Ballet person-to-person

By Brooks Robards - June 1, 2006

"Dance has always been an art form that has been handed down person-to-person, without notation," explains Wendy Taucher, the new Managing Director for the Yard, the Chilmark-based artist's colony for dancers. She will introduce "Ballets Russes," the 2005 documentary film co-presented by the Silver Screen Society and the Yard this Saturday, June 3, at the Katharine Cornell Theatre.

That intimate, person-to-person connection will provide the jumping-off point for Ms. Taucher's brief talk, when she will trace the lineage of several Yard dancers back to the acclaimed Russian ballet company originated in Paris by Sergei Diaghilev in 1909. The occasion for making the film was a June, 2000 reunion of Ballets Russes dancers.

Directed by Dayna Goldfine and Daniel Geller, "Ballets Russes" is an affectionate and stylishly edited history of the troupe - and in many ways of modern dance itself - told through the recollections of such familiar icons of dance as Mia Slavenska, Alicia Markova, and Maria Tallchief.

Once Diaghilev died in 1929 and the Great Depression plunged the world into economic darkness, this group of Russian émigré dancers was virtually starving. Along came Wasily de Basil and René Blum to save the day by reformulating the original company with George Balanchine as ballet master and choreographer. He chose very young ballerinas, including Irina Baranova, Tamara Toumanova, and Tatia Riabouchinska. None was more than 13 years old, and they became legendary as the "Baby Ballerinas." Soon Messrs. de Basile and Blum parted ways and two companies emerged: the Ballet Russe of Monte Carlo and the Original Ballet Russe.

The film interweaves archival footage of the "Baby Ballerinas" and many other dancers, including Frederic Franklin and Marc Platt, with their modern-day reminiscences. Now in their 70s, 80s, and 90s, these greats of the dance world relish the opportunity to relive the old days. The effect is a lively excursion into dance history that should interest even viewers not steeped in dance.

Many of the ballerinas who started out in the 1920s and 1930s with the two Ballets Russes companies ended up in the U.S. Riabouchinska and Mia Slavinska taught in Los Angeles, and Nathalie Krassovska, who died only last year, directed a ballet school in Dallas, Texas. Mr. Franklin, Ms. Krassovska's dance partner for 20 years, continues to dance and do choreography, as does Mr. Platt.

The competition between the rival companies, the intrigues among the dancers, and their adventures, as played out against the backdrop of world events, keep the audience engaged. Plenty of American history unfolds, too. The African-American dancer Raven Wilkinson made forays into the South and was stalked by Klansmen before she had to leave the company.

Maria Tallchief, who as a Native American girl from Oklahoma became a world-class ballerina, was married to George Ballanchine, but only for a few years. Legendary Hollywood producer Sol Hurok, himself a Ukrainian émigré, pitted the two companies against each other with American tours. Choreographer Agnes de Mille revived a flagging repertoire with new, American-style ballets, and some of the dancers went on to perform in Hollywood movies.

Yvonne Chouteau, one of five Native American dancers who joined the Ballet Russe at 14, traveled alone, unlike the Russians, whose mothers accompanied them. She describes how much she missed her parents and says, "As happy as I was and fulfilled, there is a price to pay."

The real fun for the audience is to watch these old lions recount their days of glory, gossip, and describe their escapades at a time when Matisse and Dali might visit the troupe. Their still-vibrant personalities carry the film and animate the history as effectively as grandparents making the past come alive for their grandchildren. A number of the dancers have died since the film was made, and this fact alone argues for the value of "Ballets Russes" as oral history, as well as entertainment.

"Ballets Russes," Saturday, June 3, 8 pm, Katharine Cornell Theatre, Spring Street, Vineyard Haven. Tickets $6; $4 for members. For information, visit

Brooks Robards is a poet, author, and former college film instructor. She frequently contributes stories on art, film, and poetry to The Times.