For my final paper, I chose to watch the documentary Ballets Russes. This documentary recalls the history of the legendary dance troupe Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. The documentary includes in depth interviews with many of the original members of Ballet Russe of Monte Carlo dance troupe. Through analysis of these in depth interviews, I was able to observe many aspects of the ballet culture. Such aspects include things such as social roles, language, authority, expressive culture, as well as the struggle for power. Before watching this documentary, I had no experience whatsoever with the ballet culture.
I feel that my lack of knowledge and experience with the culture will ensure that my observations and determinations will be solely based on the documentary Ballets Russes. This will be a pure etic observation of the ballet culture. This documentary was not shot in one particular spot, rather, it switched between the homes of the former ballet members as well as several different dance studios. The documentary also featured previously recorded films of the original ballet performances. Much of the infrastructures can be seen through these historic clips.
These infrastructures included buildings such as the theatres the ballet troupes performed in. Mentioned in the film were the Royal Opera House Concert Gardens and Drury Lane Theatre both located in London; as well as the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City. Many of the former stars filmed their recollection of events, usually shot in what I would assume to be their homes. Their homes appeared to be very nicely decorated, with a baby grand piano located in one of the homes. The Ballet Russe Company brought high standards not only to the techniques of the dancers in a specific dance, but also to the detail they put into decorating heir sets as well as costumes. Not only did they bring that high standard to every performance, but many believe that they were the first ballet company to start the trend of bringing those high standards to every performance. Their companies hired some of the best and most well known artists of their time to design their sets, such as Picasso, as well as to design their costumes, such as Chanel. This type of trendsetting was not only confined to the decoration of the set and costumes, but also music used during the ballet performances.
All of the music heard throughout the performances was symphonic music, music produced by artists such as Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky, or Petrushka. Although this form of music was well liked by the public, it still stirred controversy within the critic’s community. One specific instance would be Petrushka’s work “The Rite of Spring” playing during one of the ballet performances. This song was regarded as having willful rhythms and aggressive dynamics, which was apparently not a good thing back then in the ballet world.
Because of so much negative feedback, it had to be cut after just a few performances. There is also quite a bit of technology displayed within the documentary. Because this is a documentary that includes some modern day recollection of events, as well as many of the original film clips of the dance company, there are two distinct eras of technology. I was able to observe one unique aspect through the observance of the short, previously recorded clips of the ballet performances; all of the clips appear to be in black and white.
During the original days of their performances after the two ballet companies, the Original Ballet Russe and the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, were forced to retreat to the United States during the war riveted times of the Hitler regime. They were able to make the trip through the use of rather unsteady boat. The trip was an uneasy one due to the fact that half way through the trip, the dancers described the boat as rocking back and forth making some of their fellow dancers sea sick. Not to mention the fact that their choreographers made them practice their routines through all of the commotion going on with the movements of the boat.
One described the difficulty of jumping up in the air because they never knew where the boat was positioned. Sometimes the rocking of the boat made them jump too high, and sometimes the jump was met by the floor too quickly. There were also two other means of transportation used after making their way back on land. After they arrived in the United States, one of the dancers mentioned that they were packed into the ever so popular taxi cabs of New York City. Through the use of the taxis, they were able to be transported between the different performances as well as their hotel rooms.
The two dance companies were also transported around the United States with the use of a locomotive. As described by another one of the former dancers, the trains had many of the modern day, popular amenities such as sleeper cars as well as separate diner cars. On the stage of the theatres where they performed their ballet numbers, I noticed what seemed to be a small and seemingly insignificant piece of technology- the stage lights used to illuminate the dancers. These lights were used in many different ways. It was used to match the many different emotions being portrayed by the dancers.
The lights for example could have also been used to create drama when combined with the style of music, costumes, as well as backdrop. Without the use of these lights, the audience would not have been able to see the dancers. In my opinion this was a very important piece of technology. The second part of the documentary provided many examples of modern day technology. The cameras used to recall the stories of the former dancers differed from that of the original film clips in the fact that all of these film clips were all shot in color.
