Ballet fan or phobe, within the opening seconds of Ballets Russes (which opens Friday, Nov. 18, at the Harvard Exit), resistance is futile. It's the year 2000, at the first official reunion of Ballet Russe dancers since the their final performance in 1962. Behind the curtain, some 100 soloists, prima ballerinas, and members of the corps greet one another emotionally, like the Russians that most of them are—this is not an air-kissing crowd. Sensibly put in charge, English-born Frederick Franklin, the legendary principal dancer, gives up any hope of orderly lines, and says simply, "Please just stand with somebody and look gorgeous." And they do, God, how they do: elegant, energized, regal.
Instantly, by the sheer presence of these dancers, we are hooked the same way audiences were during the 1920s and '30s. Actors (generally) need their roles to complete them; even offstage a ballet dancer—let alone a ballerina—is as inconspicuous as a ruby in the snow. Well, Ballets Russes has a tiara's worth of rubies.
A disclaimer: While I'll try to be accurate here, I'm not unprejudiced. These very dancers were my passport to the ballet when I was 9, in all its opulent Russian-ness: sets by Matisse and Bakst, music by Stravinsky, and choreography from still-living icons—Fokine, Nijinska, and the company's mainstay for years, Leonide Massine, who indelibly stamped his outsize characterizations. Now, decades later, they're still vital and generous; many of them are still teaching, still possessed of the luminescence they had onstage. (The ebullient Franklin, now 91, who did nonstop interviews at last fall's Toronto Film Festival, still dances character roles with American Ballet Theater and sets Ballet Russe repertoire internationally, from a crystal clear memory.)
The first Ballet Russe was created after impresario Serge Diaghilev's sudden death in 1929, as a harbor for the great dancers marooned in Monte Carlo, and especially to preserve the classic prerevolutionary technique and style. Then a rival faction split off to form the "Original Ballet Russe," as filmmakers Dayna Goldfine and Dan Geller meticulously document. Historically, their diligence is absolutely vital, but frankly, my dear. . . . The film's soul lies with these dancers, whose stories are intercut with astonishing private footage of them at their peak, in performance and backstage, in color and black-and-white.
The film will create its own stars, chief among them Natalie Krassovska, who joined the company in 1932. Still giving classes in the thickest of Russian accents, her hair jet black and upswept, her jewels changed for each successive interview, she is utterly adorable.
Warmth and affection pervade these glimpses. Tatiana Riabouchinska, one of the two surviving "baby ballerinas" (13-year-olds on whom George Balanchine successfully bet the farm in the first Monte Carlo season), is seen teaching in her Los Angeles studio, before taking off in a fire- engine-red convertible (only slightly dinged). Still, the filmmakers keep sentimentality at bay, as three dancers recall working with the tyrannical Nijinska, "She wore white gloves to keep from touching the dancers' wet bodies." Raven Wilkinson, the company's first black dancer, tells about a performance in Alabama when Klansmen strode onto the stage—and were met by the resolute dancers.
Unspoken in all of this is the greatest legacy of ballet: a lifetime of discipline like no other on Earth. (Never mind Jarhead—even in their 70s, 80s, and 90s, these dancers are as tenacious as Marines.) Thanks (forever!) to Goldfine and Geller, yet their timing also has a poignant coda: Since 2000, several of their subjects have died. To see them now, filmed both in spotlight and sunset, is to know how richly they will be remembered.