‘Ballets Russes’


The documentary Ballets Russes enacts its drama with a light editorial hand and unavoidable sentimentality, rather like a roll call of the NBA’s “50 Greatest Players.” The filmmakers, who claim only a prior “curiosity” about dance (despite a 1988 doc on Isadora Duncan), take on the Ballets Russes post-Diaghilev, whose 1929 death led to rival companies, the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and the Original Ballet Russe, and aesthetic headhunting between them. The film tips slightly toward the first, which seems to have got most of the personality and less of the mismanagement. Cultural solemnity—the war, Klansmen climbing onstage in Montgomery and demanding the “nigger” (Raven Wilkinson, the first black dancer in a major company)—isn’t elided, but sits too aloofly in a film with mostly unproblematic things to say. Yet Ballets Russes understands its own lost moment: Léonide Massine’s Les Présages, radical in 1933 as the first symphonic ballet, was one of the “great erotic pleasures of the London summer” (in Marian Seldes’s voiceover). There was even a Yoko Ono of sorts: Nina Novak, a lesser dancer and lover of director Sergei Denham, who gave her the best roles; this era coincided with cost cutting and a 1957 premature curtain drop to get around paying the orchestra overtime. She appears in the archival footage and in a present-day interview, but Ballets Russes is too responsible, and too sweet, to ask for a scapegoat