One of the former dancers was seen getting into her late modeled fiery red car. Later when all the surviving members met in 2004, they were seen getting off of a commercial airplane. There was nothing really said about food throughout the documentary, although I was able to document the few that were mention. The first time food was mentioned, it was with one of the male dancers describing their trip to South America during the war. He explained that there were only a very few amounts of food they were really able to eat during that time. One such item he described was bread covered with butter and sugar on top.
This food he went on to say was eaten for both breakfast as well as lunch. Another instance where food was mentioned was when they were recalling the appetite of their choreographer Massine. Massine would ask his chef who is also his driver to cook him some Russian cutlets. A Russian cutlet is a fried slice of meat, usually pork or beef, beaten flat with a tenderizing hammer or knife handle and covered with dough or breadcrumbs. The fumes of this lovely cuisine would typically find its way to the studio where the dancers were practicing, as described by one of the dancers.
The final time food was mentioned in the documentary must have been some time in the later years of the ballet company’s history. When Balanchine, one of the choreographers for the company, was married to one of the company’s dancers, Tallenchief, they would go out to a restaurant after their performances. At the restaurant it was said that the dancers as well as Balanchine would eat spaghetti, but the only thing that Tallenchief could eat was the little apple that Balanchine left for her. This is the only time where any sort of dieting used to keep the dancers in shape.
He did this to ensure that his little project dancer, and wife, did not gain any weight. It was said in the documentary that the dancers were typically paid very little, and there is no record of any of them saying that they had to pay for any of these things out of pocket. So I would assume that the way the paid for all of these things was through their dancing. With most of the dancers coming from some sort of a Russian background, it wasn’t unusual for much of their speech in the documentary to spoken with a rather strong Russian accent.
Although most was spoken in English, there were some instances where it two of the dancers were in the same room together and they both spoke the same native tongue, then they would communicate to each other in their native language, which I believed to have been Russian. When speaking about their time dancing in the Ballet Russe Company, they would often use terminology often related to the ballet world. (table 1) One of the social structures described in the documentary is that of the corpe de ballet. One of the dancers compared their relationship in the group to that of a family.
She went on to explain that there was no competition like that of the Ballet Russe. Rather the goal of the corpe de ballet was to make the prima ballerina in the company to look the best they possibly can. Another social structure can also be found in the company. Because of the young age of many of the baby ballerinas, their parents would typically travel around the world with them. Their parents, in a way, acted as a support system for many of the young ballerinas. There were a few instances of courtship shown in the documentary. Two of those instances both resulted in marriage.
The first courtship was that between Natalie Krassovska and an unnamed man who only went by the first violinist. Krassovska herself admitted that she had had trouble with men and love, and this time was no different. She eventually married this first violinist in the traditional Russian ceremony, in a big Russian church with the wedding dress, crowns above their heads, as well as the traditional white veil. Six weeks later the marriage ended in a divorce. The second courtship was that between Denham, the banker turned artistic director, and Nina Novak, one of the young dancers in the corpe de ballet.
Although this courtship did not result in marriage, it played a bigger role within the company of Ballet Russe. Nina Novak became the pet project of Denham’s eye. With his power as artistic director, he was able to cast Novak into any position in a performance that he wanted, whether she deserved it or not. And that is exactly what he went on to do. Denham casted Novak as the lead dancer in many of the company’s most popular plays. As a result the better dancers of the company, the prima ballerinas, left the company to find better jobs where they would be better appreciated.
The final courtship that also resulted in a marriage was that between George Balanchine, and Maria Tallchief. This marriage was rather different from the ones I encounter, but Balanchine asked Tallchief to marry him on a trip to San Francisco. Although there was no love between the two of them, Tallchief agreed to marry him because he promised that their love would eventually come later. Social control comes naturally with the art of ballet. The dance itself requires a lot of technical moves and training.
