyder. Cinematography, Geller. Editor, Geller, Goldfine, Weimberg. Produced by Goldfine, Geller, Robert Hawk and Douglas Blair Turnbaugh. Music, Todd Boekelheide, David Conte. Narrator, Marian Seldes. Zeitgeist Films, 2005. NR. 118 minutes.

A charming, informative look at a most interesting portion of the history of classical ballet: the 20th century competition between two dance companies formed to fill the empty shoes of ballet impressario Serge Diaghilev. With Diaghilev’s death in Venice in 1929, the Russian dance company died as well, stranding many dancers in Europe, among them some of his greatest stars. Diaghilev’s great successes came not only from his talented dancers but also because of choreographers such as George Balanchine, Michel Fokine, Leonide Massine and from collaborators including artist Pablo Picasso, composer Igor Stravinsky and filmmaker Jean Cocteau. But as war approached Europe in the 1930s, the vast untouched market of the U.S. beckoned.

The film features rare clips of graceful and dynamic performances from the new company formed in 1931, the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, managed by Col. Wassily de Basil and under the artistic direction of Balanchine. After a year, Balanchine was replaced by Leonide Massine, Strife was always a fact of life among the Russians, and in 1938 Massine led a coup against de Basil and formed his own company, the Original Ballet Russe.

The two companies were locked in bitter competition for dancers, venues and money as they rose to the challenge of bringing classical Russian ballet to the hinterlands of the U.S., Canada and South America. The emotional reason to see the film, however, is to watch the (mostly) Russian dancers’ faces light up when greeting old friends, even rivals. They show great tenderness and joy to one another. Their shared accomplishments required them to make long, train voyages to play one-night stands in small-town theaters scattered throughout the continent, sowing the seeds of ballet theater and excellence wherever they went.

Not just for ballet-nuts like me but also for those who ever wondered how Eugene, Ore., and Boise, Ida., could have built an audience large enough to keep such a great dance company as the Eugene Ballet busy for all these years. Ballet Russes opens at the Bijou Fri. Feb. 24 with heartfelt recommendation