Dance dance revolution, indeed

Los Angeles TimesFebruary 17, 2006 

A rare look at the golden age of the Ballets Russes reveals the birth of modern ballet.

A captivating film that truly elevates the spirit, "Ballets Russes" is the most emotionally satisfying documentary since "Mad Hot Ballroom." Is it a coincidence that both deal with dance? Maybe, but maybe not.

Although dance exists in the moment and then is gone, the grace and artistry that go into that instant make for a transcendent experience capable of conveying the best of what creativity can achieve.

"Ballets Russes" -- pronounced from the French as "bal-lay roos" -- is a history of the most influential ballet troupes of the 20th century, groups whose legendary members were present at the creation of modern ballet. The stories and people presented here are involving enough to enthrall anyone.

Directed by documentary veterans Dayna Goldfine and Dan Geller (who also had a hand in the writing and editing), "Ballets Russes" is a thoroughly researched narrative about the various permutations of the troupes that started with impresario Serge Diaghilev's legendary Paris-based Ballets Russes.

When Diaghilev died in 1929, ballet came to a standstill until a pair of entrepreneurs began Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo two years later. Goldfine and Geller are especially good at following the intoxicating twists and turns of the next 30 years of ballet history, which involved competing companies, legendary choreographers George Balanchine, Leonide Massine and David Lichine and almost every major dancer you can think of.

No dry history here.

These dancers, choreographers and impresarios were unashamedly ardent in pursuing their professional and personal lives. The result is a story filled with enough backstage intrigues, romantic rivalries and unlikely assignations to make it the juiciest of artistic soap operas.

Fortunately, we don't have to take the remarkable skill of dancers such as Alicia Markova and Alexandra Danilova on faith. The "Ballets Russes" filmmakers spent two years pursuing vintage footage of dancers in their prime, and their efforts have been well rewarded. Seeing the warmth and humanity these dancers brought to their work is not only rich and satisfying in and of itself, but it's also a window into a dance world that no longer exists.

The best part of "Ballets Russes" is the enormously engaging interview footage of these dancers today. Starting with a first-ever reunion of Ballets Russes dancers in New Orleans in 2000, the filmmakers talked to more than a dozen key dancers, and that footage is truly transfixing.

In the years it has taken Goldfine and Geller to put "Ballets Russes" together, a number of these survivors have died, making it so special that the filmmakers were able to record their unquenchable spirits.

Seeing how fulfilled dance made all these lives will make the most sedentary types want to kick up their heels themselves.

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