About The Film
Download the Presskit for Mia Here:
"Mia, A Dancer’s Journey weaves a story as rich in visual treats as it is in the sweeping story of this prima ballerina’s life, in all its pinnacles and frustrations. At once a movie about 20th century ballet and a particular dancer’s concerns with her art form’s legacy (and her own, in large measure), this documentary goes one step further as it movingly portrays the quest of a daughter to know better and honor her complicated performer-mother. Yearning, loss, romance, humor and serious scholarship–Who could ask for more?”
-Dan Geller, co-director/producer of Ballets Russes
“...the moving story of Ms. Slavenska is a reminder of how easily history can slip away in the ephemeral world of dance.”
"Mia, A Dancer’s Journey is a 55-minute jewel that brings to life not only the stunning ballerina with riveting stage presence, impeccable technique and artistry to burn, but a determination to bring the European art form to American audiences."
"A must see for all audiences"
This is the story of the Croatian-born ballerina Mia Slavenska, one of the ,most celebrated dancers of her time. It is also a story about historical memory, national identity, and the power of art. A glittering star of the famed Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, in her era, everyone who loved dance knew her name. In the 1930s – 1950s, everyone who loved dance knew the name Mia Slavenska. A half-century later, when she died in 2002, Slavenska believed that she had been completely forgotten, not only in America but also in her native Croatia. As her daughter, Maria, retraces her mother’s life journey, she unearths the fascinating story of a maverick ballerina and a lost time of dance.
And Maria discovers something more: Mia Slavenska hasn’t been forgotten after all.
Mia, A Dancer's Journey
From the Directors
Kate Johnson and Maria Ramas
Mia Slavenska was my mother. For most of my life she made her living teaching
ballet. Back when I was just a child, she was a celebrated ballerina—or so she
always told me. But, I remember those days only vaguely. I remember traveling
across America in an old school bus. Theaters were my playgrounds; dancers
were my playmates. In the evenings I would sit in the audience with my
grandmother and watch that ragtag group of fun-loving adults change into
glittering kings and queens, swans and fairy princesses. And I would watch my
mother transform into a Goddess. Everyone, even complete strangers, adored
her. It was magic! When I turned five, the magic ended. I had to stay home with
my grandmother and go to school. I entered the ordinary, everyday world that
most of us inhabit.
My mother retired from the stage when I was fourteen. She turned her back on
the dance world, although she always said that the dance world turned its back
on her. She settled down to teach, first in New York City and then in Los Angeles,
California. And I went about the business of growing up and making a life, which,
as the years passed, carried me far away from the world of dance.
So, I was surprised when I heard myself promising my mother that I would tell
her story. She was eighty-six and fading fast. She believed that no one
remembered her or the contributions she had made to dance. As I made my
promise, her old, tired eyes--still robin egg blue, still betraying restless longing
—locked on mine. She smiled.
I didn’t remember much of my mother’s life during her glory days apart from
those fragmentary memories of my childhood travels. It has taken me ten years
to discover her. When I began, I thought that I was making this film because I
had promised my mother that I would tell her story. Now, I know that I made this
film because—once upon a time—Mia Slavenska danced.
In 2004 Maria and I began the journey to tell the story of Mia Slavenska’s life. I
had heard of Mia Slavenska as the former Ballet Russe ballerina and the
respected teacher at both CalArts and UCLA who had trained many of Los
Angeles’ great modern choreographers and dancers. She was from another
generation, another world.
By focusing on Mia’s life during the most turbulent and transformative decades
of the 20th century, we are able to tell the story of how an individual artist, like
many of the time, left her homeland, bringing only her art and her character,
and began the process of forging a life and identity as an American artist. The
mass exodus of artists and thinkers from across the world graced American
culture greatly during the 20th century. Their impact is felt, but their memory
recedes as time passes. Their artistic contributions are kept alive only by the
people who advocate for them long after they are gone.
