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Hearty documentary strangely mum on Ballets Russes’ famed queer history

A robust outpouring of haute-culture gloss, the documentary “Ballets Russes” essays nothing short of a history of the 20th century as told by the assorted dance troupes that performed under the durable Ballets Russes brand. Warming up Film Forum through November 8 as the chill settles outside, the lively documentary is a seamlessly constructed interviews-plus-archive affair, engineered for posterity and good vibrations.

“Ballets Russes” usefully renovates a neglected eminence, chronicling the company’s history from its origins in 1909 as the inspiration of Sergei Diaghilev, the polymath Russian expatriate. Diaghilev’s Ballet Russe drew such lights as Matisse, Picasso, and Stravinsky into orbit around the nucleus of choreographers Mikhail Fokine, Léonide Massine, and, above all, dancer Vaslav Nijinksy, former darling of the Imperial Russian Ballet.

Dissolved in 1929 after Diaghilev’s premature death, the Ballet Russe mantle would be contested by two rival enterprises during the 1930s. Company members initially regrouped under Colonel Wassily de Basil, who hired George Balanchine as choreographer and introduced the popular, prepubescent “baby ballerinas”—Irina Baronova, Tamara Toumanova, and Tatiana Riabouchinska.

The drama begins in earnest when, in 1937, Léonide Massine led a breakaway faction that formed the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, backed by financiers Julius Fleischmann and Sergei Denham. De Basil retaliated by renaming his outfit the Original Ballet Russe. The companies’ long-running competition, with the ascendant popularity of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and the inexorable decline of the Original Ballet Russe, interlaced with a skein of personal intrigues and diva theatrics, provides surefire material.

The highly wrought, relentlessly chronological script—narrated with rapier diction by stage legend Marian Seldes, whose debut was actually in the American Ballet Theater corps—manages the feat of compressing an 80-year international history related by nearly two dozen characters into exactly two vacuum-packed hours. The filmmakers keep everything moving at the unflagging clip favored by television, and mold the narrative strands toward a suitably bittersweet yet solidly upbeat climax.

Bay Area documentary stalwarts Dayna Goldfine and Dan Geller, known for their Emmy-Award winning “Kids of Survival: The Art and Life of Tim Rollins + K.O.S.,” were wooed aboard the project by producer Bob Hawk, the queer impresario who’s godfathered countless indie neophytes. Once the skeptical, previously dance-challenged Goldfine and Geller met the now-aged ballet alumni, they were converts in a New York minute, as the viewer may expect to be, too. The film’s large cohort of wizened yet sharp and almost ridiculously vivacious oldsters—several of whom continue teaching dance today, in their 70s and 80s—captivate us with saucy anecdotes and undimmed charisma.

“Ballets Russes” wallows shamelessly in the cozies. Iconoclasts and barricade-jumpers must seek other outlets, as Goldfine and Geller cleave a course no less enjoyable for being determinedly mainstream, even square. For most of its two hours, the film feels as comfortable as a goose-down duvet, not necessarily a drawback although it’s as if too much license with form might have seemed indecorous for these dignified prima ballerinas and premier danseurs, somewhat ironic given the role of avant-garde heavyweight Nathaniel Dorsky as a consulting editor.

The film’s formal conservatism gives cause to consider its underwriting by the National Endowment for the Arts, which in 2002 granted $40,000 to Goldfine and Geller. “Ballets Russes” opens in theaters just as Congress reconvenes in Washington to a renewed assault on precisely such federal agencies as the NEA, its sister the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, reviled for decades by religious conservatives and their Republican centurions as, at best, elite tribunes of secular liberalism, and at worst, apostate peddlers of tree-worshipping, lesbian-affirming, Christian-mocking depravity.

Republicans in Congress are now attempting to exploit the economic fallout of the Katrina/Rita hurricane disasters as a pretext for assailing longstanding conservative targets. Not only the cultural institutions the NEA, NEH, and CPB, but also dozens of other necessary public programs odious to the hard-right fringe are under fire, framed as indefensible big-government profligacy in a period of national emergency.

Exhibit A is “Operation Offset,” a proposal uncloaked on September 21 by the Republican Study Committee, helmed by Representatives Mike Pence of Indiana and Jeb Hensarling of Texas. Organized into such sections as “Tough Choices in Tough Times” and “Containing the Federal Bureaucracy,” this draconian plan calls not only for the outright elimination of the NEA, NEH, and federal funding for CPB, but also economic development and job-growth programs, environmental protections, and the adolescent portion of Title X family planning monies in the bargain.

Against this background, it’s instructive to note the ways in which “Ballets Russes” problematizes the official cultural history from the perspective of the present, and the ways it does not. Consider the film’s treatment of racial difference, focused on the still-radiant Raven Wilkinson, who became the first African-American woman member of a major ballet company, and the Native-American prodigies Yvonne Chouteau and Maria Tallchief. Geller and Goldfine devote a segment to Wilkinson’s confrontation with white racism during the Southern circuit of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo’s annual U.S. tours, eventually forcing her resignation.

Why, then, does the liberal, well-intentioned “Ballets Russes” build a very démodé closet around this company’s famously queer character? The original Ballet Russe was queer in its very conception—not only did that flaming homo Diaghilev devise it as a vehicle for then 19-year-old Nijinksy, with whom he was ardently in love, but for the five years of their relationship they were perhaps the most celebrated openly gay couple on the continent.

None of this warrants mention in “Ballets Russes.” The film clucks over Tallchief’s erotic apprenticeship with Balanchine, and Yvonne Chouteau and Miguel Terekhov are among the elderly ballet alums seen facing their twilight years together. Yet no same-sex companions, living or deceased, are ever hinted at. The compensatory, not to say token, overtly gay subject among the dancers is the innovative art-porn auteur Wakefield Poole, who performed as a corps member in the company’s later incarnation.

The valuable “Ballets Russes” deserves to be seen for its reminder of the company’s decisive contribution to mid-century America’s cultural landscape—influencing musical theater and film besides popular dance—and its warm evocation of lives lived vitally and fully within the arts. It would have been more valuable still had it accurately conveyed the company’s uniquely progressive queer reality.

In the event, however, the present threat to federal arts funding under the Republican majority—increasingly desperate to enact what’s left of their “mandate” before their rotten edifice topples—haunts the film’s silence on sexual difference with the faint specter of self-censorship.

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Updated 5:17 pm, July 20, 2018
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