Amazingly Viktor Jessen filmed the ballet without the Ballet Russe’s permission. This was an act of incredible daring as the administration was terribly strict!
Cameras are not allowed in the live theater to this day and it is strictly enforced. Here Gary Lemco writes about Jessen daringly sneaking into the performances to film night after night, about his amazing dedication to his project and his shear love of the ballet and its stars. The 12 minute segment of the DVD explains how it was done.
Aren’t we fortunate!
Here is an exceptional experience for the film lover, the ballet enthusiast, and the history buff: a relatively unknown Danish film-maker, Victor Jessen (1901-1995) wanted, in his own words, “to make a permanent record on film of some of the most important works of the most perfect living art: The Dance.” Between 1943-1954, Jessen neglected his work as an engineer so he could sneak filmed performances–wearing black and shooting from high in the loge or balcony from the back of the box with a special camera wrapped to muffle its mechanical sound–of classic ballet works performed in Los Angeles by visiting ballet companies; to wit, the 1954 Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo production of Offenbach’s Gaite Parisienne as choreographed by Leonide Massine and produced and mounted by Frederic Franklin and company. Jessen called this venture “The Ultimate Daring,” since it required him to return each night to shoot with film magazines limited to 2.5 minutes of film and having to rewind every 30 seconds. He had to memorize which portions of the ballet he had missed to fill in the gaps. To capture the sound, Jessen returned with a tape recorder to capture the orchestra of the Ballet Russe in concert.
The result presents us an astonishing performance–a virtual circus of dazzling movement–of Gaite Parisienne, with its colorful cast of characters, with Frederic Franklin as the Baron; Alexandra Danilova as The Glove Seller; and Leon Danielian as The Peruvian. Rife with dazzling intricacies of movement, a perpetually busy stage, densely packed, the action follows the courtship by the Peruvian and The Baron of the lovely Glove Seller. Before she settles upon the Baron as her love, she leads the Peruvian on a merry course of poses and dances, including the famous Can-Can with the Corps de Ballet from Orpheus in the Underworld, only to dance the Barcarolle with the Baron and leave the Peruvian bereft. The costumes, designed by Etienne de Beaumont, even in black and white, seem sumptuous–though in the documentary part we see them in living color–and they will remind more than one spectator of John Huston’s pageant for his film Moulin Rouge with Jose Ferrer. Many of the dances assume a Spanish sense of décor, not only French, though the movement of the waiters–their effortless athleticism–and the drooping gestures and pirouettes ooze with Gallic color by way of the Russian emigration into Paris. The lighting becomes another character on stage; and in the Barcarolle, the trail of dancers becomes a human gondola providing a backdrop for the lovely duet of the Glove Seller and the Baron.
The bonus track interview with principal Frederic Franklin and John Mueller proves equally fascinating. Massine joined the troupe in 1938 and immediately instituted his own concepts. He liked Danilova–whom Frederic Ashton dubbed “the Queen of the skirt-wagging roles”–and he liked Franklin because “Freddy does everything I show him.” Franklin recalls that while Gaite did not do well in Britain, it created a sensation in America: “we brought a ballet that was down to their level,” quips Franklin. “The piece did not have men in tights but cabaret people and waiters, the working class.
“We had some fine conductors: Efrem Kurtz, Pierre Monteux, Eugene Goossens, and even Stravinsky. We did have trouble once–with Leopold Stokowski–who led the Beethoven Seventh Symphony so fast no one could dance to it, so the dancers all left the stage in bits and pieces, leaving Stokowski to conduct a symphony instead of a ballet!” Franklin eulogizes Massine constantly, but also Mme. Karinska, the costumier who would lend Franklin Massine’s own pantaloons for The Baron, which were filled out in the calves to compensate for Massine’s bowl legs!
Franklin laments the difficulty of maintaining the Massine tradition in both dance and choreography: “the trouble lies in not having the same requirements–mostly theatrical–for ballet training any more. We came from the theater, and so we could project a character in mime and gesture. We had timing and characterization in our blood–and it’s very hard to teach. So some new choreographers are beginning to realize this passing tradition and insist that their corps de ballet do preparatory theater work.”
The 12-minute segment, “The Saga of Victor Jessen” uses still period photos from the 1920s and a few color shots to highlight this obscure pioneer in aesthetic film-making. His accidental discovery by Massine while shooting a ballet and making too much noise led to Massine’s angry remark, “Why don’t you use a blimp?” And that ‘blimp’ idea triggered the engineer’s design of a wrap for his camera that would muffle the sound; he even wrapped the shiny parts of the machine in black to make his entire presence ‘invisible.’ Once discovered in the balcony of the Met by an usher and anticipating the demise of his entire career, Jessen heard the usher exclaim, “That’s what I should be doing!” and found an ally. That anonymous usher is the recipient of a credit at the end of the documentary. “When I die I want my films to be shown to anybody,” stated Jessen. His wish is our command.