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.

1 thought on “The Danse Extraordinaire of <em>Ballets Russes</em>; <em>Hard Candy</em>, a Bitter Pill”

  1. From an aesthetic standpoint this film provides a provocative look of close-ups and cold washed greys. The splash of primary color that is used alludes to the child theme of the movie, making it strange to see such violence with a bright yellow and red background of a studio. Hayley possesses almost a super-human composure, hinting that she is capable of even more than we get to see in the movie.

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