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Ballets Russes

The Ballets Russes (The Russian Ballets) was an itinerant ballet company from Russia which performed between 1909 and 1929 in many countries. Directed by Sergei Diaghilev, it is regarded as the greatest ballet company of the 20th century.[1] Many of its dancers originated from the Imperial Ballet of Saint Petersburg. After the Russian Revolution of 1917, younger dancers came from those trained in Paris, within the community of exiles. The company featured and premiered now-famous (and sometimes notorious) works by the great choreographers Marius Petipa and Michel Fokine, as well as new works by Bronislava Nijinska, L onide Massine, Vaslav Nijinsky, and the young George Balanchine at the start of his career.

After Diaghilev's early death in 1929, the dancers scattered, and the company's property was claimed by creditors. In 1932 Colonel Wassily de Basil and his associate Ren Blum revived the company under the name Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. Balanchine and Massine worked with them as choreographers, and Tamara Toumanova was a principal dancer. De Basil and Blum argued constantly, in 1938 the founders split and De Basil founded another company, which he called the Original Ballet Russe, while Blum renamed his group Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. The three companies were the subject of the 2005 documentary film Ballets Russes.

Ballet Russes by August Macke, 1912


Brief history

The company's productions, which combined new dance, art and music, created a huge sensation around the world, altering the course of musical history, bringing many significant visual artists into the public eye, and completely reinvigorating the art of performing dance. The Ballets Russes was one of the most influential theatre companies of the 20th century, in part because of its ground-breaking artistic collaboration among contemporary choreographers, composers, artists, and dancers. Its ballets have been variously interpreted as Classical, Neo-Classical, Romantic, Neo-Romantic, Avant-Garde, Expressionist, Abstract, and Orientalist. The influence of the Ballets Russes lasts to this day.

Sergei Diaghilev acted as an "impresario" or organizer of the Ballet Russes, rather than a dancer or an artist. He was wealthy and had studied to be a lawyer. With Alexandre Benois and Leon Bakst, he had formed the Pickwick Club; together, the three published World of Art and created a movement. They believed that "art is free, life is paralyzed." Their ideas of developing a Russian art led to the creation of the Ballet Russes. Among the ground-breaking premieres of the Ballet Russes was The Firebird and Rite of Spring in 1913, both to music by Igor Stravinsky, as well as Balanchine's Appollon musagete to Stravinsky in 1928.

After Diaghilev's early death in 1929, the dancers scattered, and the company's property was claimed by creditors. Colonel Wassily de Basil and his associate Ren Blum revived the company under the name Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. Balanchine and Massine worked with them as choreographers, and Tamara Toumanova was a principal dancer. De Basil and Blum argued constantly, the founders split and Blum founded another company, which he called the Original Ballet Russe.

After World War II began, the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo left Europe and toured extensively in the United States and South America. As dancers retired and left the company, they often founded dance studios in the United States or South America, or taught at other former company dancers' studios. With Balanchine's founding of the School of American Ballet, and later the New York City Ballet, many outstanding former Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo dancers went to New York to teach in his school.

The Original Ballet Russe toured mostly in Europe. Its alumni were influential in teaching classical Russian ballet technique in European and British schools. Russian stamp: Sergei Diaghilev

The company's genesis

The Ballets Russes was an offshoot from the Russian Mir iskusstva (World of Art) movement. The World of Art, led by Alexandre Benois, had produced painting exhibitions and published a culture magazine. In 1907 Benois and his circle conceived the idea of bringing Russian nationalist opera to Paris. They were warmly received, and Benois made plans for another season the following year. In 1908, the group presented a mixture of opera and ballet in Paris, and enjoyed riotous success, particularly in the latter art form. Afterward they presented mainly ballets. By the time the group returned to Paris in 1909 for the first 'official' Ballets Russes productions, Diaghilev had firmly taken the reins from Benois (though the latter continued to work for Diaghilev for some years afterwards).


  1. The male dancer returns.
  2. Expressiveness: work was not just solely about technique or divertissements as found in classical ballet
  3. Movement vocabulary freed
  4. Individuals were important rather than a corps de ballet of classical form
  5. Unified theme: pieces were often one act, and always sought to express a single theme throughout the piece
  6. Collaboration: Choreographers and dancers collaborated with set designers and musicians in order to create pieces
  7. Reflection of Russian taste, themes (idea of developing Russian art, rather than importing western art and influence)


The Ballets Russes was noted for the high standard of its dancers, which contributed a great deal to its success in Paris, where dance technique had declined markedly since the 1830s. Most of the company's dancers were resident performers at the Russian Imperial Theatres in the early years. Diaghilev took them on loan to Paris during the theatres' long summer holidays.

