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Dance on Film, 2008 @ Film Society of Lincoln Center

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Program 3

(Wed Jan 3: 6:15pm; repeats Sat Jan 5: 1pm)


Virginia Brooks, USA, 2008; 37m

Born in 1896 in St. Petersburg, Russia, Felia Doubrovska spent 33 years first as a student at the Imperial Ballet School and then as a famous ballerina. After her retirement from the stage she devoted nearly the same span of time to teaching at the School of American Ballet. This film provides an affectionate memorial and a tribute to an artist who made a great contribution to preserving the ballet tradition as she participated in the training of many of the women of the New York City Ballet, the instruments of George Balanchine's choreographic genius.

Introduced by the director.


Ludovic Kennedy, United Kingdom, 1959; 29m

Made at Anton Dolin’s instigation by the BBC, SLEEPING BALLERINA looks at the career of Olga Spessivtzeva (1895-1991), the Aurora of Diaghilev’s 1921 production of ‘The Sleeping Princess’. Spessivtzeva was considered to be one of the most promising dancer of her generation but her career was abruptly interrupted by the mental illness. As legend has it, she lost her memory on-stage performing the mad scene in "Giselle." The film includes footage of a rehearsal of "Giselle," Act 1. In 1940 was taken to the psychiatric hospital where she remained for 22 years.


Yelena Demikovsky, USA, 2007; 47m

The Belgian born Russian dancer Oleg Briansky and his French wife, Mireille Briane, first met in Paris and became inseparable. Premier danseur of many established companies in Europe, named “the most exciting male dancer in England” by Ballet Magazine in 1952, Oleg Briansky had to cut short his career due to the early onset of arthritis. In 1963, the two moved to New York and founded the Briansky Saratoga Ballet School. In this film they become performers in their own life story. Introduced by the director and Oleg and Mireille Briansky

I saw this Thursday, and it was a fascinating, enchanting, heartbreaking triple feature.

Felia Doubrovska Remembered relies largely on interviews with Doubrovska, her students and colleagues, including Alexandra Danilova, John Taras, Tanaquil Le Clercq, Maria Tallchief, Allegra Kent and Maria Calegari. Calegari made a very touching observation about Doubrovska and her generation of Russian teachers. She noted that today, ballet teachers make corrections and treat people like "meat hanging on hooks." But what Calegari got from Doubrovska was the teacher's ability to find the "spark of the divine" within the student and nurture that. There was also priceless footage of Doubrovska and Danilova trying to reconstruct the man's variation from Le Pavillon d'Armide, which FD was to teach to Baryshnikov the next day.

The Sleeping Ballerina is narrated in overblown language, but is not to be missed for the grainy, fuzzy and sometimes overexposed footage of Spessivtzeva's Giselle, Act I. I was fascinated by the natural, unschooled look of her arms, except in her variation. A very different Giselle from what I'm used to.

Happy to Be So introduces us to the very charming couple Oleg Briansky and Mireille Briane. The editing is sometimes disconcerting -- footage from one interview is interspersed with footage from other interviews. Studio shots shift between Saratoga, Pennsylvania and NYC. The whole program ran almost three hours, and after a while this film started to seem a bit long and redundant. The strange title comes from the last spoken lines, " 'Inseparable.' 'And happy to be so."

If you're able to see tomorrow's repeat, go for it. There's plenty to enjoy and learn.

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I attended the Saturday showing of this great “triple feature.” The Walter Reade theatre was virtually sold out. I’d say at least half the audience were friends/students of the Brianskys, who were there in person and were interviewed on stage following the films. They proved to be as charming in person as they were on camera. Virginia Brooks, the director of “Felia Doubrovska Remembered” was also there to introduce her film. She said the project began in 1972, when she was a graduate student at Columbia Univ. and making a thesis film about SAB, where her daughter was a student. Doubrovska was one of her daughter’s teachers and the footage of her in class and at home dates from that time. Everyone was astonished at the sight of Doubrovska (in the film) demonstrating a bit of choreography from “The Prodigal Son”, dipping down low on bended knees, bending backwards, nearly knocking over her little dog who was nearby - she would have been about age 76 at the time! Virginia Brooks said that “The Sleeping Ballerina” was shown as part of the program at her suggestion, since Spessivtzeva and Doubrovska were great friends through their entire lives and she felt it would be an appropriate choice. Brooks added that she is hoping to donate all her unused footage of Doubrovska and SAB to the Library of the Performing Arts, but it’s difficult for them to accept what she has because of the extensive cataloging it would require. She’s started working on the cataloging process herself. I do hope they accept her footage at some point - it’s priceless stuff!

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It was a wonderful thing to see these films, so rare.

I was fascinated by how Doubrovka moved as she taught... such an interesting way of moving... so light. She was trying so hard to get her students light on their feet, as if she could raise them vicariously just by rising herself as she watched them... Every major ballerina has a special way of moving unique to herself, and Doubrovka almost fluttered it seemed. I wonder how she looked doing something as earthbound as Les Noces. Watching Allegra Kent talking, it was equally fascinating, as if she's still so full of movement that it's difficult to keep still.

Spessitzeva was so different from how I imagined... so natural with a very fresh energy... she really looked as if she lived in the moment. I guess because of her beautiful line in the photographs of her that I wasn't expecting such a human and free quality. And while the narration might have been overblown, it was nothing compared to the Tchaikovsky bearing down on poor frail elderly Spessitzeva. (I don't think they meant it as an illustration of what had driven her mad, but rather to honor her as a ballerina; though the former was more where it was headed)

I'm still surprised to hear the library wouldn't want the unedited Doubrovska footage. I should have asked how many minutes of it there was. I guess they can't allocate shelf space to camera original rushes, but digital copies shouldn't take up so much? It's unfortunate there isn't grant money to cover the cataloging and transferring of such treasures. Afterward I was trying to talk Virginia Brooks into releasing the film on DVD with some of that extra footage added on as a special feature. I'm sure there were extra clips she wished she could have included had time been no object. Now with the internet, it seems like it would be easier to distribute the video to it's niche target audience. The writer, Jody Armstrong, was also trying to convince her to release it on DVD, so perhaps with enough lobbying it will happen.

Regarding the Briansky video, they certainly were charming, but thought Oleg kind of hijacked the film out from under the filmmaker... but that added to the fun.

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