Ballet vs. Ballet: The Russe Rivalry

A new documentary tells the story of two rival ballet companies: the original Ballet Russe and the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. They were two of the most famous and influential ballet companies of the 20th century. Filmmakers Dan Geller and Dayna Goldfine shot many hours of interviews with surviving dancers, including Irina Baronova.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

We have a report next on revolution, ego, passion, back-stabbing, fierce competition and beauty. It's the story of ballet in the 20th century as told in a new documentary called "Ballets russes." Iris Mann reports.

IRIS MANN reporting:

The names of the "Ballets russes" dancers and choreographers are legendary in the dance world: Donilova, Fokine, Balanchine, Nijinsky. Irina Baronova is a former prima ballerina who offers a few more names you might recognize.

Ms. IRINA BARONOVA (Former Prima Ballerina): Picasso, Dali, Chagall, Miro, you name them. They all collaborated with us and designed our sceneries and costumes.

MANN: Baronova was one of three girls in their early teens dubbed the baby ballerinas and chosen by George Balanchine to be the stars of the new "Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo" in 1932. She says another well-known artist who designed sets and costumes for the company was Henri Matisse.

Ms. BARONOVA: He would do a sketch and then say, `I don't quite like it,' and throw it into the wastepaper basket. If only I could have been smart and pick it up, oh, what a collection I would have had now.

MANN: It was a remarkable moment in time. Igor Stravinsky composed music specifically for the "Ballets russes."

(Soundbite of music)

MANN: In 1937, the "Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo" broke into two companies. The split made headlines, and what came to be known as the ballet wars began. The rival companies vied for dancers, choreographers and audiences. During the next season in London, they were booked around the corner from each other, one at Covent Garden, the other at Drury Lane.

Ms. BARONOVA: Even the taxi drivers were taking part in this, because some of our friends said that they'd get into a taxi and say, `To Drury Lane.' And the taxi driver would say, `Oh, you want to see the Russian ballet? No, no. You want to go to Covent Garden.'

MANN: All of this was unknown to filmmakers Dan Geller and Dayna Goldfine before they began their documentary, "Ballets russes." A friend of a friend was helping organize a reunion of the dancers in New Orleans five years ago, and Geller says they decided to shoot it.

Mr. DAN GELLER (Filmmaker): It became clear as we got into the film further and further that we really wanted to make a movie that someone might go to, sit down, saying, `I don't know about this ballet stuff' and then walk out saying, `My God, I'd love to go see ballet and what an amazing story.' And also this film ultimately is as much about aging, having done something beautiful in your life as it is about a particular art form.

MANN: The filmmakers went on to shoot nearly 90 hours of interviews with the surviving dancers. Geller says the editing process became a tug-of-war between the tangled web of events and the fascinating characters who lived them. One of these was Frederic Franklin. Speaking from New York, he recalls touring in 1938 and introducing audiences in small towns across America to ballet. One night the finished a performance to dead silence.

Mr. FREDERIC FRANKLIN (Former Dancer): And there was a reception after, and I remember talking to one of the ladies, and I said, `You know, you must have hated this performance tonight.' I said, `Well, you know, generally, if you like something, you sort of applaud.' `Oh,' the lady said. `Oh, no, Mr. Franklin. We didn't want to spoil the atmosphere. It was oh, so beautiful.'

MANN: Franklin remembers performing in a hundred ten cities in five months, many of the shows one-night stands. Marc Platt was one of the first Americans to join the "Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo" and was forced to Russianize his name to Platoff. Today he says the schedule was crazy.

Mr. MARC PLATT (Former Dancer): We would perform in any city, say Cleveland, and when we were through, we would all then go to a major hotel ballroom. Now this was 11, 12 at night. And they would rehearse this for an hour or two. We would be freed then to go to the train. We were always on a train. So we would go to the train, collapse into the bunk, and about 6:00 in the morning, somebody would grab the sheets by our feet and wake us up. And we were going to be, again, rehearsing. And then in the afternoon or evening, we would perform. And after that performance, we would go back to another ballroom somewhere and rehearse again. That was before unions, God bless them, and before this sort of thing could be stopped.

MANN: During those tours, dancers would sometimes get off the caravan and set up shop, says filmmaker Dayna Goldfine.

Ms. DAYNA GOLDFINE (Filmmaker): All of a sudden, there were little companies that sprung up. Some "Ballets russes" dancer would, you know, fall in love with a city and end up staying on or, lo and behold, dancers fell in love with people in Australia and they fell in love with that country, and they stayed behind. And today we have the Australian Ballet, which very, very openly acknowledges its debt to the "Ballets russes." So the lovely thing about the hard travels that they did is that they left behind the seeds of ballet as we know it today.

MANN: Goldfine marvels at how many of the "Ballets russes" alumni continued to perform and teach well into their 70s, 80s and even their 90s. The film shows former baby ballerina Tatiana Riabouchinska, at age of 83, conducting class in a West Hollywood studio.

(Soundbite of piano music)

Ms. TATIANA RIABOUCHINSKA (Former Baby Ballerina): Good. ...(Unintelligible) I don't have to show you. Eight front, eight back ...(unintelligible) at the back and ...(unintelligible) at the front.

(Soundbite of piano music)

Unidentified Man: Why do you still teach?

Ms. RIABOUCHINSKA: Well, because what would I do? Sell books? Sell fruit? So that's my life, you know.

MANN: Ultimately the "Ballets russes" companies folded, one in 1948 and the other in 1962, and they've been largely forgotten by the public. That's why Irina Baronova believes the documentary is so important.

Ms. BARONOVA: To have a documentary about our company and the dancers of that era, which is last century--We were from the last century, all of us--it's terribly important, and thank God it was made then, because since then, a lot of people that you see in the documentary, like Riabouchinska, Slavenska, Krassovka, they're all dead. They died all soon after, one after the other. You know, the queue up by the pearly gates is getting very short.

MANN: `We were a tribe,' says Baronova. `We had great camaraderie, and we made history.' For NPR News, this is Iris Mann in Los Angeles.

(Soundbite of piano music)

INSKEEP: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Renee's with you tomorrow on Thanksgiving. I'm Steve Inskeep.

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