Dan Geller and Dayna Goldfine capture the ephemeral art of dance in Ballets Russes
Somewhere near the middle of Ballets Russes, the sleeper-hit documentary opening at the Crest Theatre on Friday, the once-famous George Zoritch and Nathalie Krassovska, both in their 80s, dance a little of Giselle for old times’ sake. They can’t help but crack up as their creaky bodies give out on them, but is that any reason not to dance?
Playfully, Krassovska coos her encouragement—“schmaltzing me up,” as Zoritch puts it. By now, the film, a radiant anecdotal history of the legendary troupes that first popularized ballet for American audiences, has shown these dancers in their primes, and it’s quite something to see that their glamour and vitality haven’t ebbed. Nor has their wry affection, which seems emblematic of the movie. Ballets Russes couldn’t be abashed or pitying if it tried.
“It’s so joyous to think of aging with that vivacity,” the film’s co-director Dan Geller said over tea at his house in San Francisco recently. “But it’s sad, too, because the mortality is everyone’s mortality.”
Co-director Dayna Goldfine, a former Sacramentan who is married to Geller, added, “There was a sense of relief that they were being recognized again. The Ballets Russes used to be the cat’s meow. To a degree, a lot of the dancers felt forgotten.”
Ballets Russes can be an elegy if you’d like to see it that way—not least because some of the participants have died since the movie was shot. But the film’s truest instinct is to come off as a rather dignified sort of rapture. It offers a surprisingly rare thing in a contemporary documentary: a portrait of an art form in the process of discovering itself and its audience. What’s more, many of its most alert and reflective participants—all grins and shining eyes—are just great fun to be with. Even the proudest and most regal of the performers seem strongly disinclined to take themselves too seriously. Actually, it’s a sort of coup that Geller and Goldfine have so instinctively done the complex work of explaining how proto-hipsters of the avant-garde turned out to be adorable old-timers you’d want for grandparents.
That saga begins, more or less, with the death in 1929 of famed impresario Sergei Diaghilev, a Russian exile who, as the Ballets Russes narration puts it, “for 20 years had led a creative revolution” in Paris. Diaghilev combined the talents of such towering artists as Igor Stravinsky, George Balanchine, Vaslav Nijinsky and Henri Matisse to push dance beyond its expected boundaries.
“The Ballets Russes most people think about is the Diaghilev Ballets Russes,” Goldfine said. “We were like, ‘How are we going to get over that hump?’ For a long time, it was a chip on our shoulder. Where to put the Diaghilev?”
He couldn’t go right in the beginning, because that would pitch their story improperly. Geller and Goldfine preferred to elucidate what happened after Diaghilev, when two rival companies, led by Wassily de Basil and Léonide Massine respectively, emerged to carry on and compete over the Ballets Russes legacy, touring America in the ’30s and ’40s and giving the world a good sense of all that ballet can be: at once pure, fleshly, erotic, complex, venerable and highly civilized.
And although those companies’ runs have long since ended, the film’s examination of them has achieved a palpable advancement for ballet appreciation—something more meaningful than mere nostalgia—through its gradual glissade into more and more movie theaters.
“We only thought we might play in bigger cities with large dance audiences, and we ended up playing all kinds of places we never thought we would,” said producer Bob Hawk, by phone from New York, of the movie’s run. “New Mexico, Indiana, Arkansas, Oklahoma, you name it. It’s just unbelievable.”
Or is it? “We were in the covered wagons of the ballet in this country,” recalls the highly charismatic dancer Frederic Franklin in the film, supporting his case with a droll imitation of heartland audiences, mouths agape, taking in the modern ballet for the first time. Apparently, though, they liked it.
The film seems to have taken a parallel course. Hawk said audiences have responded as if it were live theater, with frequent applause. Geller and Goldfine said strangers have confessed to having seen it seven or eight times. Maybe tomorrow’s scholars will look back and declare that as de Basil and Massine were to ballet in 20th-century America, Geller and Goldfine were to ballet movies in 21st-century America—only instead of a bitter rivalry, they had a professionally fruitful, mutually supportive marriage.
