Grade: B+

Even viewers for whom ballet remains a form of artistic expression they can do without will find this documentary by Dayna Goldfine and Dan Geller not only consistently engrossing but genuinely engaging, if technically conventional. It tells the tale of the dance company that sprang up at Monte Carlo in 1932 as a successor to the famous Ballets Russes that impresario Serge Diaghilev had established in Paris in 1909 and overseen until his death in 1929, and that split up into two competing corps, one of which disbanded in 1947 and the other in 1962. Made in conjunction with a reunion of performers from the companies–men and women in their seventies, eighties and even nineties–who reminiscence about their careers, and featuring an amazing variety and volume of historical footage, still photos and newspaper accounts, the film lovingly captures both the brilliance and the turmoil of more than three decades of dance and the literally indomitable spirit of those directly involved in it.

The story is fascinating not only because of the level of accomplishment under often difficult circumstances (World War II and the unfamiliarity of ballet among some audiences–particularly in the American hinterlands–where the troupes toured during it) and the range of places involved (including Australia and Latin America as well as Europe), but also by reason of the professional rivalry the story reveals. The Monte Carlo Ballet Russes came into being as the joint project of Wassily de Basil and Rene Blum, who hired many of the emigres and other artists Diaghilev had employed to such stunning effect, but new talents as well. (Some of the most entrancing moments involve the trio of so-called “baby ballerinas” that captivated audiences with both their youth and their dexterity.) But by the late 1930s it had split into two separate troupes, each boasting an amazing choreographer–George Balanchine on the one hand and Leonide Massine on the other–and during the 1940s, the troupes both had to improvise in order to stay afloat, whistle-stop touring, vaudeville style, in the U.S., in some cases taking gigs in Hollywood, and traveling to such unlikely locales as Sydney and Buenos Aires. Questions of race also enter into the picture when one troupe touring in the American south features an African-American dancer; and Native American ballerinas are also profiled. The reaction of the Russians to the work of American composers and choreographers like Agnes De Mille is also touched upon.

In fact, it’s amazing how many points–not merely artistic and professional but also personal, historical and sociological–are covered, if only in a glancing fashion, in the course of the picture. That’s a testimony to the makers’ indefatigable tracking down of obscure footage, stills and interviews, and also to the spryness and still-vivid personalities of the elderly survivors of the troupes, who are remarkably candid and articulate in their recollections. Special praise has to be given to the editing of Geller, Goldfine and Gary Weimberg, who knead all the material together with wonderful crispness and impact.

“Ballets Russes” begins by emphasizing the transitory character of dance which, like theatrical performances, exists but for a brief instant, surviving only in the memory of those who have personally witnessed it. Thanks to Goldfine and Geller, however, we’re all privileged to experience, if only at second remove and through an imperfect means, the glories that these artists created over three and a half decades long ago. Bravo!