The one-man dance factory

The NFT unearths some rare film footage to celebrate the work of Sergei Diaghilev
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The Independent Culture

There's a paradox to the National Film Theatre's Diaghilev season. The great Russian impresario, who died 75 years ago this month, distrusted film. Diaghilev brought dancers such as Nijinsky and Pavlova to the West; he commissioned scores from, among others, Stravinsky, Ravel, Debussy; his company's ballets had designs by Bakst, Picasso and Matisse. But none of it was filmed. There was even a standard clause in his dancers' contracts, insisting they wouldn't appear on screen.

There's a paradox to the National Film Theatre's Diaghilev season. The great Russian impresario, who died 75 years ago this month, distrusted film. Diaghilev brought dancers such as Nijinsky and Pavlova to the West; he commissioned scores from, among others, Stravinsky, Ravel, Debussy; his company's ballets had designs by Bakst, Picasso and Matisse. But none of it was filmed. There was even a standard clause in his dancers' contracts, insisting they wouldn't appear on screen.

"He worried that, without the music, the dance wouldn't come across," says Jane Pritchard, the curator of the NFT's season. In 1921, Diaghilev considered filming The Sleeping Princess - in colour, with a synchronised soundtrack. Sound film was still an experiment - the first Holly-wood talkie was six years away - and this ambitious project fell through. Diaghilev died in 1929, just as sound film came in.

Some dancers were filmed, between contracts or after leaving the Ballets Russes. Three of his stars were making a movie when they heard of his death. Dark Red Roses, one of the earliest British talkies, featured the choreographer Balanchine and the dancers Lydia Lopokova and Anton Dolin. It was lost for years, and now the NFT will be showing it on 19 August, the anniversary of Diaghilev's death.

There's plenty of later film, too. The NFT season includes complete recordings of the Royal Ballet in Petroushka and Les Noces, and Balanchine's New York City Ballet in Apollo, with Stravinsky conducting his score. Pritchard has filled up pro- grammes with shorter dance sequences, many made for television and rarely shown again.

There are documentaries, including John Drummond's two-part Omnibus programme, made in 1968. "It was groundbreaking, incredibly important," says Pritchard. Drummond avoided reconstructions of Diaghilev ballets, instead showing interviews with dancers and collaborators. "Thank heaven somebody got that first-hand information," says Pritchard. "Seeing the people, hearing the voices - nothing can replace it."

This year is a triple anniversary, as it is also 100 years since the births of George Balanchine and Anton Dolin. Pritchard has concentrated on Balanchine's later work with the ballerina Violette Verdy. "We weren't restricted to the Ballets Russes material. We wanted to show what people went on to do after Diaghilev." The NFT will also show a documentary about Dolin, and one by him. The Sleeping Ballerina is about another Diaghilev star, Olga Spessivtseva.

"Diaghilev's death began a new phase in ballet," says Pritchard. After 1929, Diaghilev's dancers and choreographers went on to found other companies around the world. "Celebrating Balanchine and Dolin gives a sense of the afterlife, of Diaghilev's lasting influence."

More Than Ballet: Diaghilev, Balanchine & Dolin, National Film Theatre, London SE1 (020-7928 3232; www.bfi.org.uk/showing/nft/) Wednesday to 24 August

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