The fun and informative documentary Ballets Russes doesn't take long to make the point that the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo born in Europe and built on the talents of some gifted Russian refugees was a godsend to its art form. In short order, we learn that the company not only introduced the 20th century to many of its finest dancers and choreographers but also rescued ballet from the brink of extinction following the decline and death of Dhiagilev.
These and other achievements are retold by a myriad of surviving dancers, whose overwhelmingly glowing senior memories are juxtaposed with recovered footage of the triumphs they enacted on stage in their teens and early adulthoods. Simple in format and straightforward of style, the movie follows the PBS documentary model; what greater manipulation is needed when a story is inherently compelling and eyewitness accounts so close at hand? Garrulous principal dancer Frederic Franklin, for example, obviously relishes the opportunity to dish about the intrigue of both a romantic and a business nature that ensued as the company toured the globe, eventually splitting into two separate concerns that competed for performers and bookings. (Word has it that the chatty Franklin talked on camera for eight hours. I believe it.)
Dance enthusiasts are praising the film for its treasure trove of vintage stage footage, the same way Caruso lovers cling to antique recordings. By today's standard, the visual evidence of the Ballet Russe's salad days is lo-res and incomplete, but that only reinforces the troupe's allure, positioning it as a vanished resource viewable only in snippets and through the filter of memory.
A few issues are touched upon that could stand further elaboration, but none detracts terribly from the film's narrative flow. Anyway, the movie isn't solely fixated on rehashing history. The segments that catch up with the dancers circa 2000 reveal the project as a kind of anti-entropy tract. Yes, some of them bemoan their inability to continue dancing, resigning themselves to acting-only roles that don't tax their failing bodies. But the norm is closer to the example set by Nathalie Krassovska, a ballerina-turned-teacher who says that going two days away from the barre is an anomaly in her octogenarian lifestyle. With all apologies to Jill Clayburgh, Ballets Russes could just as easily have been titled I'm Dancing as Long as I Can.