But last night, I saw Ballets Russes: a documentary on the history of the famous Ballets Russes ballet company (actually, there were two for much of the time). And I loved it, the way I loved Schultze Gets the Blues: one of those lovely movies that creeps up on you and moves you to tears when you're least expecting it.
The documentary covers the history of the dance troupe from its inception to its demise, under the leadership of Balanchine and others. The dancers are now elderly, withered, sagging, sometimes wheelchair-bound, frequently with canes, and ... beautiful. Breathtakingly beautiful. Beautiful beyond words.
In one scene, two octegenarian dancers do an excerpt from Giselle. The scene is hilariously funny, and the dancers themselves are doubled over in moments: when the male dancer complains that he can't keep up, and when they realize that they are both too broad in the beam to fit on the tiny bench at the close of the scene. But at one crucial moment, the ballerina bends, and turns her face to the camera, and smiles.
In another movie, it could be parody. It could be savage, cruel. It could be Baby Jane Hudson, staring at the grotesque remnants of her childlike beauty in a mirror and screaming in terror. It could be unbearably sad, watching someone reveal the remnants of her former lithe beauty. After all, we worship youth in our culture: dancers, above all, must not grow old.
But it's not cruel or savage. It's not even sad. The movie celebrates, not what was lost, but what remains. The woman's smile is so beautiful, and her spirit and personality and artistry are all there. The central paradox of dance shines through that wonderful scene, and all through this wonderful documentary: dancers use their bodies ruthlessly as tools to express something beyond their bodies. When watching the ballet, we marvel at the superb physiques of these dancers: their slender arms and legs, their strength, their agility, their accomplished feats of skill. But all those things are signifiers, pointing to something beyond. And these aged dancers shine with that something. I don't know what it is. But aged dancers reveal it with a clarity that we don't see in the younger ones, blinded as we are by the magnificence of the tools they're using.
The narration by Marian Seldes is haunting. And the music. Omigod, the music. The movie throbs with the incredible music that fueled the Ballets Russes: Afternoon of a Faun, Petrushka, Symphonie Fantastique, Coppelia, Giselle, Swan Lake.
I'm not a dancer, and I'll never be a dancer. But after seeing this movie, I'll never again see the latter half of a dancer's life as a mournful tragedy. I assumed that dancers peak in their early twenties, spend the next 20 years fiercely holding on to their turf, and then retire to agonize over their lost abilities and former glories.
Watching a 90-year-old Frederick Franklin dazzle a master class and show a young dancer how to move, I realize: was I ever wrong.