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Ballets Russes (2005)

Ballets Russes is an intimate portrait of a group of pioneering artists -- now in their 70s, 80s and 90s -- who gave birth to modern ballet.

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2 wins & 2 nominations. See more awards »

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Credited cast:
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Dance Student
Yvonne Chouteau ...
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Frederic Franklin ...
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Alan Howard ...
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Nathalie Krassovska ...
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Herself (as Dame Alicia Markova)
Milada Mladova ...
Herself (clip "Escape Me Never") (archive footage)
Nina Novak ...
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Wakefield Poole ...
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Tatiana Riabouchinska ...
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Mia Slavenska ...
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Storyline

For many, modern ballet began with the Ballet Russe of Monte Carlo, originally made up of Russian exiles from the Russian Revolution. This film tells the story of this landmark company with its stars and production as well as its power games, rivalries and tribulations that marked its turbulent history. Written by Kenneth Chisholm (kchishol@rogers.com)

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Fame, glamour, ego, politics, money, war, love . . . and dance.


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Not Rated | See all certifications »
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Release Date:

19 April 2006 (Belgium)  »

Also Known As:

Ballets Russes  »

Box Office

Opening Weekend:

$40,199 (USA) (11 November 2005)

Gross:

$815,848 (USA) (25 June 2006)
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1.85 : 1
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Features Boys in the Sand (1971) See more »

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User Reviews

 
An Enthralling Visit to a Past World of Personalities and Cultural History
18 December 2005 | by (Queens, NY) – See all my reviews

"Ballet Russes" is entrancing.

I am not particularly a ballet fan. I had a few lessons as a six year old, basically enough to vaguely remember there are five basic positions. Though one of my favorite memories is seeing "Rodeo" at the old Metropolitan Opera just before its demolition, I usually find both classical ballet and its bun heads to be boring. I was certainly never able to keep straight in my head the names and places of ballet's 20th century history. I did once take a wrong turn at a summer job at the new Met and froze when I found myself next to Dame Margot Fonteyn as she was warming up alone for a rehearsal.

But until I saw them talking so personally, other legends like Alicia Markova, Maria Tallchief, let alone the endless Russians, were just names to me. This documentary is cultural history made fascinating by entertaining raconteurs and amazing illustrative archival footage. Creators Daniel Geller and Dayna Goldfine have made the best use of talking heads since Warren Beatty's "Reds."

The word diva is never used, but these are grande dames and gentlemen, in their '80's and '90's, still with erect posture and various accents from around the world, who have commanded the world's stages with an expression and a hand motion, let alone a lifted leg, and know how to put across an anecdote, especially when talking about larger than life, legendary personalities. (We hear from a few corps members in a round-up towards the end.) With deft and sprightly editing, each point an interviewee makes is supported with illustrative photographs or incredible archival film or ephemera documentation, with beautiful music of course. A past world is literally conjured up for us.

Starting at the dissolution of the Diaghilev company that rocked the worlds of dance, music, art, theater and polite society, the film primarily takes a chronological route. From the Russian émigré community of Paris in the 1920's (what James Hilton novels refer to as "White Russians"), we are introduced, "Mikado"-like, to three little girls at school. We get glimpses of ballet mistresses recreating the Russian dance conservatories of their youths and are transported to the birth of a company built on this first generation of a new European life.

With only a frisson of gossip and cattiness, the emphasis is on the styles and personalities of each dancer, manager, choreographer, designer, chaperoning mother, and impresario over 40 years of astonishingly creative artistry amidst sturm und drang. There's a lovely anecdote of two prima ballerinas battling for the attention of a young protégé from each side of the stage during performances. Another regal prima ballerina recalls facts of another's fame, then after what feels like a full minute of silence, lifts an eyebrow and dryly turns from the camera, saying "Of course, I was really the first." There's shades of "Citizen Kane" in remembrances of an infatuated manager pushing forward a young corps dancer as a star.

From amusing to poignant, real world politics off the stage only occasionally crosses their consciousness, when the story deals with World War II, with great anecdotes of escaping Paris before it fell and trying to convince the strict dance masters that rehearsals weren't possible when they were all sea sick nervous wrecks, and moving accounts of racism during their tours.

Men are some of the most eloquent and voluble interviewees, with the point made how long time artistic director Léonide Massine particularly created ballets for male dancers. The film reinforces my biases against George Balanchine, who was affiliated with the company a couple of times, for his misogyny in insisting that the ideal image of women is like anorexic, pre-pubescent boys.

The filmmakers are a bit too uncritical, only occasionally allowing in shots of reviewers' pans. Much is made of some dancers war time Hollywood sojourn, but no distinction is made between corny clap trap and "7 Brides for 7 Brothers," one of the all time great movie musicals, though the footage from the former is rarer and they can assume we've seen the latter. While there's no mention of how they must have influenced Gene Kelly, much is made of the impact the company's tours had in small towns and cities, bringing ballet for the first time around the United States.

While some of the footage of a 2000 reunion goes on a bit too much in showing the elderly dancers trying to recreate their glory days, slipping into Russian arguments about steps, it does demonstrate how much of choreography is kinesthetic memory and can only be transmitted person to person. This is reinforced as we see them now as dance teachers in a disapora around the world - from Denmark to Australia to South America to Arizona -- and one noting that while today's dancers are better athletes and technicians "They have no warmth!" as she firmly corrects them -- just as the original Russian teachers did so long ago in Paris.

As is ironically sung in "A Chorus Line," "Everything is beautiful at the ballet." This film is a beautiful statement that dance doesn't have to be evanescent - it can be passed on. It lives in these dancers' memories and we should be very grateful that they have been captured in this film.


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