A Ballets Russes classic … Petrushka
The Ballets Russes dragged ballet out of the 19th century and launched it into the 20th. In the process, they redefined the art of dance on all levels – not just its style and subject, but its place, status and reach.
In May 1909, a group of Russian dancers, on holiday from their regular jobs at the Mariinsky Ballet in St Petersburg, performed a season of ballet at a dowdy theatre in Paris. They were presented by impresario Serge Diaghilev, who calculated that ballet would be cheaper than the opera he’d presented there the previous year. Diaghilev milked his contacts, and opening night was duly attended by ministers, high society, artists and aristocrats.
And le tout Paris was thrilled. Ballet had become moribund, artistically flimsy and socially disreputable. But these pieces showed technical brio, especially in the vigorous male dancing; they had first-rate music, vibrant colours, and exotic themes. A second, even more successful season followed in 1910; then in 1911, Diaghilev officially established the Ballets Russes in Paris, and the company left Russia for good.
The group travelled a rocky road, its finances always precarious, its personal relations volatile. But it was also trailblazing. Diaghilev had a nose for talent, and consistently brokered partnerships between his choreographers and leading artists and composers. In the early years, his main choreographer was Michel Fokine, with designers Léon Bakst and Alexandre Benois, and young Igor Stravinsky as the most prominent composer. But Fokine quit when Diaghilev began promoting his lover and star dancer Vaslav Nijinsky as choreographer. Nijinsky’s anti-ballet style and overt sexuality was revolutionary. In L’Après-midi d’un Faune, he caused a scandal with an “indecent gesture” (basically, he humped a scarf), but that was nothing compared with the now-legendary riot that greeted the Rite of Spring in 1913, now considered a founding moment of modernism. It was a scandal – but once again, le tout Paris was talking about the Ballets Russes.
Causing a stir … Nijinsky in L’Après-midi d’un Faune
Later that year, Nijinsky suddenly got married. Consumed with rage and jealousy, Diaghilev fired him. Nijinsky began a long decline into mental illness. His role as both choreographer and lover was taken by Léonide Massine, who produced more character-led pieces, as well as the famous “cubist” ballet Parade (1917). But then history repeated itself: in 1920, Massine got married, and Diaghilev got rid of him.
His next choreographer was Nijinsky’s younger sister, Bronislava Nijinska, who produced some outstanding works, including the breathtaking Les Noces. She was replaced in 1925 by George Balanchine, a refugee from Russia who went on to become the single most influential choreographer in 20th-century ballet.
A masterpiece … Bronislava Nijinska’s Les Noces
Diaghilev died in Venice in 1929, and the company with him. The list of his artistic collaborators are a roll-call of the 20th-century’s hottest composers and artists: Stravinsky, Ravel, Satie, Poulenc, de Falla, Picasso, Matisse, Miró, de Chirico – to name only a few. The Ballets Russes had revitalised the art of dance: it was not only a part of emerging artistic movements – primitivism, surrealism, cubism, constructivism, neoclassicism – it was a driving force behind them. All that, and it was fashionable too.
That was then; what about now?
The Ballets Russes is now history, but its influence remains. After Diaghilev’s death, a number of new companies were founded (confusingly, several were called Ballet Russe) and a whole Diaghilevian diaspora spread across Europe, north and south America, South Africa and Australia. A huge number of ballet companies around the world trace their roots to the Ballets Russes. Some of its ideas and innovations are still current: it was the first company to introduce the triple-bill format of one-act ballets; the first ballet company to rely on sales and sponsorship rather than patronage. Above all, it showed that dance can be a serious contemporary art. Combined with great art and music to make total theatre, the Ballets Russes proved that dance could lead audiences rather than chase them.
Watching Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes
Several Ballets Russes pieces are still performed. Of Fokine’s, Les Sylphides is the most common, a “mood ballet” that was an antecedent of abstract dance. You can also sometimes see the folkloric Firebird and Petrushka, and occasionally Schéhérazade, an orientalist fantasy of orgies and bloodbaths.
‘Mood ballet’ … Michel Fokine’s Les Sylphides
Of Nijinsky’s pieces, only L’Après-midi d’un Faune survives, though others have been reconstructed. Faune is still strikingly modern: flat-footed, highly stylised, anti-expressive.
Massine’s pieces were very popular at the time, but rarely seen now: you might catch La Boutique Fantasque or Le Tricorne. Of Nijinska’s you can still see two: Les Biches, chic and a little risqué, and the harsh, monumental Les Noces. You can also see Massine playing the choreographer Grisha Ljubov in the 1948 film The Red Shoes, which is loosely based on the Ballets Russes and is one of the few British films that managed, like the company that inspired it, to be experimental, inspirational and popular all at the same time.
Balanchine’s Apollo is in the repertory of many companies around the world, and it still feels timeless (partly because its original quirks were ironed out). His Prodigal Son is sometimes also performed. An unusually explicit work for him, with a straightforward narrative and expressive characters, it has much more of a period flavour.
Quite: the list of artists and composers who worked with the Ballets Russes reads like a Who’s Who of the early 20th-century. There are too many to list here; you can look them up on the Encyclopaedia Britannica website.
But at least two others involved in the dance company deserve mention: Serge Lifar, Diaghilev’s last star dancer (and yet another lover), who went on to direct the Paris Opera Ballet; and Boris Kochno, who began as Diaghilev’s secretary (and, briefly, boyfriend), and took over much of the running of the company in its final years.
Diaghilev’s last lover, the composer and conductor Igor Markevitch, later married the daughter of Diaghilev’s best-known lover, Nijinsky. Before divorcing, Markevitch and Kyra Nijinsky had one son, whom they named Vaslav. (What was that all about?)
In celluloid … trailer for the 2005 Daniel Geller and Dayna Goldfine film Ballets Russes
In their own words
“First of all, I am a great charlatan, although one of brilliance; second, I’m a great charmer; third, I’ve great nerve; fourth, I’m a man with a great deal of logic and few principles; and fifth, I think I lack talent; but if you like, I think I’ve found my real calling – patronage of the arts.” – Diaghilev’s own self-assessment, at the age of 23
“Astonish me.” – Diaghilev’s famous injunction to the young Jean Cocteau.
“We really did stagger the world.” – Diaghilev’s close colleague, the artist and scenic designer Alexandre Benois
In other words
“The Diaghilev era took dance to heights that have not been surpassed.” – John Drummond, Telegraph 2004
“A hotbed of modernist invention.” – Judith Mackrell, Guardian 2009
“The fruits of Diaghilev’s vision seeded dance for decades … But I bet that Diaghilev would be shocked and disappointed by how conservative ballet has become.” – Debra Craine, Times 2009
“Dear Royal Ballet, please put on Les Noces.”
Nijinska’s Les Noces isn’t shown much. It’s a lot of effort to mount, and conventional audiences steer clear because it’s not remotely nice. It is, however, a masterpiece, and I wish we saw it more often.
“It’s not proper Russian, it’s not proper ballet, and it’s certainly not proper Russian ballet.”
Now watch this
Where to see them next
The Ballets Russes repertory is still performed intermittently around the world. Key choreographers to search for: Fokine, Nijinsky, Nijinska, Massine.