Ballets Russes Review
Once upon a time (the turn of the century) there was a man called Diaghilev, who started a ballet company. Being Russian himself, he formed his company from the cream of Russian talent (and a few outsiders) and collaborated with the finest artists of the time to produce ballets of unprecedented artistry an d wonder. Among others, Diaghilev worked with Balanchine, Dame Alicia Markova, Picasso, Miro, Matisse and, perhaps most famously, Nijinsky and Stravinsky.
The tale of Ballet Russes opens just as Diaghilev’s company collapsed. These were tough times for dancers; a star like Markova was lucky to be paid ten shillings a night to dance. To many, this signalled the end of ballet, but a few men were determined to keep it going. Salvation came in the form of Wassily de Basil and Rene Blum, who formed a new company which they named Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo. Then they set out to find new talent.
The Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo was a huge success and the film follows the story of the company – its triumphs, trials, and tribulations, the petty rivalries and global politics – from the late 1920’s to the Ballets Russes Reunion Celebration, held in New Orleans 2000, bringing together nearly 100 surviving dancers, many of whom had not seen each other for years. Interspersed with archive footage are interviews with the ballet’s stars, many of whom were dance pioneers in one way or another.
Ballet is perhaps the most peculiar and arcane of the popular art forms, though it was not always thus. It seems strange that the glamour of ballet for little girls – and their almost ubiquitous participation in Saturday classes – doesn’t seem to translate into a better understanding of ballet in the population as a whole. But Ballets Russes has material in it that should appeal to all but the most hardened ballet haters. The company’s (or companies – a splinter company was formed in 1938) history spans fifty years of the Twentieth Century and covers the end of the Depression, the rise of Nazism, Hollywood, and the civil rights movement. Many of the young dancer s – the three famous ‘baby ballerinas’ among them – were White Russians, whose parents had fled to Paris when the Bolsheviks took over.
Some of the dancers interviewed are in their 80s and 90s and still teaching and dancing every day, which is a lesson to us all. It’s slightly nerve-wracking watching them dance, but they all pull it off. They also are a source of fascinating stories. Among the many ballerinas is a beautiful woman called Raven Wilkinson. It’s only after a while that you realise that she’s African American. Told b y friends that she would never get a job with the Ballets Russes, she stubbornly auditions for the second time and is thrilled to be accepted. At this time the company made most of its money touring the US and Canada; noone thought anything of it until, on Raven’s third tour, they interrupted a Klan rally on arrival in a Southern town. The management were forced to send Raven home, and that was the end of her American ballet career.
Ballets Russes might not be for everyone but for anyone who ever tied on a pair of pink slippers – or thought about it – it’s a fascinating look at the past through the lens of dance.
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