As with most documentaries, "Ballets Russes" is probably more fascinating if you're already interested in the subject matter. But unlike many of its peers, the film doesn't assume we revere its subject as much as the filmmakers do. Instead, directors Daniel Geller and Dayna Goldfine lay out the history of the Ballet Russe, delight us with modern interviews with the now-ancient ballerinas, and take our breath away with clip after clip of footage of the dancers in their prime. When it's done, ballet fans or not, we can't help but appreciate the story we've just seen.
A man named Diaghilev died in 1929, and many feared that spelled the end for the Ballets Russes, the highly esteemed Russian dance company he had overseen. But a worthy successor was found in the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, which opened in 1932 and went on to achieve the kind of legendary fame that its predecessor had.
That group eventually split into two factions, with artistic director and choreographer Leonide Massine breaking off and starting his own troupe, taking many of the dancers -- and, somehow, the name Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo -- with him. What was left of the original troupe became the Original Ballet Russe, and the two organizations traveled the world for the next two decades, often crossing paths, once even being stuck on the same ship together, but each garnering accolades wherever they performed.
"Ballets Russes" tells this story (and much more) in a warm, carefully laid-out way, using interviews with the surviving dancers, most of whom are now in their 80s and 90s. To see these elderly Russian women comporting themselves with such elegance and grace even when their bodies can no longer perform the feats of their youth is truly touching. One looks regal, another is down-to-earth, one reminds you of your smiling grandmother, another of your stern matronly aunt.
They are old, and they can't do pirouettes anymore, but my goodness are some of these women spry! Their eyes twinkle as they tell their stories, and when the film follows them to a reunion in 2000, it is impossible not to be moved by their fondness for one another and their happy memories together.
The film also makes good use of footage from their original ballet performances in the '30s and '40s. Who shot these films, and why, and where they've been all this time, I don't know. But they are extensive documents of original Leonide Massine and George Balanchine choreography, of sets designed by Pablo Picasso, of ballerinas dancing to music composed by Igor Stravinsky and Claude Debussy, to drop just a few of the legendary names who were associated with Ballets Russes.
I'm not knowledgeable enough about ballet to recognize the names of the dancers -- Irina Baronova, Nathalie Krassovska, Tania Riabouchinskaya, Tamara Tchinvarova, George Zoritch, Frederic Franklin, Marc Platt, among others -- but I find their personalities lively and endearing. Some of them still teach dance, and a few even do a little dancing themselves. "Ballets Russes" gives us a glimpse of how happy the dance made them 60 or 70 years ago, and how happy their memories of it make them today.
There are optional English subtitles and no alternate language tracks.
Included with the disc is a lovely little booklet containing an essay by New York Times dance writer Jack Anderson and production notes by the directors. Not enough DVDs come with booklets nowadays.
VIDEO: The anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1) transfer is sharp and clear. The film itself contains archival footage of old ballets, which naturally is going to be grainy and shoddy. (They did what they could to spruce it up, though.) The new interviews were shot on pristine digital video and have made the transition to DVD splendidly.
AUDIO: Most of the audio consists of people being interviewed, so you won't necessarily need your Stereo Surround -- but it's there anyway. When music is incorporated into the film, it the mix is quite good.
Here's where you can tell Zeitgeist Films really cares about their product. The extras are ample and will delight those who have already enjoyed the movie. First is the booklet, already mentioned, containing essays by Jack Anderson and the filmmakers, and let me just say it's a classy disc indeed that comes with reading material.
On the disc itself, the first item is labeled "Additional Footage" and is divided into four sub-categories. "Dancer Beginnings" (8:28 total) has further details on the early careers of Frederic Franklin, Alicia Markova, George Zoritch, Maria Tallchief and Alan Howard. "Collaborators" (19:35 total) has the dirt on Igor Stravinsky, Michel Fokine, George Balanchine, Leonide Massine, Bronislava Nijinska and Richard Rodgers (whose ballet music stank, according to everyone, but he wouldn't change a note of it). "Behind the Velvet Curtain" (12:11 total) has the interviewees telling wonderfully amusing anecdotes about the backstage dramas. And "The Rehearsal Studio" (16:17 total) is footage of the surviving dancers today, giving lessons and occasionally getting back onstage themselves.
All of the material just mentioned is essentially from the same interviews that comprise the movie itself; they could just as well be called "deleted scenes." Some of them are so lively that I wish there had been room in the film for them. It's great to see them on the DVD, though.
Next is "Archival Footage" (6:16), brief excerpts from actual films made of actual performances back in the day, as early as 1945. We get glimpses of this stuff in the movie, but here's more of it. Seeing the old folks interviewed now, it's cool to see what they looked like 60 years ago, too.
Then there are photo galleries featuring some 200 pictures of the stars, the other dancers, and even the program covers.
Finally there is the film's theatrical trailer and even an Easter egg. To access it, get the cursor to "Dancer Beginnings" under "Additional Footage," and then hit the right arrow. A pair of dance slippers appears, and when you select it, you get a 2:32 clip of former dance captain Wakefield Poole talking about his subsequent career as a gay-porn director, and then Yvonne Craig discussing her subsequent career as Batgirl. So there.
This is an elegant, highly engaging film to begin with, and Zeitgeist has given it excellent DVD treatment. It is highly recommended for all connoisseurs of the fine arts, as well as for devotees of great documentaries.
(Note: Most of the "movie review" portion of this article comes from the review I wrote when the movie was released theatrically. I have re-watched it in the course of reviewing the DVD, however.)