Daniel Geller and Dayna Goldfine's rousing documentary tells the story of a once-celebrated, now long-defunct ballet company that changed the face of modern dance. Three companies, actually — the original Ballet Russe, built to exercise the talents of all the Russian refugees in Paris, went bust in 1929, when its founder, Diaghilev, died. It was resurrected two years later by Wasily de Basil, a banker and former colonel; several years after that, de Basil and his choreographer, Leonid Massine, split acrimoniously. In what was heralded at that time as "the ballet wars," the two men squabbled over rights to the choreography, the dancers, and the name itself. Massine's troupe became the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, while de Basil's company went by the Original Ballet Russe.
That's a dry summation for history that plays far livelier in Geller and Goldfine's terrific doc. Deftly mixing talking-head interviews, archival footage, and sly musical cues, Ballets Russes impressively catalogues 30 years of the companies' triumphs and failures, and does so in a way that a dance neophyte can easily absorb — owing largely to how absorbing the dancers, now in their 70s, 80s, and 90s, are. They are characters in the best sense of the word — especially the aging prima ballerinas, extravagantly made up and dishing, in their divine Slavic accents, on who diddled who and who was an awful taskmaster.
Although Ballets Russes has an admirable sense of humor about itself, there's a holiness here that's easy to sign onto. Curiously, it's the ballet corps — members of which grew up into a pioneering gay porn director (Wakefield Poole) and Batgirl (Yvonne Craig) — who sound the most reverential about the companies. The stars are less dewy-eyed, but when they gather for a reunion in 2000, it's obvious that dance is a bug they caught young and never got over. There is one scene in particular that's a hell of a heartbreaker, in which George Zoritch and Nathalie Krassovska re-create a scene from Giselle, which they danced 50 years prior (a scene made all the more poignant by the revelation that Zoritch once proposed to Krassovska, who married often, and badly, it would seem). Krassovska, one of those flamboyant primas, bats her eyes coquettishly; they coach each other in Russian; and George dissolves into laughter as he sputters, "Don't run away, I can't move so fast!" The moment — and the movie — are nothing short of majestic.