George Balanchine is like ballet royalty. Mention his name to any dance buff, and they’re likely to spout off about the New York City Ballet, the musicality and complexity of his choreography, or perhaps — if they’re a Chautauquan — his influence on Chautauqua’s own School of Dance. Yet those very same people probably wouldn’t be able to detail the Balanchine that came before all the fame and success.
Balanchine’s story is one of several which will be unraveled at today’s Chautauqua Dance Circle lecture, titled “Ballet Russes and the Birth of Modern Ballet,” at 3:30 p.m. in the Hall of Christ. Jim Dakin, treasurer of the CDC, will present the 2005 film “Ballet Russes,” which provides an account of several influential dance companies and key players from ballet history. Today, it will attempt to breathe life and historical accuracy back into dance figures and troupes who may have been embellished or forgotten over the years.
“In the U.S., when we think about Balanchine, we think about NYCB and everything that came after,” Dakin said. “But we don’t appreciate or understand his earlier connections here. And while Balanchine is the one we always hear about — since he came to the U.S. — it was really Diaghilev who started it all.”
Sergei Diaghilev, Russian by birth, founded a Parisian ballet company in 1909 called Ballet Russe. The company ultimately went bankrupt after Diaghilev’s death in 1929, but the company’s demise is only the film’s beginning. “Ballet Russes” tells the tale of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, a company that cropped up not long after the Parisian group’s decline, which included in its cast ballet giants such as Balanchine and Léonide Massine. The BRMC was a traveling company, and through its journeys to the United States, became the first troupe to bring world class dance to New York City, Dakin said.
Also featured in today’s film is the Original Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, another ballet company that was born from Ballet Russe’s ashes. Unlike the BRMC, however, the OBRMC did not have a contract to perform shows in the United States. As a result, the company ended up touring Australia in the early 1900s and then, due to the outbreak of World War II, fled to Latin America until its ultimate collapse in 1948.
While all these names and companies may sound isolated and disconnected, the truth is that, historically, they were inseparably tangled and twisted together. Dakin said the true beauty of “Ballet Russes” is its ability to show how all the puzzle pieces fit together.
“It’s amazing how connected all this stuff is,” he said. “And what’s amazing is that this is all true. If you were a fiction writer, you couldn’t make this up. I want people to understand these connections and the epic proportions of this story. Think about it: it plays out over a century, on five continents — Asia, Europe, Australia, North America, South America — and over a few different wars. And it’s all connected.”
The weaving and interlocking of the movie’s subjects is truly brought together in the last scene, which Dakin calls a “happy ending.” Documented in the year 2000, the film includes a real-life reunion of all its stars.
“The ending is really beautiful, because when they had this reunion most of these people were still alive, and still friends, even though they’d all gone different ways,” Dakin said. “They’re in their 90s and they’re all over the world, with ballet schools and different lives.”
Dakin will open this afternoon’s lecture by giving audience members a brief introduction to the film, before premiering roughly the first half of the movie — with a nearly two-hour run time, the film is too long to be played in its entirety during the CDC’s allotted lecture timeframe.
But this doesn’t mean the audience will be left hanging. Dakin plans to briefly fill in the missing holes with lecture notes and a timeline before cutting to the last scene and letting the film — and the audience — have its happy ending.