"It is the nature of dance to exist for but a moment," drones the narrator at the beginning of Ballets Russes. But it's the nature of this documentary to drag through two utterly tiring and tedious hours.
Dance buffs won't want to miss this all-encompassing documentary on the rise of modern ballet told through the lens of one of the most influential and wildly popular companies: the Ballet Russe. Others, however, will find the intricate detail in which the film chronicles the company to be informative but exhausting.
The film follows the evolution of Serge Diaghilev's famous company, which dissolved in 1929. Starting with the group's origins in early 20th century Paris, it splits into two entities: the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and the Original Ballet Russe. We see their rise in the 1930s, their move to America and climax of popularity in the 1940s, and dissolution in the 1960s. Filmmakers Daniel Geller and Dayna Goldfine mine historic footage and interviews with more than 20 Ballets Russes dancers among them Tamara Tchinarova, Irina Baronova, Maria Tallchief, George Zoritch, Frederic Franklin and Dame Alicia Markova.
There's so much material and so many faces, however, that the movie fails to fully develop a solid set of characters, or really capture the drama that allegedly followed the Ballets Russes. There are great stories to be told, like the original "baby ballerinas," poor Russian girls exiled in Paris who were among the company's first real stars. But Geller and Goldfine are determined to record so much minutiae of the history that such moments flicker and fade, giving way to reams of details that are just fodder for trivia-heads.
When the filmmakers aim to get intimate, mostly through bits taken from a 2000 Ballets Russes reunion, it comes off as trite and hokey especially one awkward scene in which two great dancers both in their 80s work through a scene from Giselle. The scene is a dancer's nightmare: it feels clunky and forced.
Ballets Russes works as a comprehensive portrait of ballet's groundbreakers, but as a personal history of the dancers, it's too dry and clinical.
Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), at 7 and 9:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, March 17-18, and at 4 p.m. on Sunday, March 19. Call 313-833-3237.
Clare Pfeiffer Ramsey writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].