SAN FRANCISCO — For all its grace and beauty, ballet attracts its share of drama queens, which is what provoked filmmakers Dayna Goldfine and Dan Geller to create their documentary on the inimitable Ballets Russes.
“Part of the fun is the very fractiousness of the Ballets Russes, the betrayals and egos,” Geller says of the troupe, one of the most influential of the 20th century.
The film, which premiered last week in New York, zeros in on the years after legendary founder and impresario Sergei Diaghilev’s death in 1929, when the original Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo dissolved into two companies. The result was a torrid confluence of music, dance and design brought to the stage.
Behind the scenes, choreographer Bronislava Nijinska is called a slave driver who “wore white gloves because she didn’t like to touch the bodies of the sweating girls” while teaching; Alicia Markova’s diva attitude is discussed in detail; Nathalie Krassovska, who died earlier this year, describes dodging advances by Charlie Chaplin; the first African-American member recounts how the Ku Klux Klan stormed the stage looking for her during a performance, and octogenarians swoon over premier danseur George Zoritch, who is filmed in the present day lifting weights.
After 150 hours of footage like this, the San Francisco-based Goldfine and Geller, not ballet-lovers by nature, couldn’t help but be enchanted by the art form. “My misconceptions about it being froufrou were quite ill-informed,” Geller says.
Certainly any notions of prim and proper were the last thing on the minds of Ballets Russes directors Col. Wassily de Basil and Leonide Massine in the Thirties and Forties, when they launched erotic Orientalist ballets like “Scheherazade” and Dali’s “Bacchanal,” complete with a giant backdrop of a swan with its abdomen ripped open dripping blood. “It was wild,” Yvonne Mounsey, a former dancer with both Ballets Russes companies, recalls. “All I remember about it was that the costumes were these awful breastplates with big pointed boobs, like a witch’s hat. We were so embarrassed.”
But later archival footage captures the dainty ballerinas, who on stage embodied otherworldly glamour. “Nothing could touch them, and the way they carried themselves offstage,” Geller says. “They always had to look like a million bucks. Hollywood fell all over them when they came to town.” She credits the dancers’ remarkable preservation today to their passion for the art form. “One thing I think it does say is if you do something that you care deeply about in your life, when you get to be in your senior years, you will live with a life force and a vitality that is unmistakable.”