Ballets Russes (2005) – Directed by Daniel Geller & Dayna Goldfine
Dancing for Mr. B: Six Balanchine Ballerinas (1989) – Directed by Anne Belle & Deborah Dickson
We live in a world where public libraries are downsizing their performing arts collections and video stores are becoming extinct. Even when video rental institutions were on every corner, they rarely had a good selection of dance films and documentaries. And, unless you live close to a major city, your library may not shelve any scholarly dance titles. We are so lucky to have Netflix. This superior service (still relatively new at thirteen-years-old) gives its subscribers access to newer releases and archival gems. This week I saw one film from each category, Ballets Russes (2005) and Dancing for Mr. B.: Six Balanchine Ballerinas (1989). Both documentaries alternated historical dance excerpts with interview segments, educating the viewer and celebrating dance. The films also moved beyond pure entertainment and challenged two assumptions that I (and others, I'm sure) hold about twentieth century ballet.
Many modern dance biographies and much modern dance theory describe early- to mid-twentieth century ballet as stringent, establishment and unoriginal. Further, this body of scholarship suggests that ballet's rigidity motivated choreographers and dancers to explore freer movement, which in turn, led to the creation of modern dance. Ballets Russes rightly contradicts this thesis, by illustrating the depth of inventiveness that existed in mid-twentieth century ballet. The Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, under the direction of Leonide Massine, performed works that confronted choreographic boundaries, introduced new relationships between music and dance, proposed a more prominent role for the male dancer (beyond the pas de deux) and incorporated costume and set design by distinguished up-and-coming artists. Ballets Russes tells the story of a company that constantly pushed the envelope and by doing so, reached new pinnacles in dance. Some of the excerpts (in particular Massine's Rouge et Noir) were far riskier than today's modern dance.
The Balanchine ballerina is another topic very prominent in dance discourse – a "type" that George Balanchine felt best suited his technique (small head, short torso, long neck and limbs). We hear a lot about this "type" and know that the female dancers in his company did in fact, share many of these physical attributes. But, what we don't hear enough of is the vast degree of individualism that also existed amongst his dancers. The common denominator for the six women in Dancing for Mr. B was that they all danced for Balanchine. But as you listened to them and watched clips of their dancing, their individuality was as compelling as Balanchine's technique and choreography. And, it seems that their unique qualities (style, artistry and personality) were encouraged: the gentle, extra extension of Maria Tallchief's hands; the 'ta-da' flourish present at the end of Melissa Hayden's solo variations; Allegra Kent's fragile, almost translucent innocence; the clear, crisp speed of the very tall Merrill Ashley. They were not cookie-cutter imitations of each other. Dancing for Mr. B taught me that a Balanchine ballerina was and is much more than a particular body type capable of a perfect tendu.
I am fickle when it comes to dance on film; I still can't decide if I like it or not. When dance is made for film, the choreography seems somewhat contrived and limited. Some movements may be avoided or omitted because the camera cannot capture them adequately. When dance is simply being filmed (not specifically made for film), the viewer is at the mercy of the camera-operator. They are deciding what you see and how you see it. In both circumstances, the scope of the work is being controlled. At the same time, dance on film allows you the rare opportunity to re-watch material as many times as you want or need. Dance onstage is impermanent and no two performances (even with the same casting) are ever really the same. So, if you need to see something again exactly how you saw it before, dance on film is perhaps the only way to go. I was glad to have that option while watching both Ballets Russes and Dancing for Mr. B: Six Balanchine Ballerinas. Being able to rewind was incredibly helpful. Though, does this positive benefit of dance on film outweigh the negative implications? I still don't know.