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siff: stravinksy and the ballets russes – review

SIFF gave us a rare treat last week, with a screening of Stravinsky and the Ballets Russes.

This film of the Kirov Ballet dancing Fokine’s Firebird, Nijinsky’s Rite of Spring, and Nijinska’s Wedding has only a limited number of engagements in the U.S. Given that no DVD has yet been released, I rather expected to see the Nesholm Auditorium packed. It wasn’t. I don’t believe the audience filled even half the seats.

What struck me most about this film was how modern all three of the pieces were. I’ve read about them, and seen pictures of them, but it was still a little bit of a shock—and a treat—to see these recreations. Part of the film’s fun is imagining what these ballets would have looked like to audiences at the premieres nearly 100 years ago. Even if people had seen some of the dance experimenters who were all the rage in the early 1900s in Paris, it still must have been a trip to see these Russian ballets shake things up on such a grand scale.

The film doesn’t exactly detail the virtuosity or technique of the Kirov Ballet Company. The best I can say is they had an impressive stamina and conviction. We can’t lay the blame at dancers’ door, however. Consider, the quote from Nureyev upon viewing Firebird: “But where is the choreography?” (The World of Ballet, by Kerensky)

Actually, the Firebird herself had a gorgeous arabesque, which the choreography called for again and again. She had an affecting fiery/birdy flutteriness that made her fun to watch. Plus, she’s the only one on pointe and gets a gorgeous, fiery red light every time she comes onstage. (The trailer doesn’t do justice to her dancing.)

I can’t say that I was enamored of the filmmaker’s choices. It’s not easy to film dance, and I certainly don’t have the answers, but it was so annoying to see close-ups of made-up faces when a little distance would have given better sense of the emotion (or movement!). During blackouts, the camera would pan around to Valery Gergiev—slowly, though, first hitting the boxes on audience right, and then gradually coming to fix creepily on this conductor who is so casual in his clothing and so focused in his conducting. It pulled me out of the ballet. Although I found the close-ups of instruments and fingering interesting and even beautiful, they had the same effect. And let’s not talk about watching the bassoonist play the Rite of Spring! In an orchestra broadcast, sure, fascinating, but not in this ballet film.

Stylistically, Firebird seemed to be more spectacle than ballet, The Wedding seemed more theater, with Rite falling somewhere in between the two.

The trailer below will give you a better sense of the dance than I can in writing.

I would talk about the Firebird monsters who looked charmingly silly, and the Firebird maidens resembling Ziegfeld Girls with their group poses and their nearly identical wigs, and the way the sets, costumes, music, and (some) dancing worked together so well.

I would talk about the abstract theater aspect of The Wedding and the fact that, on first viewing, I missed the point completely.

I would talk about the terrifying impact of Rite, a poem that seems to occur in a time without speech or logic or humanity. Lynn Garafola, in her book Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, says it so much better, though. She quotes Jacques Rivière from La Nouvelle Revue Française about Rite: “The movement…closes over the emotion; it arrests and contains it…The body is no longer a means of escape for the soul; on the contrary, it collects and gathers itself around it; it suppresses its outward thrust, and, by the very resistance that it offers to the soul, becomes completely permeated by it.” Garafola goes on to comment: “To this imprisoned soul the transcendence of the romantic is denied: chained to the body, spirit becomes mere matter. In Sacre, Nijinsky banished idealism from ballet, and with it the individualism brought up in romantic ideology.”

I can’t do without the thinking, emotional individual for too long. (It occurs to me that nowhere in Fokine’s famous five principles of the new ballet can I find mention about the dancer. Hm…?) Individuals—Isadora Duncan, Loie Fuller, Anna Pavlova, Nijinsky, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera—were all the rage back then, too, so it’s a little odd for me to see the individual suppressed in these pieces.

Stravinsky and the Ballets Russes provided me a few hours’ colorful, musical enjoyment as well as a good time thinking about how ballets are more than just reproducible physical trappings, music, and choreography.

(Dame Marie Rambert, as related in Balanchine’s Complete Stories of the Great Ballets, touched on this when she described Nijinsky working on Rite: “I watched Nijinsky again and again teaching it to Maria Piltz [the original Chosen Virgin]. Her reproduction was very pale by comparison with his ecstatic performance, which was the greatest tragic dance I have ever seen.” What a pity we can’t see that! )

More than this, however, the movie started me on a reading binge about the strange goings-on and the remarkable individuals in the dance world at the turn of the century. I’ll let you know what I learn.

This movie is part of Emerging Pictures’ From Russia with Dance series, which currently boasts 4 films of the Kirov (Swan Lake & Don Q on DVD), two of the Bolshoi (both on DVD) and one of La Scala. Emerging Pictures prefers not to divulge plans for forthcoming films, as contracts have not yet been signed, but there is at least one in the works.

More dance coming up at SIFF next week, with PNB’s Sokvannara Sar starring in a documentary—Dancing Across Borders—on May 25 and 26. See you there!