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Originally published Friday, November 18, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Movie Review

Eternal artists: the dawn and twilight of ballet greats

Two dancers, a man and a woman, demonstrate a scene from the classic ballet "Giselle" and create a little bit of magic within the walls...

Seattle Times movie critic

Two dancers, a man and a woman, demonstrate a scene from the classic ballet "Giselle" and create a little bit of magic within the walls of an unremarkable studio, as dancers so often do: She, smiling girlishly, floats a hand to her hair; he stands above her, extending a strong arm, catching her eye. A photo shows us this same couple, performing the dance in earlier days: They look very young, quite beautiful and a little wistful.

It is 2000, and that scene in the studio is taking place at the first official reunion of the Ballets Russes. The dancers, Nathalie Krassovska and George Zoritch, are well into their 80s. They, along with many of their former colleagues in the company that reached its heyday in the '30s and '40s, still dance, still teach, still find magic in the arc of an arm or the tilt of a head. Dance is perhaps the most ephemeral of the arts, but these people have found a way to grasp hold of it, to make time stand still for just a moment.

"Ballets Russes," a marvelous and often quite moving documentary by Dayna Goldfine and Dan Geller, can be experienced two different ways. Dance fans will be dazzled by its treasure trove of archival dance footage. But those who know little of ballet will find plenty here to feed the soul, in the film's rich portraits of men and women nearing the end of a life lived in the arts.

Movie review 4 stars


Showtimes and trailer

"Ballets Russes," a documentary by Dayna Goldfine and Dan Geller. 118 minutes. Not rated; for mature audiences. Harvard Exit.

There's a just-in-time sense to this documentary, as if Goldfine and Geller seized the moment quickly, before these people slipped away. The end credits list several dancers in the film who died before its completion. Among them is Krassovska, and the loss is a sad surprise — she's a vivid, lovely presence in the film. She, like many others profiled, continued to teach ballet until her last days. Tatiana Riabouchinska, who died in 2000, laughs as she remembers people asking why she still taught. "What would I do?" she asks rhetorically. "Sell books? Sell fruit?"

The film presents a brief, clear chronology of the complex history of the Ballets Russes, which began life in early-1900s Paris, founded by the Russian ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev. The company quickly became world-renowned, boasting dancers such as Vaslav Nijinsky and Anna Pavlova and world premieres of works such as "The Firebird." Upon Diaghilev's death in 1929, however, the film's narrator, Marian Seldes, notes that "there were those who believed that with him died ballet."

From the ashes of the first Ballets Russes, however, came a second company, the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, and a third, the Original Ballet Russe. Its international troupes of dancers tirelessly toured the world, creating an audience for dance and inspiring generations of young dancers.

Among the many interviewed for the film are Seattle native Marc Platt, one of the first Americans to join the company; Raven Wilkinson, the first African-American woman to dance with a major ballet company; Frederic Franklin, who at 90 still travels the world staging Ballets Russes choreography; and Dame Alicia Markova, the last surviving member of Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, who died in 2004.

"Ballets Russes" presents numerous snippets of choreography, from the likes of Léonide Massine and George Balanchine, much of it shot casually from the wings. These wispy bits of celluloid, with their scratches and cobwebs, document dance history.

This film is a gift to all who love dance, and to all who will dance in the future.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

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