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Drama of dance 'Ballets Russes' documents history of famed troupe

As Serge Diaghilev might have said, let's get to the pointe:

"Ballets Russes" is captivating. Filmmakers Dan Geller and Dayna Goldfine -- who first teamed up in 1988 for a documentary about Isadora Duncan -- have crafted a compelling documentary about a revolutionary chapter in dance history.

Part narrative chronicle, part ode to bygone glamour, "Ballets Russes" recalls the legendary ballet company as much for its landmark onstage collaborations as the juicy drama that unfolded in the wings. Combining archival footage, still photos and interviews with the troupe's surviving stars, it breezes through Diaghilev's founding of the Ballets Russes in turn-of-the-century Paris, focusing instead on its halcyon period of the '30s and '40s.

It was then that you could see ballets choreographed by Leonide Massine, costumed by Henri Matisse and danced by the original "Baby Ballerinas," a sensational trio that George Balanchine recruited as company principals when they were barely teenagers.

It was also during this era that ballets were first set to symphonies, a bold move that horrified critics but drove audiences wild with glee. One account from a performance of Massine's "Les Presages" sounds less like behavior you'd expect from a classical dance crowd than fans at a Friday night SmackDown: "They were screaming, beating the railing, jumping up and down and slathering at the mouth."

Such agitation helped set the stage for the so-called "Ballet Battles" that took place when Massine split from the original company. In the process, he recruited several of his favorite dancers but lost the rights to nearly all of his choreography.

Throughout "Ballets Russes," narrator Marian Seldes provides telling details about Massine and a host of intriguing personalities who shaped the fate of both Ballets Russes companies. They include Sol Hurok, the all-powerful promoter who bankrolled the original troupe's first U.S. tour, bringing classical dance to audiences whose closest approximation had been vaudeville.

One of the audience members during that tour was a young Maria Tallchief, who snuck backstage to catch a peek at the dancers in repose. "I thought it was the most glamorous thing I had ever seen in my whole life," recalls Tallchief, who went on to join the Ballets Russes and later gain fame with Balanchine's New York City Ballet. "Everyone was talking to each other in Russian and French."

It's memories like these that make "Ballets Russes" such an inviting subject. And there are plenty of them.

One of her proteges describes Bronislava Nijinska as "the greatest slave driver," a choreographer who wore white gloves because she didn't like to touch sweaty bodies.

Another fairly swoons at the memory of principal dancer George Zoritch in his prime. "He was the best-looking man in my whole life," she says. "He had the most wonderful body."

Now an octogenarian, Zoritch remembers that the Russian dancers "just hated" Agnes deMille for asking them to square dance. They figured "anyone who was bedridden could dance in 'Rodeo,' " Zoritch points out, referring to deMille's groundbreaking ballet.

Although "Ballets Russes" runs a tight two hours, it manages to update audiences on what became of the companies' big names after they both folded during the mid-20th century.

Many dancers continued to pursue careers in ballet -- at 90, Frederic Franklin still travels the world setting Ballets Russes choreography for a number of companies. Others would find fame on different stages. Yvonne Craig, for example, starred as Batgirl in the "Batman" TV series.

One of the most touching scenes in "Ballets Russes" comes at the end. It's a simple shot of a former ballerina, frail but still graceful, coaching a group of young professionals.

Later, she comments on the youngsters' abilities. Shrugging off a dancer who can turn a half-dozen pirouettes, she emphasizes, "It's more important to be warm."

Although they weren't as technically polished as their successors, the dancers of the Ballets Russes never lacked that quality. Nor does this documentary.

3.5 stars (out of 4)

BALLETS RUSSES

STARRING: Personalities who shaped the fate of the Ballets Russes companies

DIRECTORS: Directed by Dayna Goldfine and Dan Geller

RUNNING TIME: 118 minutes

RATING: Not rated

THE LOWDOWN: Documentary about the legendary ballet company.

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