When we arrived in Croatia in 2005, the scars of the recent war were evident on
monastery walls and in the memories of the people. It was a new democracy, an
independent country, and it was ready to reclaim its lost history. While behind
the Iron Curtain, Croatia—then a part of Yugoslavia—had been sealed off from
most knowledge of the many artists it had lost during the war and ensuing
communist regime. Then, Mia could only be whispered about in the ballet
schools and back stages of the national theatre. We witnessed a country
rediscovering its rich artistic contributions, and, as Croatia’s greatest ballerina,
Mia was part of its cultural legacy. She had touched many people, and the
memories of her performances were some of the beautiful images stored in the
hearts of those who had endured much suffering and had lived through
countless wars and occupying forces. I began to understand that fleeting
glimpses of artistry can nurture people through the darkest moments of their
lives and can empower them to keep going in the face of insurmountable pain.
As we made the film and experienced the reclamation of a legacy, I began to
explore the ephemeral nature of not only dance but also all of life. Mia did not go
gently until Maria made her promise. In that way Mia was fortunate. Many artists
do not have that at the end. And so they must face the fleeting nature of their
work and their lives alone. I began to wonder: Is the value of our work really only
in the moment, and is that what really matters to an individual life? How do we
face gracefully what must end? As storytellers—who work to keep a story alive
one more day, year, perhaps decade – how do we reconcile the mercurial nature
of history? How many have we forgotten?
Mia, a dancer’s journey became not only a film but also a cause. We are returning
to a nation the story of a dancer it lost. We are refusing to let an artist be
forgotten, and we are remembering that, yes, art in all its forms does matter.
About the Cast
Mia Slavenska (1916 – 2002) (self), glittering ballerina of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, was known for her beauty, her powerful stage presence, and phenomenal technique. She was born Mia Corak in Slavonski Brod, Croatia on February 20, 1916. She was a child star at six; at age 18, she became the first Croat Prima Ballerina of the National Theater of Yugoslavia. In Zagreb, She studied ballet with Josephina Weiss, a former ballerina with the Vienna State Opera, and with Margarita Froman, former soloist with the Bolshoi Ballet and with Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, and the founder of the National Theater of Yugoslavia Ballet. During her teen years, Slavenska studied modern dance with Gertrud Kraus and ballet with Leopold Dubois in Vienna.
In Paris, she trained with the Russian émigré ballerinas Olga Preobrajenska, Natalia Kschessinskaya, and Lubov Egorova. In the 1930s she danced in Paris with Bronislava Nijinska’s company and opposite Serge Lifar in David Triomphant. In 1936 Slavenska shared top prize with the eminent German modernists Mary Wigman and Harald Kreutzberg at the Berlin Dance Olympics. In 1937 she gave a solo recital at Salle Pleyel in Paris, which launched her international career. Slavenska starred in Jean Benoit-Levy’s prize-winning 1937 film La Mort du Cygne about backstage life at the Paris Opera, released in America as Ballerina. In 1938 she was invited by Léonide Massine to join the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo as ballerina. Between 1938 and 1943 she toured in the USA, France, England, Canada and South America with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. In 1948 she returned to the Ballet Russe for one season as guest ballerina. Here she danced all the classic roles including Swan Lake, Coppélia, Giselle, and the Nutcracker, as well as Michel Fokine and Léonid Massine works Scheherazade, Seventh Symphony, Capriccio Espagnol, Gaîté Parisienne, and George Balanchine’s Le Baiser de la fée. Marc Platt’s ballet Ghost Town, to a musical score by Richard Rodgers, was created expressly for her. During the 1940s, she retrained with Cechetti protégé Vincenzo Celli, whom she considered to be her greatest teacher.
Slavenska formed her first concert company, Slavenska Tihmar and Company in 1944, followed by Slavenska Ballet Variant in 1947. In 1952 Slavenska formed the Slavenska Franklin Ballet with Frederic Franklin. In this company she produced and starred as Blanche Dubois in the Valerie Bettis-choreographed A Streetcar Named Desire, based on the play by Tennessee Williams. It was one of the first times a contemporary play was turned into a ballet. In the late 1950s, Slavenska helped pioneer regional ballet in America, heading companies in Louisville and Fort Worth.
