Pointe in time

The documentary Ballets Russes shines the spotlight on a world that no longer exists

VINTAGE YEARS Frederic Franklin and Alexandra Danilova perform Leonide Massine's Le Beau Danube.

Courtesy of Ballets Russes

In the new documentary Ballets Russes, currently showing at Film Forum, the husband-and-wife team of Dan Geller and Dayna Goldfine capture what happens once the curtain falls. Spanning more than 50 years, the film, which focuses on the many incarnations of Les Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo, covers a soap opera--like assortment of subjects, from power-hungry impresarios to choreographers battling for turf. The real draw, however, is the presence of former dancers. Now in their seventies, eighties and nineties—and eliciting an occasional Grey Gardens-like whiff—the former ballet dancers are scattered all over the world. Geller and Goldfine found them, interviewed them and put them on glorious display in their largely riveting documentary.

Although the filmmakers, who are based in San Francisco, created a documentary about Isadora Duncan in 1988, neither knew much about dance before setting out to make Ballets Russes. "We had done three cinma vrit documentaries in a row, mostly about younger people, and we were just starting to cast about for a new idea," Goldfine recalls. "We had started saying to each other, 'What would it be like to do something about folks at the opposite end of the age spectrum?'"

When a friend, the producer Robert Hawks, learned of a reunion with the Ballets Russes dancers in New Orleans in June of 2000, he convinced the couple to attend. As a preliminary step, they met with two veterans of the company: Raven Wilkinson, the first African-American woman to perform with a major ballet troupe, and Frederic Franklin, the Liverpool-born regisseur who made his Paris stage debut in 1931 in a show starring Josephine Baker. "My God—right off the bat, we realized that these were two fascinating people who were really different from each other," Geller says. "They were extremely accomplished artists, but they were also people who were not hothouse flowers. They were hearty individuals, wonderful raconteurs, and they had lived through a lot—and not all of it very easy."

The film's highlights are interviews with 20 dancers, among them such stars as Alicia Markova, the British ballerina who was the last surviving member of Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes. Mia Slavenska, Nathalie Krassovska, George Zoritch, Tamara Tchinarova Finch and Maria Tallchief are also present, along with two of the three "baby ballerinas"—Tatiana Riabouchinska and Irina Baronova—made famous by George Balanchine in the '30s. Performance footage, donated by many dancers, provides a grainy home-movie quality.

Sadly, five dancers who were interviewed for the film have since passed away. "Alicia Markova died in 2004, just as we were finishing the movie, and the next heartbreak was when Nathalie Krassovska died," Geller says. "I so much wanted her to be able to come to a screening, but she unexpectedly died in a little surgery. She was healthy and bang, that was it." Krassovska, who danced with Balanchine's Les Ballets 1933 before joining the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo in 1935, is one of the film's most memorable figures, with her bright red lips, shoulder-baring tops, and hair parted in the middle and covering the tips of her ears. "That was the one that killed me the most," Goldfine says. "Alicia was 94, but when Nathalie went into the hospital for her operation, she arranged to have someone take over teaching her class for a couple of days."

Aside from the rigors of ballet, the film also makes a point about living life to the fullest. "I know I wasn't consciously aware of it before we started doing those first few interviews, but for me, what became more and more clear was, Oh! I'm looking for models about how to age well," Goldfine explains. "I had just turned 40 when we started the filming. I realized that this project was about way more than dance—it's about really living a good, rich life. I feel for the last six years, I've been taking mental notes. If I'm fortunate enough to get to be 70, 80 or 90, this is exactly how I want to be carrying myself through the world."

Ballets Russes is at Film Forum through November 8.