Principal women dancers included many who earned international renown: Anna Pavlova, Tamara Karsavina, Olga Spessivtseva, Mathilde Kschessinska, Ida Rubinstein, Bronislava Nijinska, Lydia Lopokova, Diana Gould and Alicia Markova, among others.

The company was more remarkable for raising the status of the male dancer, who had been largely ignored by choreographers and ballet audiences since the early 19th century. Among the male dancers were Michel Fokine, Serge Lifar, L onide Massine, George Balanchine, Valentin Zeglovsky, Adolphe Bolm, and the legendary Vaslav Nijinsky, who was the most popular and talented dancer in the company's history.

The three most significant choreographers of the company were (in chronological order) Fokine, Nijinsky, and Massine.

Michel Fokine

Fokine (1880 1942) created the rebirth of classical dramatic dance (though his works often included Expressionist elements). Many regard his greatest work to be Petrushka; others consider it to be Les Sylphides. Fokine also choreographed The Dying Swan, Prince Igor, and Scheherazade. Fokine graduated from the Imperial Ballet School in 1898, and eventually became First Soloist at the Mariinsky Theater.

In 1907 Fokine created his first work for the Imperial Russian Ballet, entitled Pavilion d'Armide. That same year he created Chopiniana, a piece to music by the composer Fr d ric Chopin. This was an early example of creating choreography to an existing score rather than to music specifically written for the ballet (a dramatic departure in practice at the time.)

Fokine established his reputation while the Chief Choreographer for Serge Diaghilev's first ballet seasons in the West. Diaghilev gave Fokine the chance to break away from the academic form of late 19th-century ballet and implement his reforms. Among his most famous ballets created for the Ballets Russes were the Polovtsian Dances from Prince Igor, Les Sylphides, Le Spectre de la Rose and Petrushka.

Vaslav Nijinsky

As a young man, Nijinsky (1888? 1950) danced at the Mariinsky Theater, where he was a huge success. In 1912 he began his career as a choreographer. He created several works for Diaghilev's Ballet Russes during his career. He is sometimes thought of as the father of Expressionist Dance. His most influential works were the innovative L'Apres-midi d'un Faune and The Rite of Spring (to music by Stravinsky).

Nijinsky collaborated with Stravinsky for Le Sacre du Printemps in 1913 (also known as The Rite of Spring), as well as the set designer Roerich. Millicent Hodson and Kenneth Archer have since reconstructed the piece, including sets and costumes, and set it on the Joffrey Ballet. In Nijinsky's time, the work was shocking and controversial, both for the music and wildness of the dance. As a result, many people in the theater on opening night created a near riot. Because of mental illness, Nijinsky eventually retired from dance; he was diagnosed with schizophrenia.

L onide Massine

L onide Massine was born in Moscow in 1896.[2] He studied both acting and dancing at the Imperial School in Moscow. On the verge of becoming an actor, Massine was invited by Sergei Diaghilev to join his company, as he was seeking a replacement for Vaslav Nijinsky. Diaghilev encouraged Massine's creativity and his entry into choreography.

Massine choreographed works such as Le Tricorne and Parade. In Parade, the visual was paramount. Massine collaborated with the contemporary artist Pablo Picasso for this work. As set designer, Picasso created a visual vocabulary based on cubism. Massine used jazz music for the piece.

Massine extended Fokine's choreographic innovations  he worked especially on narrative and character. His ballets incorporated both folk dance and demi-charact re dance, a style using classical technique to perform character dance. Massine created contrasts in his choreography, such as synchronized yet individual movement, or small-group dance patterns within the corps de ballet.


Other choreographers of note included Serge Lifar and Nijinsky's sister, Bronislava, who created at least one masterpiece in the form of Les Noces. Balanchine choreographed Apollon musag te and Le fils prodigue for the company.


Diaghilev secured the employment of many great music composers for his ballets. This served to distinguish his ballets from many 19th-century ballets, for which the music had usually been provided by less inspired composers such as Drigo, Minkus, and Pugni.