After many guest appearances on television and in musicals and a season as ballerina with the Metropolitan Opera, Mia Slavenska retired at the top of her form in 1961 at the age of 45. She devoted the rest of her life to teaching. She was a “favorite teacher” to the cream of the avant-garde modern dancers in New York including Lucinda Childs, Deborah Hay, and Meredith Monk. She was a member of the founding faculty of the Dance Department at California Institute of the Arts and a member of the dance faculty at UCLA. Her protégé Yoko Ichino became a world-class ballerina who danced with major ballet companies in North America and Europe. Mia Slavenska was married to Kurt Neumann. They had one child, Maria Ramas. Mia Slavenska died in Los Angeles on October 5, 2002. Her ashes were interred in Mirogoj cemetery in Zagreb, Croatia in 2005.
B lythe Danner (Mia Slavenska’s voice) is an acclaimed stage and screen actress. Among her many Tony Award nominations was one for her portrayal of Blanche DuBois in the 1988 Broadway revival of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar named Desire. She received a Tony Award for Butterflies are Free. Her Broadway appearances include Blithe Spirit, Follies, Suddenly Last Summer, and Much Ado About Nothing. She has also received two consecutive Emmy Awards for her work on the critically acclaimed Showtime series Huff. Her film credits include: Meet the Parents and its sequel Meet the Fockers, Prince of Tides, The Sisters of the Travelling Pants, and Brighton Beach Memoirs.
Jack Anderson (self) is well known for his numerous reviews of dance performances in the New York Times and Dance Magazine as well as for his scholarly studies in dance history and for ten volumes of poetry. He is the author of The One and Only: The Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and Ballet and Modern Dance: A Concise History.
Margery Beddow (self) (1931-2010) danced with the Slavenska Franklin Ballet, the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and the Metropolitan Opera Ballet. Her first Broadway show was Two On The Aisle and she danced in Redhead and Little Me. She was a favorite of choreographer Bob Fosse and in later years appeared in singing and acting roles. She also choreographed.
Fleur Israel (self) attended the famous High School of Performing Arts in NYC and her first professional appearances were with the Slavenska Franklin Ballet. She danced on Broadway and on television. After retiring from the stage, she began teaching ballet and for over thirty years taught at the American Dance Theater Workshop, the official school of The Eglevsky Ballet.
Dinko Bogdanic (self) coached by Mia Slavenska in the 1970s for his role as Albrecht in Giselle while a young dancer with the Pittsburgh Ballet fell “under the spell of Mia’s charms” forever. After a flourishing career with several American and European ballet companies (Pittsburgh, Hamburg), he returned to his native Croatia as artistic director of the Croatian National Ballet. As choreographer, he contributed many works to the repertory, among the most popular being Tramvaj Zvan Cenja (A Streetcar Named Desire), his personal tribute to Slavenska. He is currently a judge on the Croatian version of Dancing with the Stars and in demand as a freelance choreographer.
Joe Brandon (self) was a close friend of Mia Slavenska from 1945 until her death in 2002. He is a great lover of ballet and especially loved the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo.
George Dorris (self) is a dance historian whose articles and reviews have been published in Ballet Review, Dance Now, and Dancing Times. From 1997 to 2007, he was the co-editor with Jack Anderson of Dance Chronicle: Studies in Dance and The Related Arts.
Maja Đurinovic (self) is a critic and historian of Croatian dance. Her monographs include biographies of Mia Corak Slavenska, Ana Maletić, Milana Broš, Almira Osmanovic as well as a survey histories of Croatian dance such as The Croatian National Theatre Ballet: 1840-1992. She is the editor of the book series “Dance Gesta” (Gesture), a member of the editorial board of the cultural journal Kretanja, and a dance critic for Croatian journals and newspapers.
