The Danse Extraordinaire of Ballets Russes; Hard Candy, a Bitter Pill

ballets russes

The story of the Ballets Russes dance company is the story of the modern cult of celebrity. It all began with Sergei Diaghilev, the Russian impresario who not only brought ballet to the West but turned it into a spectacle, combining all that was new in the worlds of art, music, and dance into a modernist dream. Sets and costumes by Picasso and Matisse, music by Stravinsky, and stars like Nijinsky and Massine made the ballet a place to see and be seen during the first decades of the twentieth century. Diaghilev’s sudden death in 1929, however, threw the ballet world into chaos. This film takes up where the great showman’s reign ends, and a new era of drama and intrigue begins.

The impetus for the documentary was the reunion of Ballets Russes company members in 2000. It combines archival footage with current material, and, perhaps surprisingly, the interviews with former Ballets Russes stars are by far the most entertaining. Though most of them are in their eighties, they show few signs of age, either physically or mentally, and it is through them that we learn of the fate of Diaghilev’s company, which split in 1931 into two rival factions. Both companies maintained the same level of artistic innovation that Diaghilev created, with productions designed by Dali, and choreography from Agnes de Mille, but, as the interviews with former dancers make clear, there was plenty of spectacle backstage as well. The “ballet wars” of the late 1930s saw “The Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo” poaching the best dancers and choreographers from “The Original Ballets Russes.” Both companies brought ballet from the cosmopolitan centers of Europe to the hinterlands of North and South America and Australia, leaving broken hearts and Russianized names in their wake. But the rivalry was about more than just power. The innovations of people like Massine and Balanchine are still felt today, as the former transformed the art of dance itself, creating the symphonic ballet that soon became an industry standard as well as a huge crowd-pleaser. The latter is credited with selecting and grooming the “baby ballerinas,” turning 12-year-old Russian girls into stars and kicking off the obsession with youth and beauty that still haunts society today. More than just dance, the Ballets Russes was a cultural force.

Despite the almost overwhelming history of the companies themselves, it is the dancers who really take center stage in this film. The sheer exuberance with which they share their experiences belies their ages. All are still involved with ballet in some way, whether teaching or performing, and none show any signs of slowing down. The way that women in their eighties revert to girlish giddiness describing the beauty of premier danseur George Zoritch, now 83 and still working out at his local gym, is a joy to behold, while Frederic Franklin, a born gossip as well as dancer, nearly steals the show with his opinions on everyone and everything connected with either of the Ballets Russes companies. Though the theatrical trailer available as a special feature of the DVD suggests that ballet for these men and women was a magical dream come true, the artists themselves rarely idealize what was often a challenging way of life. Most of the Russian dancers were refugees from the 1917 revolution; ballet was one of the few ways of making a living. Tales of rivalry, loneliness, and poverty may be recounted with fondness, but all make it clear that a dancer’s life wasn’t easy. And that they wouldn’t have it any other way.

The pace of the film falters somewhat when the focus switches from the European members of the company to the stories of some of the American additions to both the Original Ballets Russes and the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo. The story of Raven Wilkinson, the first African American to become a member of a major ballet company, for example, deserves more attention than it is given, while the drama surrounding the relationship between Ballanchine and the Native American prima ballerina Maria Tallchief, on whom he worked a Svengali-type magic, is fascinating but under-utilized. All in all, however, Ballets Russes is a most satisfying film. Even the ballet-wary will find it difficult to remain unmoved by these charming octogenarians reflecting on their stunning and groundbreaking youth. One can’t help but compare them to today’s celebrities: they possess more grace, wit, and vitality than starlets less than half their age, and they still have the talent to match. Although, as the film states, “It is the nature of dance to exist but for a moment,” we can only hope that the legacy of the Ballets Russes will last forever.

***

Hard Candy girl

A red-hooded figure stands in the middle of a hunter’s trap: from this image on the DVD cover, it is clear that Hard Candy is going to offer a new interpretation of a well-known fairy tale. And when, during the first minutes of the film, a young girl, Hayley (Ellen Page), meets a handsome thirtysomething gentleman, Geoff (Patrick Wilson), in a coffee shop after a provocative internet chat, the outcome, it would seem, is fated: Little Red Riding Hoodie’s days are numbered. However, Charles Perrault’s moral to the first-ever published version of Little Red Riding Hood claims “sweetest tongue has sharpest tooth.” It is Hayley who is literally gorging on chocolate at this first meeting, Hayley who soon develops a taste for blood.

Hard Candy, then, tells a different tale than the one we expect. Roles are reversed, and the line between predator and prey is blurred beyond recognition. Yet, once the opening gambit is revealed to the subversion of our expectations, all subtlety is out the window. The dialogue leaves nothing to the imagination, as Hayley at one point gives voice to the film’s thesis: “Was I born a cute, vindictive, little bitch or… did society make me that way?” Criticism of the media’s role in sexualizing the young is made plain, and the film soon starts to feel like an extended public service announcement, only ending—after drawn-out reversals of the game of cat and mouse between Geoff and Hayley—when it has run out of different ways to say that just because a child acts like an adult, doesn’t mean she’s ready to be treated as one. As well, director David Slade seems to fancy himself a hipper David Lynch, whose half-light and mechanical hum he borrows, hoping to capture the same sensory experience of modern malaise. In reality, though, he’s closer to McG, using quick cuts and slick production to exploit the music video conventions the film explicitly condemns.

The performances, however, are a different story. Wilson is somehow both sympathetic and suitably feral as big bad wolf Geoff, and Sandra Oh injects some much needed levity as a suspicious neighbor. But the film really belongs to Ellen Page. Best known, perhaps, as Kitty Pryde in the third installment of the X-Men franchise, the 20-year-old Canadian seems to have a gift for being able to inject even the most insipid dialogue with intensity. It would have been easy for the character of the menaced and menacing Hayley to become, like the rest of the film, two-dimensional, but Page makes her believable: innocence belies rage; rage is tempered with vulnerability. Even superficially, Page’s androgyny—all cropped hair and elbows—adds to the tension, making Geoff’s assumed seduction even more disturbing.

Overall, though, the film is uneven. A good fairy tale highlights truths about human nature and the dangers of every day life in an easily digestible fashion. Hard Candy was clearly created with similar intentions, but it is somehow harder to swallow. Though the film’s message has contemporary resonance and important repercussions that extend beyond the cinema (the film’s website promotes internet safety, with its “surf safe, wear red” campaign to allow kids to “take back the net”), it is hard to appreciate the positive effects of a moral conveyed in such a heavy-handed manner, especially when the DVD features unwittingly seem to support the theme that the film condemns. The way director David Slade and producer David W. Higgins discuss the casting process in the “Creating Hard Candy” featurette and “Controversial Confection” mini-featurette, describing how the teenage actresses in L. A. were too mature in both appearance and attitude to be believable prey for a pedophile and marveling over the fact that Page resembled a 12-year-old boy in her audition tape, they expose their complicity with the exploitative media machine on which the film passes judgment. Again, it seems, the tale is not what we expect.

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