September 08, 2005

TIFF Day 1: The Ballet Russe

From the festival schedule: the Baby Ballerinas


Last night, the first of the festival, was very busy indeed. Not so much from having a lot to do; there were just a lot of people. I ran around with my friend Dani downing copious amounts of very sweet/gross corn chowder, latkas, cake and candied ginger, only to learn that after my many years of festival going, I still don't really know how things work. Too much mayhem! But that's one of the reasons I like it. Jenny met us in the rush line and there we ran into my puppeteer friend Michelle. Our only film of the evening was The Ballet Russe, from the USA, directed by Dan Geller and Dayna Goldfine, and thankfully, we got in.

The Ballet Russe chronicles the rise and fall of one of the most popular, influential, innovative ballet companies in the world. The filmmakers very carefully balance the mix of photographs, interviews and archival footage to craft a story not only about the history of a company, but about the vibrant personalities and relationships that helped sustain and elevate it. This is the film's great strength; it tells these stories in tandem, so that as you're watching history unfold, you're also identifying with the dancers as more than bodies on the stage, pawns in a dry chronology. No, instead you understand them as people and friends; as clueless children, hopeful teens, passionate adults and wizened, energetic seniors. They reminisce with warmth and charm and humour and much much joy. Most, though over the age of 80, are still active in the world of professional ballet today, teaching, speaking, choreographing, archiving, and yes, still performing, to extend the life of this company far beyond its time. It's an engaging meditation on something ephemeral but not yet lost, about aging, circumstance and the subsequent way we adapt our passions.

But for me, most striking was something to do with the company itself. Throughout its long history, its greatest successes were due to its quality, originality and bravery. This was an avant garde company. They worked with artists like Matisse, Picasso and Dali, composers Ravel and Stravinsky, not to mention choreographers like Leonide Massine and George Balanchine. Massine's Seventh Symphony was as critically recieved as Walt's Fantasia or Sargent's Madame X; why? because he combined symphonic music with ballet! So much that we take for granted today was revolutionary and courageous in its time. The long success of the Ballet Russe rode on their ability to innovate through storytelling-telling different types of stories, and telling them in different ways; they are a good example of the power of unmitigated creativity, well directed. The film ends with Stravinsky's rousing Firebird Suite, which of course reminded me of Fantasia 2000. I remember, before it came out, saying to a friend that it was going to be the best thing ever! Well, maybe it wasn't quite, but I do admire their efforts. It truly was a continuation of the orignal: expirimenting, tirelessly rising, every film in anticipation of the next.

The Ballet Russe plays again tomorrow at 3:15, and opens wide... soon.

In line at the mouth of a parking garage, the Varsity theatres