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November 9-15, 2005

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Memory Lane

Ballets Russes' charts dance history; Swanson and Valentino flirt in silent film 'Beyond the Rocks'


By Michael S. Gant

AROUND 1909, Serge Diaghilev revolutionized classical dance with his Ballets Russes troupe, featuring Pavlova and Nijinsky. The title of the documentary Ballets Russes is a bit misleading, though, because it chronicles not Diaghilev's dancers but the two companies—the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and the Original Ballets Russes—that revived his ideas in the 1930s, '40s and '50s. When Diaghilev died, in 1929, his legacy passed to Col. Wassily de Basil, who wasn't as adroit an ego-wrangler. In 1937, choreographer Léonide Massine split away and formed the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. Both groups mounted innovative dances by choreographers like George Balanchine, Agnes DeMille and Michel Fokine, and featuring exquisite dancers with euphonious names: Tatiana Stepanova (the perfect ballerina handle), Tamara Roumanova, Tatiania Riabouchinska and Irina Baranova—the last three known as the "baby ballerinas" because they started dancing professionally in their early teens.

Mixing archival material and interviews from a reunion in 2000, San Francisco filmmakers Dayna Goldfine and Dan Geller capture the adventurous spirit of the times. The surviving ballerinas are everything we want divas to be: vivacious, fond of chunky jewelry and unassailably imperious. The male dancers—Frederick Franklin, Marc Platt and George Zoritch—are more self-effacing, perhaps because their main job was lifting the women. Ballets Russes is aimed at dance fans, but the high-spirited reminiscences of the dancers, mostly in their 80s and remarkably energetic, are irresistible.

So much of our early film history has been lost that the rediscovery of a silent feature seems like a precious gift from the past even if the film turns out to be a by-the-numbers tale of forbidden romance. Beyond the Rocks, made in 1922, is remembered largely because it paired, for the only time, Rudolph Valentino and Gloria Swanson. All that existed of this tantalizing prospect for some 80 years was a minute-long snippet. Then, two years ago, a full print turned up in Holland. The film gets a worthy showcase—with Dennis James on the Wurlitzer organ—at San Francisco's Castro Theatre on Nov. 13, thanks to the San Francisco Silent Film Festival organization.

Beyond the Rocks is adapted from a novel by Elinor (It) Glyn, purveyor of genteel titillation. Swanson plays Theodora, forced into a marriage for money with a much older man, although she pines for Lord Hector Bracondale (Valentino). From the Swiss Alps to Paris to North Africa, Theodora and Hector keep stepping to the brink of consummation only to retreat, because, as Theodora says, "We should be stronger than our love." Although the story sounds like one of S.J. Perelman's parodies of bad prose, the acting is quite effective. Valentino tones down his Latin-lover persona considerably, letting his eyes rather than his flaring nostrils do most of the work. Swanson is equally unhistrionic, and in her best moment stands by a window for a long shot that encapsulates with great subtlety the dilemma that wars in her heart.


Movie Times Ballets Russes (Unrated; 118 min.), a documentary by Dan Geller and Dayna Goldfine, opens Fri at Camera 12 in San Jose. Beyond the Rocks (1922) plays Sunday (Nov. 13) at 2 and 7pm at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco. Tickets are $13/$15. (www.silentfilm.org)

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