Media Ballet a little burlesque

Diaghilev’s famous Russian troupe lives again on screen

My favorite piece of art isn’t a painting or a sculpture. It’s a ballet called Afternoon of a Faun (1912) by Vaslav Nijinsky, who went mad shortly afterward and filled his famous diary with accounts of his vegetarianism and status as a god. Nijinsky was the lover and premiere dancer of Serge Diaghilev, Russian impresario of the Ballets Russes. Barred by war and revolution, Diaghilev’s troupe of Russian dancers never once performed in their own country. Instead, they were set adrift, left to wander the world like minstrels. After commissioning sets, music, and choreography from the greatest artistic minds in Europe for 20 years, including Picasso, Jean Cocteau, and Rimsky-Korsakov, Diaghilev died in 1929 and his dancers were dispersed. Diaghilev’s legacy is the subject of a new documentary film by Dan Geller and Dayna Goldfine that should be a classroom primer on art, even if you’ve never heard of the Ballets Russes.

The Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo in a circa 1939 performance of Rouge et Noir, for which Henri Matisse designed sets and costumes, from the film Ballets Russes.

Amazingly, while Diaghilev was years ahead of his time creatively, he never had the foresight to record his dancers on film. Luckily, two men resurrected the Ballets Russes in 1931 by cobbling together former sets, costumes, and dancers. Colonel de Basil’s Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, as they were then known, dances across the screen in rare and beautiful archival footage. These aren’t ballerinas as we think of them today — endlessly long legs and stick thin (Ballanchine’s legacy). No, these dancers were shorter, stronger, and more burlesque. They wore 1940s starlet make-up and spoke French, Russian, and Spanish together in the wings. Their sultry cosmopolitanism emanated complete and utter otherworldliness to audiences from El Paso to Sydney, leaving balletomania in its wake like a lingering perfume.

Ballets Russes

Dir. Daniel Geller,
Dayna Goldfine

In 2000, former Ballets Russes dancers, now octogenarians, gathered in New Orleans for an historic reunion. These eloquent men and women recall for the camera lives that seemed to be written in between real space, always on a stage or a train, and they dish quite a bit, too. They have plenty of material because, as in any collaboration, ego-driven factions cleaved the company into two competing troupes who fought each other globally in “ballet wars” while soldiers were fighting World War II. If one troupe was barred from America, it simply went to Australia or Latin America and took it by storm, picking up new local dancers and giving them Russian names like the Pied Piper leading away starry-eyed children.

I’ll agree that the film sounds esoteric, and Lord knows we don’t have a world-class ballet company in San Antonio to spawn familiarity with the subject, but the passion these people possessed is straight out of another era’s mythology. Nini Theilade (who danced as Venus on the half shell in Salvador Dali’s Bacchanale (1939) says, “It was fun. It was great. Sometimes we even got paid. What more do you want?” The ripened dancers — still glamorous, mind you — recount being discovered, making Hollywood movies, entering into bizarre marriages, and even touring through the South during the days of the Ku Klux Klan, powerless against the beauty of Les Sylphides with young black dancer Raven Wilkinson as soloist. The film is a slice of heaven, and I’ll admit it: I cried.

By Catherine Walworth


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