In the Broadway musical smash "A Chorus Line," one of the auditioning dancers sings rapturously of how her real life contrasted sharply and poignantly with the glamorous world of the ballet, where "everything was beautiful." This sensational, down-and-dirty documentary puts that dream-like memory into an altogether different but no less thrilling perspective. More than two dozen of the 20th century's greatest ballet dancers are interviewed and featured in extensive, rare, and breathtaking original period footage that is continuously absorbing and illustrative of the changing styles and influences that resulted from the ersatz "ballet wars" that followed upon the death of impresario Serge Diaghilev at the end of the Roaring 20s. The complex history of competing impresarios and showmen from Massine and Balanchine to Hurok to Da Basil--with a little Agnes DeMille thrown in for good measure--is rich in irony, pathos and, yes--drama! I am not educated about the Dance and so I cannot offer cogent criticism about the myriad issues presented or any of their potential biases/omissions. But I know a ripping good time when I have had one, and this film rates up there with the best documentaries about artists I have ever seen. I never expected a précis of Ballet in America, as one poster indicated; the title is, after all, The Ballets Russes. For this uneducated but interested onlooker, I was mesmerized--not only to see how many of these great artists are still alive (many in their late 80s and early 90s) but to learn from an example they set of how active and vital they remain today--and to see them in antique footage (when some were still teen age "baby ballerinas") is a joy and a privilege. Hearing about the backstage power struggles is juicy fun and endlessly entertaining--all that supposed high brow stuff is really just like watching the intrigues on "Dynasty," but with class, great technique, and charmingly Russian-accented anecdotes. Seeing these personalities in photos and action footage as they interact with the great choreographers and ballet masters is wondrous--and watching the likes of Matisse and Dali designing sets and costumes for their work--sublime. What a rich and rewarding world it was, as well as one of great struggle and sacrifice. We glimpse it all, as well as the shadowing arc of its glorious history.
I could have watched this for another two or so hours without once stirring in my seat. For those who do love the dance, this is a "must-see," and for those with only a passing interest, it cannot fail to capture your attention. This has been a particularly fine year for documentary films and the Oscar voters will have quite a time deciding from the list of deserving nominees. If I were a voting member, I would be checking the box next to this film's title.