Ballets Russes: Dances with legends

A new film document the history of Ballet Russes, bringing together the original stars
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"Your knees will have to be stretched" - with these alarming words began Tamara Tchinarova's career with the Ballets Russes. Plucked at the age of 12 from her ballet class by the celebrated choreographer George Balanchine, Tchinarova performed in the first season of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo in 1932. Alongside her classmates at Olga Preobrazhenskaya's Parisian studio, the famous trio of "baby ballerinas", Irina Baronova, Tatiana Riabouchinska and Tamara Toumanova, who danced their first solos aged 13, Tchinarova became part of the group of sprightly young "Russians who never danced in Russia".

Her story and that of 20 other dancers from the various troupes of the Ballets Russes empire which thrilled audiences for the first half of the 20th century is told in a new film, Ballets Russes. In 2000 the Emmy-award winning film-makers Dan Geller and Dayna Goldfine were invited to attend the first official reunion of Ballets Russes dancers in New Orleans. It was billed as a "once-in-a-lifetime" gathering of alumni of varying agility and ages ranging from 70 to 90, many of whom had not seen their fellow dancers for 40 years.

There the directors came across an impressive cast - Mia Slavenska, resplendent and ever-so-slightly cantankerous in her wheelchair, looking critically at photographs of her four-year-old self ("Look at that instep!"); a coquettish, 82-year-old Nathalie Krassovska attempting to persuade fellow octogenarian George Zoritch, who still pumps iron at the gym, to dance the coy first encounter of Giselle and Count Albrecht; a starry-eyed, elegant Alicia Markova; and a spry, gossipy Frederic Franklin to name but a few.

Geller and Goldfine were captivated by these characters, who had dedicated their lives to dance. Franklin tells me: "When I was four I was taken to the theatre to see Peter Pan and I was so entranced. I came home, jumped off the bed, hoped I would fly - that sort of thing. I saw the Diaghilev ballet in Liverpool - that's where I saw Danilova and at the age of 15, fell madly in love with her." Many are still dancing - some as teachers (as Marc Platt admits sheepishly, "A plié hurts. And a pas de Basque would kill me."), others as performers. Franklin, now 91, tells me proudly that he has "quite a repertoire" at the American Ballet Theatre as "the Friar in Romeo and Juliet, the tutor in Swan Lake and the Charlatan in Petrushka." His secret? "I eat properly and I have a glass of wine and a little vodka every night. I don't exercise, I walk a lot." As Riabouchinska retorts when asked why she still teaches, "What else would I do? Sell fruit?"

The extraordinary film splices interviews with the surviving dancers with original 16mm footage of performances and nervous, gossipy backstage moments and more than 400 archive stills, gathered from the dancers' private collections and from trawls on eBay, which produced every Ballets Russes programme from 1933-62.

In dance circles, the Ballets Russes are synonymous with the sleek Russian impresario Sergei Diaghilev, who first revealed his extraordinary vision of dance - with the help of designers, Picasso and Matisse, the composer Stravinsky and dancers and choreographers including Balanchine and Nijinsky - to Paris in 1909. When Diaghilev died in 1929, many considered that the Ballets Russes would die with him. But two years later Vassily de Basil and René Blum decided to resurrect the name.

De Basil's Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo (as it was now known) hired Balanchine and Leonid Massine as choreographers and the three "baby ballerinas" as soloists. Massine later left to set up a rival company, leaving de Basil to rename his company The Original Ballet Russe. Massine succeeded in poaching Alicia Markova and Frederic Franklin as his star performers from the London-based Markova-Dolin ballet in 1937.

Franklin was plunged in at the deep end, partnering the established Alexandra Danilova. "She put me through the ropes, believe you me. She asked me 'Young man, how old are you?' I said, 'Mme Danilova, I'm 23 years old.' She said 'Hmm, when you are 30, we'll talk.' They went on to enjoy a 20-year partnership on stage, but Franklin explains that the feather-light jumps and lifts of the ballerinas came at a price to their male partners. Markova - in the archive footage wispy and ethereal - was apparently a "featherweight who weighed a ton".

The two companies were closely intertwined rivals, swapping dancers and choreographers with confusing regularity. In 1938, they were playing in neighbouring theatres in Covent Garden and Drury Lane and ballet enthusiasts would trek between the two on the same night. As both companies fled Europe during the war, they found themselves on the same boat to America and they toured the States tirelessly throughout the 1930s and 1940s.

In America, new recruits included Yvonne Chouteau, one of five American Indians who joined the companies; Raven Wilkinson, who became in 1954 the first African American woman hired as a permanent member of a major ballet company and who was later forced to retire when the Ku-Klux-Klan invaded the stage in Alabama; and Yvonne Craig who later became Batgirl in the Batman television series. By the end of the 1950s, despite their enormous popularity, the companies were past their heyday and finances were low. They had their last performance in Brooklyn in 1962.

Ballets Russes captures a magical period in dance, where everything seemed possible and the studios were overflowing with talent. Franklin wistfully sums up the unique moment in the history of dance: "Dancing today is so very different from the way we danced - for the men it's much more athletic. But I think that what we had was a little more soul."

'Ballets Russes' is released on 21 April. Charity premiere in aid of ChildAid to Russia and the Republics, Curzon Soho, Shaftesbury Avenue, London W1, 20 April (tickets: 020-8460 6046;