On Swans, Seasons Greetings and Boxed Sets: Calling All Balletomanes

By Victoria Looseleaf

With swans in the air, or at least on screen (my review of the new Darren Aronofsky film, Black Swan, is coming, not to worry, while in L.A. Opera’s misguided premiere of Lohengrin, peeps sing about the bird, and there is some swan imagery on banners), I thought I’d take a moment to laud dance on film. Or at least on DVD. (And to say YouTube has been a godsend for dance lovers – and teachers of dance history – is an understatement. I love seeing Anna Pavlova in The Dying Swan, the cool collages of dancers such as the tragic Vaslav Nijinsky, and up-to-the-millisecond footage of all the hot young Russian and Cuban dancers. It’s heaven in cyberspace.)

Rare footage of the one and only Anna Pavlova.

But snippets and often poorly shot films can only go so far for the hard-core aficionado. And while the Metropolitan Opera has been at the forefront of broadcasting full-length productions on HD in 21st century movie theaters (stadium seating, Dolby sound and gallon tubs of fake-buttered popcorn can either enhance or detract from the viewer’s experience), dance has other issues (unions, for one), that, for the moment, are preventing filmed performances from being shown at your neighborhood upscale mall.

Thanks, then, are in order, for good old-fashioned DVDs (when will they become obsolete?), and several of the companies that provide them. For archival performances, VAI (Video Artists International), and VAI Audio, is the Rolls Royce of cultural offerings. While their current DVD selection is diverse – from comedy, docs, jazz and recitals, to instrumental performances, conductors and orchestras, it’s VAI’s vintage ballet discs that are divine.

My right foot (Rudolf Nureyev)

So, if you’re Jonesing for Rudolf Nureyev and Erik Bruhn on Bell Telephone Hour (and who isn’t, yeah…), this is the place. Other primo performances abound, including Alicia Alonso: Prima Ballerina Assoluta. Getting to know Madame Alonso personally in the last few years while attending the International Festival of Ballet in Havana (hosted by Nacional Ballet de Cuba, the company she founded with the help of Fidel Castro, which means the communist dictator can’t be all bad), I can say I’m equally thrilled to be able to watch her in signature roles on my flat screen TV. From Swan Lake and Romeo & Juliet to, of course, Giselle, the great Alonso jumps off the screen with dramatic intensity and astonishing technique.

Alicia Alonso in her signature role, Giselle

God may be in the details (or is that the devil), while gold is also found in performances of Maya Plisetskaya, Vladimir Vasiliev, Maria Tallchief and, in contemporary ballet, Jose Limon. In addition, VAI has put together two volumes featuring the brilliant Nina Ananiashvili, while Jacques d’Amboise’s Portrait of a Great American Dancer is an absolute delight. (Full disclosure: I worship at the altar of d’Amboise, who founded the National Dance Institute, and am looking forward to interviewing him in 2011 for his new memoir, I Was a Dancer, to be published by Knopf.)

Following in Nureyev’s fabulous footsteps, Vladimir Malakhov

Then there’s 1996’s True Prince (not the pop star), but a look at the incomparable Vladimir Malakhov, who, since 2004, has headed Staatsballett Berlin, an organization of some 88 dancers. (Another disclosure: I’ve also interviewed this ballerino over the years, but none was like the story I did for the Los Angeles Times. As Vlad was going to be staging a ballet based on Hal Ashby’s cult film, Harold and Maude, I arranged a chat between him and the film’s star. Talk about a high art kitschfest!) In any case, Malakhov is a gift, with True Prince a lovely rendering of the dancer as supreme artist and star.

Malakhov and Cort schmoozing about Harold and Maude, the flick that made Cort a star in 1971.

Just how cruel is ballet? How competitive? How painful? For a diverse and comprehensive look into this intense world you’ll want to check out Natalie Portman’s portrayal of Odette/Odile in Black Swan, but you’ll want to own The Art of Ballet, four classic dance docs in a special edition boxed set from First Run Features. The Dancer follows a gifted young ballerina through years of training at the Royal Swedish Ballet School and as she develops into an international star. As my colleague, Anna Kisselgoff, wrote about the film, “Anyone interested in ballet will want to see The Dancer.

The three other discs are: Ballerina, a profile of five world-class dancers; Etoiles: Dancers of the Paris Opera Ballet; and Prima Ballerina, a double portrait of two superstars of contemporary Russian ballet, Svetlana Zakharova of the Bolshoi and Ulyana Lopatkina of the Mariinsky. (Disclosure redux: I did an in-depth phoner at 1 in the morning with Zakharova – through a translator – for an article I was writing for the Los Angeles Times. Unfortunately, the prima got injured and was unable to come with the company to Orange County, so pfft – there went my article.

Long live the swan, as danced here by the Bolshoi’s Svetlana Zakharova.

Escape, then, balletomanes and lovers of the human body, into the world of tutus, tights and tiaras…and put a few of these delectable DVDs on your holiday gift list now.

Below: Alicia Alonso and Victoria Looseleaf in Havana at the International Ballet Festival, 2006.