Little girls still take ballet classes, ballet companies still exist in major cities, and touring troupes still bring the ballet to smaller cultural centers, but the art form doesn't have anywhere near the following it did in the early to mid-20th century, when two groups bearing the name "Ballet Russe" competed for attention around the world. Daniel Geller and Dayna Goldfine's documentary Ballets Russes tells the dueling companies' whole complicated story, starting with the foundation of the Ballets Russes in 1909 by Sergei Diaghilev, a mad genius with a flair for abstract design and a drive to push dance beyond its formal limitations, with the help of modernist classical composers like Igor Stravinsky. In its heyday, the Ballets Russes emphasized the full range of emotions capable of being expressed by the human body, from eroticism to mourning to simple dignity.
After Diaghilev died, the array of talented dancers, apprentice choreographers, and set designers he assembled bickered over the rights to the name, and at various times, the likes of George Balanchine and Leonide Massine led rival versions of the Ballets Russes on simultaneous tours of Europe and America. The bulk of Geller and Goldfine's documentarywhich relies heavily on interviews with surviving participants of the scattered balletsdeals with the controversy, the successes, and the strange insular culture of the Ballets Russes. New recruits were often given fake Russian names and referred to as "baby ballerinas," and fans soon grew to know who was who, and debated the merits of their dancing styles.
One of Ballets Russes' weaknesses is its failure to delve deeply enough into the differences between those styles, and what the art of dance really is. Geller and Goldfine make a few valiant attempts to break it down, but the archival footage they have to work with is stiffly shot and not illustrative enough. The other major weakness is that while the history of the Ballets Russes shadows World Wars, economic depressions, and multiple civil-rights movements, the documentary gets so wrapped up in interpersonal intrigue that it finds only a moment to cover the times. (The troubles faced by Raven Wilkinson, a black dancer whose life was threatened when the troupe toured the American South, deserve a film all their own.) Nevertheless, Geller and Goldfine have assembled a vital historical document, covering a cultural era now mostly lost, corrupted imperceptibly but permanently when fledgling ballerinas started dreaming about Broadway and Hollywood instead of Swan Lake.