The call of the Siren

A legendary ballerina comes to life in a new film.

 BEND IT LIKE DOUBROVSKA The dancer shows her gorgeous

BEND IT LIKE DOUBROVSKA The dancer shows her gorgeous Photograph: Robert Greskovic Collection

At Felia Doubrovska’s funeral in 1981, choreographer George Balanchine turned to Maria Calegari, then a dancer at New York City Ballet with whom he was on the outs with. He couldn’t understand why she wasn’t working hard enough; she was terrified and, as she puts it, “in this period of finding myself.” He said, “You see, dear, this is the end of an era.”

While Calegari, along with many other aspiring ballerinas, never experienced Doubrovska—the original Siren in Balanchine’s The Prodigal Son—as a dancer, she knew her well as an inspiring teacher at the School of American Ballet. Felia Doubrovska Remembered, a documentary by Virginia Brooks that is included in the Dance on Camera Festival 2008, recounts the impact Doubrovska made in classical ballet, from her time as a performer in Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes to her rich teaching career.

Looking back, Calegari believes that her very presence at the sad event, which she says was sparsely attended, was a sign to Balanchine that she was “awake”—or alert to Doubrovska’s importance. “He was really shaken up by her death,” she said in a recent interview. “I hadn’t spoken to him in several months. But from then on, our relationship started to heal.”

Born in St. Petersburg, Russia in 1896, Doubrovska studied ballet at the Imperial Theater School, alongside her lifelong friend Olga Spessivtseva, whom she regarded as her greatest influence. (At Brooks’s instigation, the program will also include a screening of Sleeping Ballerina, a BBC documentary about Spessivtzeva, whose dance career was cut short by mental illness.)

After fleeing postrevolutionary Russia—on skis—for Finland with her mother and her future husband, the dancer Pierre Vladimiroff, Doubrovska joined Diaghilev’s company. It was there that she worked with Balanchine, originating the roles of the Siren and Polyhymnia in Apollon Musagète (later Apollo), as well as the bride in Bronislava Nijinska’s Les Noces. After Diaghilev died in 1929, Doubrovska danced with several groups, including those of Anna Pavlova and Nijinska, as well as the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo and the Metropolitan Opera Ballet, from which she retired in 1939. Ten years later, she began teaching at SAB.

Doubrovska’s long legs, high extension and classical line, revealed in the film through vintage photographs and in footage of her classes, show how much she had to do with the creation of Balanchine’s ideal body type. The late Tanaquil Le Clercq recalls in the film: “I’d never seen anybody like that. I’d seen people who were good technicians, but I really thought, This is very chic, very elegant, and this is what I would like to look like. And I had never seen anybody I really wanted to look like.”

Felia Doubrovska Remembered brings other ghosts back to life; along with interviews with the late John Taras and Doubrovska herself (she literally crouches on the floor in her living room to demonstrate movement from Prodigal Son), there is valuable footage of SAB classes and, in one particularly priceless scene, a 1975 rehearsal in which the late Alexandra Danilova enlists Doubrovska’s help in reconstructing a male variation from Michel Fokine’s Le Pavillon d’Armide. By many accounts, the two dancers were rivals; Calegari recalls an image of Doubrovska, in her chiffon skirt, “trying not to bump into Danilova in the hallway.”

Former NYCB principal Allegra Kent, who is also interviewed in the documentary, adored Doubrovska: “She had special dresses made for class, she always looked beautiful and she had gorgeous legs,” Kent says. “She treated class in a special way. I always felt that she wanted to be there. She would go to the ballet and bring steps back from Balanchine from the night before, so we could practice them in class. She was always full of fresh ideas.”

Brooks, who has been working on the film since the ’70s, saw her subject as shy and self-effacing—Doubrovska was always reticent to discuss her Russian past—but she was also a powerful force who nourished her students, helping to teach them, by example, the meaning of the word ballerina. “She always wanted to put other people forward,” Brooks says. “She was never trying to make herself the one, and I found that so unusual. I really felt a mission to make sure that this film got made. John Taras died. Tanny died. I felt like they were all dying out from under me. So there’s a sense of chasing after the past in this film. But somebody has to do it.”

Felia Doubrovska Remembered will screen Thu 3 and Sat 5 at Walter Reade Theater.