Sure, it’s only a snippet. Granted, the dancers have the marionette jerkiness so often seen in early film. But for fans of ballet, film and design, this is big. Sergei Diaghilev’s legendary Ballets Russes company were thought to have disappeared into history without leaving a film record; Diaghilev was cagey about having the company filmed. However, a recent discovery in an online archive has been identified by a Ballets Russes expert as the company dancing Les Sylphides at a Swiss flower festival in 1928.
The 30-second fragment was found by a ballet fan, who alerted Jane Pritchard, co-curator of the recent Ballets Russes exhibition at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. The clip was in the British Pathé online collection and was wrongly labelled, but Pritchard, who talks about the discovery on her blog, was able to identify it as a Ballets Russes performance and even single out Serge Lifar (the famously egocentric star and future director of the Paris Opera Ballet) underneath a long wig as the Poet in Sylphides.
Film records exist of individual Ballet Russes stars but the company dancing together was never filmed. Russes fans have mourned for years that a project to film The Sleeping Princess, in colour and with synchronised music, fell in a hole after the production folded in London. This grainy black-and-white moment, captured surreptitiously, hardly makes up for that; and yet, the sylphs flitting around the open-air stage, charmingly framed by an arch of greenery, has that touch of magic that made the Ballets Russes so unforgettable.