For example, the couple used their honeymoon money to launch a documentary career. Geller and Goldfine’s other films include Isadora Duncan: Movement from the Soul, another historical performance-based film, about a maven of modern dance; Frosh: Nine Months in a Freshman Dorm and its sequel, of sorts, Now & Then: From Frosh to Seniors; and the Emmy-winning Kids of Survival, about an artist-educator working with at-risk kids in the Bronx. The filmmakers sustain themselves with a small corporate-video production company based in the upstairs office of their spacious San Francisco home.
Each of the duo’s personal projects takes a few years to complete. “This was our longest ever,” Goldfine said of Ballets Russes, which required two-and-a-half years just to edit.
“You think you’re done; then you have a work-in-progress screening, and you know you have so much more to do,” Geller said. “And it’s a terrible feeling!” They passed a knowing laugh between them.
The production itself began in 1999 when Hawk tipped Geller and Goldfine off to a Ballets Russes reunion scheduled for the summer of 2000 in New Orleans. “I thought this should be a film,” Hawk said. “And I said, ‘Well, I’ve got people I know who would be perfect for this.’ Because everything they’ve made has been about the arts and education in some way. About passing on knowledge.” Geller and Goldfine didn’t know much about ballet, but they began recording interviews, and before long, they were hooked.
“Each time we try to bite off something bigger than we know how to chew,” said Geller. “Some of that is just plain foolishness. But it keeps us alert and alive to possibilities. Fear of failure is always a good motivator.”
“There should be something scary about each piece,” Goldfine said. “Can we be accepted by college freshman? Can I be OK in the South Bronx? Can we do one about an art form we don’t know very well?”
“We’re of the school that you should pick your subject very carefully, because they’re going to be a part of your life,” Geller said.
“With all of our films,” Goldfine added, “one commonality is that we like and respect all of the people in them.”
Geller and Goldfine do have a way of putting people at ease and allowing the subjects of their movies to be their best selves. In the case of Ballets Russes, it also helps that the subjects were good at it already. To wit, Tamara Tchinerova Finch of Irina Baronova, seated next to her on a couch: “She was my perfect dancer that I admire most in that period. Not because you’re sitting there. I really mean it.”
As Hawk recalled, “Interview after interview, these people were just a constant inspiration. They were so giving—very generous, very funny. They really did have a lust for life. It kind of sent a message that age is relative. A lot of it is what attitude you have toward life.”
“We let them tell the story that they wanted to,” Geller said.
With due deference to that magnanimous strategy, Goldfine was gently questioned on the matter of her tenure as Miss Teenage Sacramento, 1976. She was most forthcoming. “I saw an ad that said, ‘You, too, can be Miss Teenage America,’” she said. “A hundred and twenty girls took the test. Then they told me, ‘Congratulations. You’re in top 10 percent. Next week, do your talent.’ I said, ‘Oh my god. I don’t have one.’”
A supportive teacher reminded her of her inclination toward poetry. “I brought in all the poems I’d written, set to something really sappy. I’m not going to tell you what it was. I can’t tell you. Well, so, it wasn’t the age of poetry slams. So, the soprano was supposed to win. I think everyone was as shocked as I was that she was the first runner up.”
Goldfine received the honor graciously. Even at that tender age, she had the presence of mind to serve the cause of cultural advancement. “I read many a poem in malls that year,” she said. Then she was off to Stanford, where she met Geller, and, eventually, to the artful work they’ve shared.
The pair’s latest effort has achieved a rare consensus of critical and popular favor—and not, thankfully, by pandering. On the contrary, Ballets Russes could very easily serve as a rebuke-by-example to today’s overflowing bandwagon of slavishly self-aggrandized documentaries—were it not, by nature, so modest and genial.
Of course, not every review has been fawning. A couple of balletomane critics have complained that the archival dance-footage clips could stand to be longer, which should attest to just how marvelous and tantalizing the footage is.
“It came in short clips because it was from windup cameras,” said Goldfine. “Believe me, we used every available frame!” But the common yearning for more seems fitting for an art form so immediate, so vigorous but, finally, ephemeral. As the movie’s narration begins, “It is the nature of dance to exist for but a moment.”