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Yvette Chauviré - France’s Prima Ballerina Assoluta - a film by Dominique Delouche
Original Production by Les Films du Prieuré
produced for DVD by Alan Altman for Video Artists International, Inc.
Picture format: NTSC/Colour/4:3
Sound format: Mono
Menu language: English / French
No booklet but brief notes in English on packaging


Experience Classicsonline

Yvette Chauviré is a retired French dancer and teacher, widely recognised as the greatest French ballerina of her generation and one of the finest in the world. She was born in Paris, in April 1917 and celebrated her 90th birthday in 2007. Chauviré studied at the Paris Opera Ballet School and joined the Paris Opera Ballet as a principal in 1936. She was immediately noticed by renowned Ukrainian (of French origin) dancer and choreographer Serge Lifar (1905-1986). He quickly became her mentor and developed her career at the Opera by giving her leading roles right from the start. In 1941, at only twenty-four, Yvette Chauviré was promoted to étoile (star) of the Paris Opera after her acclaimed and stunning eighteen-minute solo in Lifar’s ballet Istar. Apart from a few short absences when she pursued her own ventures, Chauviré remained with the company until her retirement in 1972.

Chauviré was an extremely elegant and graceful dancer, with a statuesque figure, always beautiful to watch. Her execution of steps and movements had an extraordinary fluid quality. Her style possessed a well balanced classical brilliance, with a perfect line and positioning of the body and shoulders, which created performances of exquisite beauty, rising above other remarkable ballerinas of the time.

This tribute to Yvette Chauviré’s career and artistry was filmed by Dominique Delouche, a well established French filmmaker, known for his love of ballet and his various films about the art and its greatest exponents. The film was originally called Yvette Chauviré: une étoile pour l’example and as such was a Cannes Film Festival selection in 1987. It comes to us on this VAI DVD with a slightly different title. It was lovingly filmed and Delouche’s admiration for his subject is obvious from beginning to end. The DVD presents two versions of the film: The original version in French and an alternative English translation. The idea of having it also in English is a good one but it is clumsily made as voice-over by Chauviré herself with the original French commentary and dialogue still audible in the background. Hard though she tries, Chauviré is not fluent neither can she express well her feelings or her instructions in English. For this reason, after a few minutes, it becomes annoying, even slightly irritating to listen to the English version, which considerably spoils the enjoyment of the film. If one is a French speaker, I strongly recommend watching the French version and forgetting about the English alternative. To my mind, it would have been better and more effective to just subtitle the original, however incomprehensibly, the DVD offers no subtitles whatsoever.

From a historical perspective, this is a wonderful documentary about one of the greatest female classical dancers of all time. It is a loving tribute to a great star ballerina and an interesting, fascinating personality. It is presented in the format of memoirs and Chauviré appears herself, at the time the film was made, in various locations, looking at places where she performed or visited during her extensive career. She does not speak but we hear her voice in the background reminiscing and telling us the stories she can remember. This is an interesting characteristic of the film and one of the details that elevated it above other similar documentaries. Unfortunately, the colour and picture definition is poor by modern standards; the period footage, in black and white, showing Chauviré dancing some of the great roles that Lifar created for her, is actually more attractive than the modern chapters. The sound quality is also poor, appearing muffled throughout, possibly because it is mono but, as this is a documentary and not a performance, it does not have a significant negative impact. To me, the real interest of the film lies in the parts where we see Chauviré giving master-classes, coaching the young rising stars of the late eighties to dance some of the roles, which Lifar and others choreographed especially for her, and that she created on stage. Particularly interesting are the moments with the fabulous Sylvie Guillem - just beginning her career at the time the film was made - in Gsovsky’s Grand pas classique, from 1949. Chauviré was as good a teacher as she was a dancer and one sees how her directions considerably improve the performance of the young dancers, most notably of Isabelle Guérin in Lifar’s Istar. The highlights of the film are however when Chauviré is shown dancing at the height of her career. The footage of her dancing Giselle with Nureyev is beautiful and her rendition of The Dying Swan is as amazing as it is exquisitely elegant.

Historically, this DVD is also interesting for two other reasons: This is, on the one hand for containing a brief tribute to Chauviré by Nureyev at the time of filming, made the more poignant if one bears in mind that he died only a few years later, in 1993. On the other it depicts Chauviré’s friendship and unassailable trust in her mentor Serge Lifar. She tells the story of how he was banned from the Paris Opera and how his ballets were not allowed to be performed there due to his trial after the Second World War, accused of collaboration with the Nazis. Lifar went to Monte Carlo and she joined him there for the 1946-47 season at the Nouveau Ballet de Monte Carlo. Her belief in his innocence and her firm conviction that he was wronged are touching and give the film a more human and warm character. It was at this time that Lifar created one of his most memorable ballets and so offered Chauviré one of her greatest roles, namely as the Shadow in Les Mirages. Her performance in this ballet became an instant hit when she returned to Paris, in 1947, accompanied by Lifar.

Overall, Delouche created an absorbing, interesting film, which is well worth watching even if one does not enjoy ballet and is not interested in Chauviré’s career as a dancer and a teacher. The historical archive footage and her memoirs of the particularly difficult period of Nazi occupation, its consequences for artists in France and the personal impact on her life and that of the people she loved make it a human, warm story, which anybody will appreciate. At the same time, it is wonderful to be given the opportunity of seeing how Chauviré coached young dancers but, most of all, it is a rewarding experience to watch her dance when she was at the top of her art. 

Margarida Mota-Bull


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