Just like in a society, there were many rules that they were required to follow in order to stay and to succeed in their society. At the end of the documentary, in the company’s last attempt to gain more exposure in the United States, the company decided to open up their own school where students interested in joining the company, they would be able to audition for it. There are also many different social roles that are involved within the ballet company other than the dancers. Although all of the roles seen in the film revolve around the dancers.
The dancers take high priority and everyone else who has a role in the ballet company is only there to better the company and the dancers themselves. Sometimes these roles or relationships can be very difficult to describe. Roles such as the one Bronislava Nijinska held with her dancers. Nijinska was one of the first guest choreographers for the ballet company. One of her dancers described her as the greatest slave drivers. Another role in the documentary is the original director of the Ballet Russe, Colonel Wassily de Basil, as well as choreographer Leonide Massine. De Basil and Massine were both in a battle over power.
Both Colonel Wassily de Basil and Leonide Massine had a style of dancing and directing the company that clashed with each other’s within the original Ballet Russe, which resulted in a major divide within the company. Both individuals wanted their points of view to be heard among the company, but unfortunately, Massine did not win the battle. Instead Massine resulted to opening up his own ballet company. This decision made by Massine forced the dancers of the Ballet Russe to decide whether or not to stay with the original company or sway to the new company opened by their choreographer Massine.
Both men ended up with an equal divide of the very talented baby ballerinas. The extent of their battle of power let to many different legal battles over questions such as who would be able to retain the name of the company as well as many of the choreographed dances. The ballet company of Ballet Russe was all into the notion of prestige and the way that critics and the audience thought of you. In order to maintain that thought of them, the company only hired the best of the best. For example, the company scouted their dancers from a very young age. The typical age of their dancers was about 12-14.
These dancers were referred to as the baby ballerinas. They would often travel with their parents around the world to wherever they had to perform. Dancers of this age were considered to very desirable for two reasons. The first was the fact that they are still easily trainable, and the second would be the fact that they are still highly flexible. As opposed to an older dancer in their late 20’s who may be more susceptible to injuries. During their late 20’s a dancer is already consider too old to dance. And this can be seen through the documentary by one of the dancers.
No ballet company would hire her due to the fact that she was already 27, never mind the fact that she was one of the best ballet dancers of that time, as well as in her prime, technique wise. As many of the former dancers aged, although they never had the opportunity to dance with another company, many were still able to benefit from the training that they obtained from their earlier years. Many of the aging members of the Ballet Russe are able to themselves become choreographers, and even open up their own dance studios. Not to mention a few of them have went on to carry on the legacy of the Ballet Russe Company and start their own company.
The original Ballet Russe Company was a very innovative dance group. They continued to stretch the idea of what was considered to be the standard of ballet. With his work “The Rite of Spring”, Petrushka, with the help of others like him, changed the way we enjoy a ballet performance. Instead of the subtle music used in previous times, he brought a dramatic feel to the performances. They also enhanced the experience of the viewers by decorating the sets of their performances. They did this by using eye-catching designs by very popular artists.
An example of this as seen in the documentary was the use of the use of the backboard of a swan with its belly split open and blood dripping from it, used for their Swan Lake performance. Nothing like that had ever been done before, and it was that pushing the envelope kind of ideas that made this ballet company as legendary as it is. Ballet is very different from any other form of dance. Just like in any other society, Ballet is very particular about their rules. Ballet is a form of dance where dancers move through space with rhythmic patterns in time, control and release of energy, an awareness of the body in movement.
This form of dance is a way to communicate without using words, instead they must let the emotions and movements of their bodies tell the story. Dancing has always been around, before the time of languages. Before they were able to communicate with other cultures people danced as a way to show how they felt and what they were thinking. To this day dance is an important part of the rituals of many cultures and holds a very high significant social importance. People have danced for many reasons- to entertain other people, to express themselves to others, as well as to show the special traits of their culture.