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World, meet ballet

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By Kelly LeVan

Never heard of the Ballets Russes? Lonide Massine? Bronislava Njinska? Alexandra Danilova? Alicia Markova?Unless you are a dancer, chances are you haven’t. The choreographers and prima ballerinas – legends in the ballet world – are not exactly household names in 21st century America.However, in the 1940s, they were stars.Dayna Goldfine and Dan Geller’s “Ballets Russes” (2005), screening at 7 p.m. Thursday at the UNM-LA Student Center, travels back in time to a period when ballet companies, stranded by the war, created unparalleled excitement in small-town America.People queued around the block to see the newest ballet by Massine, especially his symphonic ballets. His “Les Prsages,” set to Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5, was the first-ever ballet choreographed to a symphony, and while the critics found the idea impure and appalling, audiences loved the result.Fans also adored individual ballerinas much the way we do film actors today. For instance, audiences often applauded the minute Danilova entered the stage, before she’d even begun to dance.“Ballets Russes” traces the history of the Russian troupes from the first Ballets Russes established by Serge Diaghilev in 1909 through the two main off-shoots: the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and the Original Ballet Russe.The politics surrounding the break into two companies are fascinating, as are the effects of World War II on dance.With most of Europe under siege, dancers fled to whatever stages they could find. The Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo was a smash hit in the United States, collaborating with such artists as Henri Matisse and Salvador Dali to create some of the most imaginative sets and costumes ever paired with ballet.“Gaite Parisienne,” famous to this day for its can-can number, never failed to draw huge crowds, even years after its premier.The Original Ballet Russe found success in Australia – where the enthusiasm generated by its performances spurred Sydney and Melbourne to develop into dance centers. The group also toured Latin America, bringing dance to yet another region of the world for the first time.Not only did the war indirectly bring high-quality ballet around the globe, it also brought diversity to the dance troupes. Americans, Native Americans, African Americans and South Americans joined the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and the Original Ballet Russe during the war years, diversifying the companies and proving once and for all that Europe was not the only place to find great dancing talents.“Ballets Russes” showcases photographs and video footage from the heyday of the Ballets Russes, as well as present-day interviews and film shot at a Ballets Russes reunion. The camera catches the three Russian “baby ballerinas,” so named because they were in their early teens when they joined the company. It also finds many of the non-European dancers who joined during the 1940s and ’50s.To hear the stories of the Ballets Russes told from the dancers themselves is almost magical. Their eyes all say the same thing: “Those were the best days of my life.”As Alan Howard, lead dancer with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo from 1949-1960, said about standing in the blue haze onstage in “Swan Lake,” It was the most fulfilling time ee even just standing there in the music and the lights.”The Los Alamos Arts Council’s Film Society and the University of New Mexico – Los Alamos will co-sponsor the upcoming film. Admission is $5 or $3 with a UNM-LA student ID.