I am so happy you have asked me to write about the Ballets Russes for your Ballet West blog. The spring program, commemorating the hundred year anniversary of the Diaghilev company’s arrival in Paris, is beautifully planned to pay homage to one of the most spectacular events in the cultural history of the 20th century. In fact, if I were allowed to choose one arts event of the whole century to see in person, I would ask to attend the opening on May 19th, 1909 at the Chatelet Theatre of the Diaghilev Ballets Russes.
“Everything dazzling, intoxicating, enchanting, seductive had been assembled and put on that stage,” wrote Anna de Noailles, poet and member of the first-night audience. Sophisticated Paris was conquered to a degree we can only imagine by the brilliance and exoticism of the Russian company created by the 37 year-old Russian aristocrat Sergei Diaghilev, who was neither dancer nor choreographer nor musician nor visual artist, but whose instinct for the best, the newest, the most theatrically daring in all the arts was uncanny.
As an impresario he had presented, in the years before 1909, seasons of Russian art and music and opera. These had laid the groundwork for the ballet season, in which the cream of the Maryinsky and Bolshoi dancers were shown in innovative ballets by the hot young choreographer, Mikhail Fokine, who had been taking on the establishment in St. Petersburg and for whom the greatest dancers – Anna Pavlova, Vaslav Nijinksy, Tamara Karsavina – would simply have laid down their lives. It was Diaghilev’s genius to surround these artists with the work of the best scenic designers in sumptuous, sexy productions that knocked Paris on its ear that year and continued to do so until his death twenty years later.
On that opening night a hundred years ago the runaway hit was a ballet by Fokine (designed as part of the opera Prince Igor by Borodin), The Polovtsian Dances. The entire Act III of the opera was presented (with the great Russian Basso, Feodor Chaliapin) but it was the impassioned dancing of Adolph Bolm as leader of the Tartar horde that swept Paris off its feet. The decor and costumes were the work of Russian artist Nicholas Roerich (whose work would again electrify Paris a few years later in Le Sacre du Printemps.) Part of the impact of these virile male dancers had to be due to the fact that male dancing in Paris had been eclipsed for over half a century by the dominance of the “ballerina.” The best French male dancers and choreographers (Perrot, St. Leon, Petipa) had simply gone to Russia to practice their art!
Carol Shults was Company Instructor/Historian for Oregon Ballet Theatre from 1989 to 1997.