Documentaries are often dull because they’re formulaic: historical footage, intercut with contemporary talking heads explaining it all, in service of a story line that’s no more than a passel of received ideas. Dan Geller and Dayna Goldfine’s splendid Ballets Russes outwits these numbing givens. The story itself is exciting. It traces the survival—despite roiling conflicts of personality and power—of an enterprise, begun by Serge Diaghilev in 1909, that revolutionized traditional Russian ballet on European soil. When the maestro died in 1929, the Ballets Russes evolved into a pair of rival companies that crisscrossed America, seducing both cultural innocents and sophisticates with glamour, beauty, and transcendence. Deftly, using enormous human sympathy, the filmmakers acquaint us with the great talents involved, both as they were in their dancing prime and as mature, seasoned people transferring a lifetime’s unique experience (not limited to dancing) to the rising generation. If their testimony doesn’t make you cry, you’re probably one of those benighted types who think ballet is about multiple pirouettes rather than an expression of the soul.
A free preview of this film will be offered Wednesday, October 19, at 6:30 at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts’ Bruno Walter Auditorium, 111 Amsterdam Avenue, 212-930-0800.