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By Bob Westal | October 27, 2005

One test of an outstanding documentary is whether it can enthrall even those who have no particular interest in its subject matter. “Ballets Russes,” from filmmakers Dan Geller and Dayna Goldfine, doesn’t do that — but keep reading anyway.

The Ballet-Russe, we are told, played an instrumental role in the birth of the modern ballet. Begun in 1909 by the legendary Russian impresario Serge Diaghilev, the film focuses mostly on the decades following the start of the Soviet era, when the ballet became a globetrotting expatriate dance troupe. After strong initial success largely fueled by its trio of young “Baby Ballerinas,” a rift caused the ballet to split into two companies: the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and the Original Ballet Russe. Over the next four decades, the two ballets sparred for world attention, creating new audiences for classical dance in places where there had been none, most especially the United States.

Now, if you don’t happen to be a part of that audience, this very conventional PBS style videodoc should not viewed before operating heavy machinery. However, there’s plenty to fascinate devotees of the dance. In particular, the film makes good use of a surprising treasure trove of archival footage of the ballet – much of it in color and dating back to the early 1930s. Also of note are contemporary glimpses of the dancers, many of them in or near their nineties and in remarkably good shape.

That’s not all. We are informed by titles at the end of the film that Yvonne Craig, who joined the company in the 1950s, went on to fame as TV’s Batgirl and choreographed many of her own “dance” movements (Ka-Blam!) And, accompanied by an image of a naked man standing in a pool of water, the titles tell us that troupe member Wakefield Poole eventually became a film director. “His pioneering adult gay movies, set to scores by Ravel and Debussy, were hailed for their creativity and artfulness.”

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