Volume 75, Number 23 | Oct. 26 - Nov. 01, 2005

Courtesy Zeitgeist Films

The Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo performing Rouge et noir, choreographed by Leonide Massine, with scenery and costumes by Henri Matisse, 1939. Frederic Franklin (top), George Zoritch (middle), Alexander Danilova (bottom center) and corps.

‘Ballets Russes’ is on pointe

By Jerry Tallmer

The screen shows a still photograph of two feet in ballet slippers, toes to the floor. “Look at those pointes!” we hear a voice chortling. “Look at that instep!”

  The camera draws back and we see the owner of the voice, and of those exquisite ballerina feet, exquisitely extended. She is Mia Slavenska, born in Yugoslavia in 1914, leading dancer with Les Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo in her 20s, later the Blanche Duval to Frederic Franklin’s Stanley Kowalski in their famous rendition of Tennessee Williams’s “Streetcar Named Desire.”

  Frederic Franklin (also born 1914, in Liverpool, England) with his vitality, his know-how, his backbone, and his perky tongue is everywhere through this gorgeous documentary, “Ballets Russes,” that’s at Film Forum on Houston Street to November 6. And in full black tie, birdlike Freddy Franklin is just as perky as ever, all over the place, all these years later, at a recent Library of the Performing Arts preview of the film.

  Shimmering, golden Mia Slavenska has, however, since the film was made, most grievously left us, as have four other stars of that great ballet company whom we get to know in the two hours of Dan Geller and Dayna Goldfine’s cinematic labor of love.

  Those departed are: Tatiana Riabouchineka, one of the three famous teenage “Baby Ballerinas” of individualistic young choreographer George Balanchine; Nathalie Krassovska, whose laughter and beauty had caught the eye and thoughts of Charlie Chaplin and lots of other gentlemen once upon a time; Alan Howard, one of the first Americans to become a premier danseur with Ballets Russes; and of course Dame Alicia Markova, who started out in life as plain Alice Marks of London and ended up one of the most famous Giselles in all ballet.

  But much remains, including the then-and-now portraiture and memories and testimony of some 20 incomparables, female and male — Tatiana Stepanova, Nini Theilade, Tamara Tchinerova (Mrs. Peter Finch), Raven Wilkinson, Mark Platt, George Zorich, Miguel Terekhov, Irina Baranova, Maria Tallchief (one of Balanchine’s six wives), and others — all woven together in a heartfelt, illuminative narration by Geller and Goldfine, dexterously spoken by actress Marian Seldes.

  The film itself was shot from 2000 to 2003 in New Orleans (scene of a June 2000 reunion of the three competing Ballets Russes companies), Cincinnati, Oakland, London, New York (both Freddy Franklin’s penthouse and an American Ballet Theater rehearsal), and elsewhere.

  Then came the job of tying it all together with narration.

  “A very long process of teasing out the story,” says Dayna Goldfine. “We began with just title cards, but that was too dry, too clinical. What we had in mind was the voice of an older woman — well, let’s just say a woman — telling a fairy tale.”

  They had each, she and Dan Geller, who is her husband, gone to see another beautiful documentary, Rick McKay’s “Broadway: The Golden Years,” and, watching it, had discovered the voice and personality of Marian Seldes.

  “What we didn’t then know was that [a very young] Marian had gone to the School of the American Ballet, had danced with some of the people in our film, had in fact made her first professional appearance anywhere not as an actress but in a 1942 Ballet Theater tribute to Michel Fokine.

  “So Marian had and has the ability to pronounce all these crazy Russian names without a hitch. She whipped right through them.”

  This movie is among everything else a history lesson, whose leading players are the great Sergei Diaghilev, impresario of impresarios, who invented Les Ballets Russes in post-World War I Paris and peopled it with émigrés from what had lately been Imperial Russia; Diaghilev’s chief competitor, the quirky Colonel Wasily de Basil; the four genius chorographers Michel Fokine, Leonid Massine, Vaclav Nijinsky, and Bronislava Nijinkska; and that even more powerful impresario, Sol Hurok, who brought Ballets Russes in its several incarnations to, and throughout, the U.S.A.

  So many riches. Here is just one: George Zorich and Nathalie Krassovska, in the year 2003, doing a pas de deux from “Giselle” during which he laughingly cries: “Don’t run away so fast, I can’t follow you … I’m too old to walk forward” and she turns back toward his arms. It is like something out of a Fellini movie, something to see and to love. As were they all.

“BALLETS RUSSES” by Dan Geller and Dayna Goldfine. A Zeitgeist release. Two hours. Though November 6 at Film Forum, 209 West Houston Street, (212) 727-8110.

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