Frederic Franklin (self) (1914-2013) is probably the most beloved, versatile, and inspirational male dancer in all of Ballet History! Blessed with an incredible memory, he carved a new career for himself re-creating the 20th century masterpieces in which he’d danced. A sampling: Markova-Dolin Ballet, Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo (1938-1952), Slavenska Franklin Ballet (1952-1954). He left an indelible mark as Stanley in A Streetcar Named Desire. In his 90s he was still dancing character roles in La Sylphide, Romeo and Juliet, and Swan Lake for American Ballet Theatre.
Lynn Garafola (self) is Professor of Dance at Barnard College, Columbia University. She is a dance historian and critic, the author of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes and Legacies of Twentieth-Century Dance and a regular contributor of articles and essays to both scholarly and general interest publications. She is the former editor of the book series "Studies in Dance History" and the founder of the Columbia University seminar in Dance.
MITZi Gaynor (self). In this film, the legendary film star of the Golden Age of Movie Musicals recalls the excitement of a barely teenage ballet student meeting one of Ballet’s most glamorous ballerinas. It is both touching and amusing.
George Jackson (self) is a dance critic and writer. He wrote dance reviews for the Washington Post and other Washington publications from 1972 until 2011 as well as writing for national and international publications such as Dance Magazine, Danceview, Ballet Review, Ballettanz, and danceviewtimes.com.
Alan Johnson (self) is a three-time Emmy Award winner for Choreography. He is best known for his work in Mel Brooks films The Producers, Blazing Saddles, Dracula: Dead and Loving It, History of the World, He also directed To Be or Not To Be and Solarbabies. Since appearing in the original Broadway production of West Side Story, he has re-created the Jerome Robbins choreography throughout the United States and internationally. He has staged concert and television appearances for Shirley MacLaine, Chita Rivera, Bernadette Peters, Ann-Margret, Ann Reinking, Donna McKechnie, Sandy Duncan, Anne Bancroft, and Tommy Tune.
Malcolm McCormick (self), a former member of the dance faculty at the University of California in Los Angeles and California Institute of the Arts, is co-author with Nancy Reynolds of No Fixed Points, Dance in the 20th Century.
Marion Scott (self) (1922-2008) was born in Chicago. She moved to New York to study modern dance and eventually danced in the Martha Graham company and with Doris Humphrey and Charles Weidman. She was a soloist with the Helen Tamiris-Daniel Nagrin company and formed her own Marion Scott company. She began studying with Slavenska in the early 1960s and they became lifelong friends. Both relocated to California and both taught at UCLA.\
Maria Tallchief (self) (1925-2013) Much has been written about Tallchief but what is little known about her is this: She studied with Slavenska in Los Angeles during her high school years and Slavenska invited Serge Denham to observe her in class. Denham invited the young Tallchief to audition for the Ballet Russe if she came to NY after graduation. That is exactly what came to pass and she was hired for the corps de ballet. When Slavenska later re-joined the company, she often coached her young protégé and taught Tallchief her own roles. Mia even suggested the name change from Betty Marie to Maria. Ironically when Slavenska’s daughter was born a few years later she was named Maria Elizabeth. The next season Balanchine came to stage Song of Norway for Ballet Russe and the rest is ballet history!
Edward Villella studied at the prestigious School of American Ballet as a child, joined the New York City Ballet in 1957 and was Principal Dancer by 1960. He created many roles in George Balanchine ballets including Midsummer Night’s Dream, Tarantella, Rubies, and Prodigal Son. He danced in Jerome Robbins Dances At A Gathering and Watermill among others. He founded the Miami City Ballet and served as its Director until 2012. He was a Kennedy Center Honorees recipient 1n 1997 and was awarded the National Medal of Arts by President Clinton that same year.
Raven Wilkinson (self) was born in NYC and was a ballet student of Ludmila Schollar. She danced with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo from 1955 until 1961. She also danced with the Dutch National Ballet for 7 years and with the ballet of the New York City Opera from 1974-1985. She continues to perform occasional acting roles with that company.