For their first film, Dan Geller and Dayna Goldfine took their honeymoon money and made “Isadora Duncan: Movement From the Soul,” a documentary focused on the art of the visionary, early 20th century dancer. For their latest, the filmmaking couple has created “Ballets Russes,” a history of the two companies that brought European dance to America and kicked off the concept of modern ballet.The two projects have consumed some six years of Geller and Goldfine’s lives, prompting the assumption that the two are mad for dance. But Goldfine’s connection to dance ended with the childhood lessons that she says were familiar to most any little girl. And Geller’s interest in dance was even less than that. “In a way, personally, it might not have been a project that compelled me if it was just a dance movie,” he said about the more recent project.”We tend to want to do films about things we know nothing about,” added Goldfine, who at 46, is two years older than Geller, whom she married in 1984. “It allows us to fall in love with our subjects as we’re making the film. And hopefully some of that love comes through in the film and translates to the audience.”
“Ballets Russes,” then, did not arise from a passion for dance, but a piece of information from Robert Hawk, a consultant to independent filmmakers, a friend of Geller and Goldfine’s, and a producer of the documentary. Hawk passed along word that a reunion of a bunch of old, once-famous dancers was going to take place in New Orleans in June 2000. The dancers, from the two companies, both known as Ballets Russes, that were world-famous through the middle of the 20th century, hadn’t been together as a group in 40 years. And with the dancers in their 70s, 80s, and even 90s, Goldfine noted, “it was clear they weren’t going to do this again.”For those who aren’t enticed by a historical documentary about ballet, the hook into “Ballets Russes” is the characters, most of them Russian-born exiles who have been in the States for decades. The trio of Irina Baronova, Tamara Toumanova and Tatiana Riabouchinska seems barely removed from the enchanting “baby ballerinas” they were in the ’30s. George Zoritch, in his 80s, is as masculine – OK, sexy – as he was when the dancers drooled for him a half-century ago. It was the strength of these characters, as sound of mind and spirit now as they were of body then, that drew the filmmakers in. Prior to the New Orleans reunion, Geller and Goldfine went to New York to interview Frederic Franklin, a premier danseur with the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo, and Raven Wilkinson, the first black dancer to tour to a major company. After meeting them, Geller and Goldfine couldn’t wait to see what awaited them in New Orleans.”Once we started reading about the Ballets Russes, we knew there might be a film there. But we wondered what the characters might be like,” Goldfine said. “Just the two of them, you see there’s a story there. Fred Franklin – as soon as he walks into the room, you fall in love.”
The film uses those charming old dancers to tell the story of “Ballets Russes.” Serge Diaghilev founded the original Ballets Russes, a landmark, Paris-based company, in 1909. But Diaghilev died suddenly, and young, in 1929, and a power struggle between the domineering businessman Col. de Basil and the more artistic-minded Serge Denham resulted in two companies: Ballets Russes and Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo.The documentary traces the battle between the rival troupes and their divergent paths. But in fact both became worldwide sensations, at least for a time. The choreographers collaborated with Stravinsky, Matisse and Balanchine; the dancers were recognizable from London to New York. “Ballets Russes” goes into dance itself, detailing the varying styles of the performers, and the company’s innovations, like Balanchine’s casting of extremely young women. The film extends out from the stage to touch on romance within the companies, the logistical and economic realities of international travel, and even the racism in the South that forced Raven Wilkinson out of the company. The thread through the film is how these two companies put the distinctively European art of ballet on the American map, and how it became Americanized in the process.”I had no idea that this art form was so new to so many people, even in the mid-1900s,” Geller said. “I had always assumed ballet had been a worldwide high-art form. But not till the ’30s, when Ballets Russes toured these small cities, did it first become popular culture.””It’s recovering an important piece of cultural history,” Goldfine added. “It’s so much of the roots of what we think of as dance today.”
Geller and Goldfine spent five years assembling that history and the investment shows. The film unearths improbable quantities of vintage footage, a good bit of it in color. Through the Internet – an invaluable tool that didn’t really exist when they made “Isadora Duncan” – the filmmakers found stashes of film shot by a New York dance critic, by the dancers themselves, and by a pair of Australian doctors who followed Ballets Russes everywhere they went on their Australian tours.Geller and Goldfine got maximum effect out of the footage by using techniques that make the images move.”It’s Martha Graham’s notion of contraction and release, creating a sense of energy and explosiveness,” Geller said, proving that he has learned a bit about ballet over the years. “And the dancers never stop moving – that’s wonderful to watch, how mobile and kinetic they are.””Ballets Russes” shows today at the Wheeler Opera House as part of the opening-day program of Aspen Filmfest 2005. It will also be screened at 5 p.m. Saturday at Carbondale’s Crystal Theatre.See https://www.aspentimes.com/section/AROUND09 for a complete Filmfest schedule.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is email@example.com
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