Diaghilev commissioned many original scores, and borrowed freely from the existing musical canon. His ballets included music by artists such as Debussy, Milhaud, Poulenc, Prokofiev, Ravel, Satie, Respighi, Igor Stravinsky and Richard Strauss.

Igor Stravinsky

The most notable of Diaghilev's composers was Igor Stravinsky, who is now recognised as the premier composer of the early 20th century. Diaghilev had hired the young Stravinsky at a time when he was virtually unknown to compose the music for The Firebird, after the composer Anatoly Lyadov proved unreliable. Diaghilev was the instrumental in launching Stravinsky's career in Europe and the United States of America.

Stravinsky's early ballet scores were the subject of much discussion. The Firebird (1910) was seen as an astonishingly accomplished work for such a young artist (Debussy is said to have remarked drily: "Well, you've got to start somewhere!"). Many contemporary audiences found Petrushka (1911) to be almost unbearably dissonant and confused. The Rite of Spring nearly caused an audience riot. It stunned people because of its willful rhythms and aggressive dynamics. The Rite of Spring had to be pulled after just a few performances. The audience's negative reaction to it is now regarded as a theatrical scandal as notorious as the failed runs of Richard Wagner's Tannh user at Paris in 1861 and Jean-Georges Noverre's and David Garrick's Chinese Ballet at London on the eve of the Seven Years' War. However, Stravinsky's early ballet scores are now widely considered masterpieces of the genre. Even his later ballet scores (such as Apollo), while not as startling, were still superior to most ballet music of the previous century.

Art, design, costume

Firebird]], 1910 The company invited the collaboration of rising contemporary fine artists in the design of sets and costumes. These included Benois himself, Bakst, Braque, Gontcharova, Larionov, Picasso, Chanel, Matisse, Derain, Mir , de Chirico, Dal , Bilibin, Tchelitchev, Utrillo, Nicholas Roerich, and Rouault. Their designs contributed to the groundbreaking excitement of the company's productions. The scandal caused by the premiere performance in Paris of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring has been partly attributed to the provocative aesthetic of the costumes of the Ballets Russes.[3]

In September, 2008, on the eve of the 100th anniversary of the creation of the Ballets Russes, Sotheby's announced the staging of an exceptional exhibition of works lent mainly by French, British and Russian private collectors, museums and foundations. Some 150 paintings, designs, costumes, theatre decors, drawings, sculptures, photographs, manuscripts, and programs were exhibited in Paris, retracing the key moments in the history of the Ballets Russes. On display were costumes designed by Andr Derain (La Boutique Fantasque, 1919) and Henri Matisse (Le Chant du Rossignol, 1920), and Leon Bakst. Posters recalling the surge of creativity that surrounded the Ballets Russes included Pablo Picasso's iconic image of the Chinese Conjuror for the audacious production of Parade (1917), and Jean Cocteau's poster for Le Spectre de La Rose (1911). Costumes and stage designs presented included works by Alexander Benois, for Le Pavillon d'Armide (1909) and Petrushka (1911); Leon Bakst, for La Peri (1912) and Le Dieu Bleu (1912); Mikhail Larionov, for Le Soleil a Minuit (1915); and Natalia Gontcharova, for The Firebird (1925 version). The exhibition also included important contemporary artists, whose works reflected the visual heritage of the Ballets Russes - notably an installation made of colorfully painted paper by the renowned Belgian artist Isabelle de Borchgrave, and items from the Imperial Porcelain Factory in St. Petersburg.[4]

An exhibition of the company's costumes held by the National Gallery of Australia was held from 10 December 2010 - 1 May 2011 at the Gallery in Canberra. Entitled Ballets Russes: the art of costume it included 150 costumes and accessories from 34 productions from 1909 to 1939; one third of the costumes had not been seen since they were last worn on stage. Along with costumes by Natalia Goncharova, Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Andr Derain, Georges Braque, Andr Masson and Giorgio de Chirico, the exhibition also featured photographs, film, music and artists drawings.[5]

Leon Bakst

Leon Bakst, one of the most important designers for the Ballet Russe, was born in Grodno on May 10, 1866. Aiding Diaghilev with the formation of Ballet Russe, Bakst assumed the role of artistic director. His sets and costumes brought him wide recognition. He is most noted for the sets and costumes for Scheherazade (1910), Firebird (1910), Le Spectre de la Rose (1911). He designed for Ballet Russe from 1909-1921.

Pablo Picasso

Pablo Picasso designed Parade in 1917 for the Ballet Russes. Parade was the first ballet to include cubism sets and costumes.

