I can count the number of times I have been to the ballet on one hand. While I enjoyed these occasions, my knowledge of what makes for good technique and style is non-existent. Nevertheless, I have a fascination for what makes any art establishment – ballet companies included – live or die, not to mention the fact that I view THE RED SHOES as one of the greatest movies ever made. THE RED SHOES features the divine Anton Walbrook as Boris Lermontov – the impresario of a ballet company supposedly modelled on Diaghilev’s famous Ballets Russes. It tells the tragic tale of how a young ballerina must choose between commitment to her art and her marriage, and famously features a long ballet sequence. The fact that the movie, released just after World War Two, could “get away with” including such a long ballet, was in part thanks to the fact the Ballet Russe had popularised the art-form in America during the war.
In fact, as this documentary hammers home, the Ballet Russe, in its many incarnations, radically changed the way in which ballet was performed and perceived in the first half of the twentieth century. The story starts with Diaghilev founding the Ballets Russes in France in 1909, creating fantastic modern productions that used the best talent across the arts. Sets were designed by Picasso and Matisse; music composed by Ravel and Stravinsky; dances choreographed by Fokine, Nijinsky, Massine and Balanchine; and danced by, among others, Dame Alicia Markova. After the death of Diaghilev in 1929, the company dissolved. Into the breach stepped Colonel de Basil, who reformed the Ballet, hiring Balanchine as ballet master, who in turn hired the “baby ballerinas” – 13 year-old Russian émigrées based in Paris. Despite the great success of the company, the many clashing egos resulted in Balanchine being forced out to make way for Massine. However, in 1936, Massine also left the company and the autocratic rule of the Colonel, to found his own “Ballet Russe”. He took with him some of the dancers, but lost the right to perform the dances he had choreographed.
We then have a tale of two very different companies. The “Original Ballet Russe”, run by the Colonel, became a money-making machine, using old favourites to draw in crowds, rather than refreshing the repertoire. By the end of the war, having been forced out of the US and into Latin America, it has slid into irreparable decline. By contrast, Massine’s new Ballet Russe went from strength to strength, creating new dances, taking surrealist ballet to the American boon-docks, and even making forays into Hollywood, not least in THE RED SHOES. However, eventually even this company began to haemorrhage talent when the impresario, Denham, began to promote his mediocre ballerina girlfriend to the top roles, Citizen-Kane-style.
The documentary is fascinating because it gives us insight chiefly into what makes a ballet company successful, and the implicit answer is that you must follow the talent rather than the money. If you have the artistic creativity, the money will, by and large, come too, even if very little filters down to the actual dancers. The documentary is less successful in chronicling the social changes of the last century, not least because the companies fled the war in Europe for the comparable safety of the Americas. The Great Depression and the build-up to World War Two are off-screen. However, we do discover how ballet was popularised in the US, and how this Russian company created a demand for an authentic “American” ballet and ballet-dancers. Unfortunately, one of the most fascinating topics is rather skimmed over. The Massine company hired an African-American ballerina named Raven Wilkinson for the corps de ballet. However, she eventually left the company because whenever the company toured the southern states the Klan would come out. Some of the members of the corps de ballet are recorded saying how said it was because she was such a talented dancer. However, I feel that the documentary makers missed a trick in not pressing the key players at the time – Frederick Franklin or Madame Dolinova, perhaps – for more information about how the managers of the company and principals, felt about and handled the situation.
Ego-mania and social change aside, the real heart of this film lies in the wonderful characters that are interviewed – the ballerinas. They are all remarkably physically fit given that they are mostly in their eighties and they are all still active in dance or theatre – whether running studios, teaching at universities or writing about ballet. One of the “baby ballerinas” - Tatiana Riabouchinska – is typical of this highly atypical group of people. Aged over 80, she stills holds herself with poise and is in remarkable physical condition. It is clear that she, like Vicky Page in THE RED SHOES, must dance – it is like breathing to her.
So, BALLETS RUSSES is not only fascinating in its own right, but reminds us how absolutely spot-on THE RED SHOES was in its depiction of the power-struggles within a ballet company and the commitment required of its members. Even if you think you don’t like ballet, I urge you to see it, because these power-struggles and issues of what today we might clumsily term the “work-life” balance have a relevance beyond the world of ballet. Moreover, you will get to know some amazing people, whose sheer talent and commitment to art cannot fail to dazzle and inspire. The only slight qualification to my uncharacteristically unreserved praise for this film is whether you need to see it on the big screen. For the most part, the movie plays like a very well put together BBC/HBO TV doc. – relying on interviews, archive dance footage and clips of old playbills and newspaper reviews - and could as easily be enjoyed on DVD. There is no stunning visual work that especially requires a big screen. This is not to detract from the achievement of the directors. However, as the movie is unlikely to get a wide cinematic release, it’s good to know that you won’t be missing much if you decide to check it out on DVD.
BALLETS RUSSES premiered at Sundance 2005 and is currently on release in the US and UK. I do not know of a US, French, German or Austrian release date.