Shortly before Mia Slavenska died in 2002, Maria Ramas, her daughter, made a promise: to tell her story. “She had spent many years feeling, as many artists do who outlive their fame and their time of creativity, that the dance world wouldn’t remember her and her contribution,” Ms. Ramas said in an interview. “It was really difficult for her to make peace with that.”
Ten years later, “Mia, a Dancer’s Journey,” a collaboration by Ms. Ramas and the filmmaker Kate Johnson, was born. The documentary will receive its New York premiere Saturday at the Walter Reade Theater in conjunction with Dance on Camera.
The festival, a presentation by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and Dance Films Association, continues through Tuesday with a breadth of films and events, including “Robot,” which pairs eight dancers and a robot, by the choreographer Blanca Li; a restored version of Bob Fosse’s indelible 1979 “All That Jazz”; and “Black Ballerina,” a documentary-in-progress followed by a panel discussion.
But the moving story of Ms. Slavenska is a reminder of how easily history can slip away in the ephemeral world of dance. Best known as a member of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, Ms. Slavenska was a glamorous beauty with strong shoulders, steely legs and a sparkling, virtuosic technique. She was more than a ballerina — a dancer who embraced modern ideas.
For Ms. Johnson, a filmmaker and video artist with extensive dance training — one of her own teachers studied under Ms. Slavenska — the ballerina’s story intrigued her, as she explained, “not only because of Mia’s career, but because of the idea of an artist who died feeling forgotten.”
“I was curious about how that could happen,” Ms. Johnson said, “how someone could have this incredible life and career, yet go to the end feeling quite lost.”
Ms. Johnson also saw a connection with the many forgotten artists who lost their lives to AIDS. She said, “It kind of became a cause: Let’s tell her story; let’s put her back out there.”
Ms. Slavenska, a Croatian dancer, joined the Ballet Russe in 1938, but with so many stars in the company, good parts were hard-won. To her dismay, the impresario Sol Hurok promoted her as the sex symbol of the company. When her contract ran out, she left, but later rejoined. This time, things were different. As Frederic Franklin, a fellow dancer, said: “She came back really as a ballerina. You saw what she could do.”
Ms. Slavenska, ambitious, opinionated and the breadwinner of her family, wanted to direct. (Ms. Ramas acknowledged that she viewed dance as a rival for her mother’s attention.) In 1947, Ms. Slavenska created Ballet Variante, a touring group, and five years later formed the Slavenska-Franklin Ballet — an effort to create something progressive — with Mr. Franklin. There, she performed one of her most meaningful dramatic parts: Blanche in Valerie Bettis’s “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Tennessee Williams, Ms. Slavenska said, visited her backstage and told her she was his best Blanche.
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But the company was financially strapped and forced to shutter in 1954. “Streetcar” was sold to American Ballet Theater, and Ms. Slavenska forced herself to attend the premiere, where, she said, the dancer Nora Kaye expressed her unhappiness with the costume. In “Mia,” Ms. Slavenska recalls her saying: “ ‘How did you manage with all those skirts? That’s got to go.’ The drapery did go the very next day, and with it went Blanche’s fantasy. Her very vulnerability was shrouded in that drapery. Without it, she was just another nymphomaniac.”
At 47, Ms. Slavenska retired from dancing, spending the next 40 years teaching in California and New York, where her students included many of the postmodern dancers behind the revolutionary Judson Dance Theater. One, Meredith Monk, recalled how Ms. Slavenska would enter the studio: leggings under a fur coat and a beautiful upsweep.
“I think of her with so much affection because of all of us downtown people walking into her class: Yvonne Rainer, Steve Paxton and all kinds of people with some ballet dancers,” Ms. Monk said. “She was so helpful and so encouraging.”
Making the documentary led to certain discoveries for Ms. Ramas; for one, she understood more about dance than she thought. “And I learned my mother was a great dancer,” Ms. Ramas said, laughing in surprise. “I wasn’t sure, to tell you the truth, when I started. She always told me she was, but, you know.”