Natalia Goncharova

Natalia Goncharova was born in 1881 near Tula, Russia. Her art was inspired by Russian folk art, fauvism, and cubism. She began designing for the Ballet Russe in 1921.

Although the Ballets Russes firmly established the 20th-century tradition of fine art theatre design, the company was not unique in its employment of fine artists. For instance, Savva Mamontov's Private Opera Company had made a policy of employing fine artists, such as Korovin and Golovin, who went on to work for the Ballets Russes.

Principal productions

Scene from Apollon musag te, 1928. Dancers: Serge Lifar, Danilova, Chernysheva, Dubrovska, Petrova.

Diaghilev, his influence on Western Ballet and collaborators.

Year Title Composer Choreographer Set and costume
1909 Le Pavillon d'Armide Nikolai Tcherepnin Michel Fokine Alexandre Benois
1909 Les Sylphides Fr d ric Chopin Michel Fokine
1909 Prince Igor Alexander Borodin Michel Fokine Nicholas Roerich
1909 Cl opatre Anton Arensky Michel Fokine L on Bakst
1910 The Firebird Igor Stravinsky Michel Fokine Alexandre Golovine
L on Bakst
1910 Sch h razade Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov Michel Fokine L on Bakst
1910 Carnaval Robert Schumann Michel Fokine L on Bakst
1911 Petrushka Igor Stravinsky Michel Fokine Alexandre Benois
1911 Le Spectre de la Rose Carl Maria von Weber Michel Fokine L on Bakst
1912 L'apr s-midi d'un faune Claude Debussy Michel Fokine L on Bakst
Vaslav Nijinsky Odilon Redon
1912 Daphnis et Chlo Maurice Ravel Michel Fokine L on Bakst
1912 Le Dieu Bleu Reynaldo Hahn Michel Fokine L on Bakst
1912 Thamar Mily Balakirev Michel Fokine L on Bakst
1913 Jeux Claude Debussy Vaslav Nijinsky L on Bakst
1913 Le sacre du printemps Igor Stravinsky Vaslav Nijinsky Nicholas Roerich
1913 Trag die de Salom Florent Schmitt Boris Romanov Sergey Sudeykin
1914 La l gende de Joseph Richard Strauss Michel Fokine L on Bakst
1914 Le Coq d'Or Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov Michel Fokine Natalia Goncharova
1915 Soleil de Nuit Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov L onide Massine Mikhail Larionov
1917 Parade Erik Satie L onide Massine Pablo Picasso
1919 La Boutique fantasque Gioachino Rossini L onide Massine Andr Derain
Ottorino Respighi
1919 Le Tricorne (El Sombrero de Tres Picos) Manuel de Falla L onide Massine Pablo Picasso
1920 Le chant du rossignol Igor Stravinsky L onide Massine Henri Matisse
1920 Pulcinella Igor Stravinsky L onide Massine Pablo Picasso
1921 Chout Sergei Prokofiev L onide Massine Mikhail Larionov
1921 Sleeping Princess Pyotr Tchaikovsky Marius Petipa L on Bakst
1922 Renard Igor Stravinsky Bronislava Nijinska Mikhail Larionov
1923 Les Noces Igor Stravinsky Bronislava Nijinska Natalia Goncharova
1924 Les Biches Francis Poulenc Bronislava Nijinska Marie Laurencin
1924 Les F cheux Georges Auric Bronislava Nijinska Georges Braque
1924 Le train bleu Darius Milhaud Bronislava Nijinska Henri Laurens (scene)
Jean cocteau Gabrielle Chanel (costumi)
Pablo Picasso (fondali)
1925 Les matelots Georges Auric L onide Massine Pruna
1925 Zephyr et Flore Vernon Duke L onide Massine Georges Braque
1926 Jack in the Box Erik Satie
(orch. Milhaud)
George Balanchine Andr Derain
1927 La chatte Henri Sauguet George Balanchine Naum Gabo
1927 Mercure Erik Satie L onide Massine Pablo Picasso
1927 Pas d'acier Sergei Prokofiev L onide Massine George Jaculov
1928 Apollon musag te (Apollo) Igor Stravinsky George Balanchine Andre Bauschant (scene)
Coco Chanel (costumi)
1929 Le fils prodigue/ Prodigal Son Sergei Prokofiev George Balanchine Georges Rouault

Further reading

External links


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