The Ballets Russes

Even though you will not see our Ballets Russes program until later in the season, we in the studios are heavily immersed in “Les Biches”.  Howard Sayette who learned the ballet from Nijinska’s daughter and Georgina Parkinson who learned the role of the Blue Girl from Nijinska herself are rehearsing us daily and generously sharing their invaluable information with us.

I recently asked my dear friend Dance Historian Carol Shults whose lectures and writing I adore to tell us about the Ballets Russes.

Carol Shults – Carol Shults

Letter to Mark re Diaghilev

Dear Mark,

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.

Diaghilev – Diaghilev
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 Nijinsky, 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 Polovetsian 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 décor and costumes were the work of Russian artist Nicholas Roerich (whose work would again electrify Paris a  few years later in Le Sacre de 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, and Petipa) had simply gone to Russia to practice their art!
In the corps de ballet of “Polovetsian”, that night was an 18 year old woman, a recent graduate of the Imperial Ballet School in St. Petersburg, Bronislava Nijinska, the younger sister of the great male star of the company, Vaslav Nijinsky. “That evening we were all inspired by the excitement in the Theatre and danced burning with the fire and spirit of wild untamed Tartars. In the finale, in the mad rush forwards as we made to ‘attack’ the public, I remember that I had a strong feeling that I must restrain my élan or I would end the dance in the orchestra pit!”

Persian Maidens Warrior Fokine -Fokine
Years later, matured by several seasons dancing with both Diaghilev and the Maryinsky Theatre, and having endured the privations of World War I and the Russian Revolution and more personally the loss to insanity of her beloved brother, Nijinska found herself the chief choreographer of the Ballets Russes. Diaghilev entrusted her with the commissioned Stravinsky score for Les Noces in 1923 and then gave her a very different score by Francis Poulenc in 1924. With décor and costumes by Marie Laurencin, the ballet, finally entitled Les Biches, which premiered in Monte Carlo, was essentially very French and Diaghilev had qualms about giving the job to a Russian, although admittedly extremely talented. He wrote during the rehearsal process to a friend, “The choreography has delighted and astonished me. But then, this good woman, intemperate and antisocial as she is, does belong to the Nijinsky family.” The ballet, whose ironic title means “the little darlings” was the hit of the season and speaks loudly of its time, the roaring 20’s. Nijinska herself was “the hostess” and a sofa was considered one of the leading characters. The simple velvet jacket worn by one of the female leads, created quite a stir at the time.

Les Biches The Hostess The Hostess Nijinska – Nijinska
In 1909 when the Ballets Russes was conquering Paris, Georgi Balanchivadze was a five year old child living with his family in a country house a train ride from St. Petersburg. He was to enter the Imperial Ballet School only in 1913, where in just a few years the privations of the war and the Revolution were to make the idea of leaving Russia for the artistic freedom and better life of the West irresistible for the supremely talented, but half-starved young choreographer and his friends. Engaged as choreographer for the Ballets Russes a few months after leaving the Soviet Union in 1924, Balanchine (Diaghilev simplified his Georgian surname), first made Le Chant du Rossignol, to the Stravinsky score, for the 14-year-old Alicia Markova.
After the success of Apollo, his first neo-classical ballet in 1928, Diaghilev asked Balanchine to choreograph a score that had been commissioned from Prokofiev, Le Fils Prodigue or The Prodigal Son. Georges Rouault designed sets and costumes and Serge Lifar, who had triumphed as Apollo, danced the title role, on May 21, 1929. Balanchine made a complete change from Apollo, cool, elegant, and pure, when he took on the biblically inspired narrative of the earthy, emotionally charged Prodigal. But his innovative devices and compelling imagery are equally inspired in both ballets. (Many great male dancers through the years have danced the challenging role of the Prodigal with success; among them are Jerome Robbins, Edward Villella, and Mikhail Baryshnikov.)

Edward Villella First Back Drop Siren and Son Balanchine -Balanchine

Only three months after The Prodigal Son premiered in Paris, Diaghilev died in Venice, of diabetes. It was the end of a fabulous era. The influences, direct and indirect on not only ballet, but on the cultural life of the entire century are innumerable.

The following list of great twentieth century creative artists whose careers were nurtured by Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes is only partial:

Choreographers:  Fokine; Nijinsky, Massine, Nijinska, Balanchine.

Composers:  Stravinsky, Ravel, Richard Strauss; Debussy, Prokofiev, Da Falla, Poulenc, Satie, Auric.

Designers: Benois, Bakst, Roerich, Golovine, Gontcharova, Serov, Picasso, Delauney, Matisse, Derain, Sert, Miro, Gris, Laurencin, Braque, Rouault, Utrillo, de Chirico, Cocteau.

Mark, All best wishes to you, Adam,  and the company for a wonderful season. Have fun with the Ballets Russes program. Perhaps I can come. It has been fun to revisit the period! Carol

How wonderful it is to read your writing again Carol.  I hope this is only the first piece you will do for Ballet West!

All my thanks,


One thought on “The Ballets Russes”

  1. WOW!!!!!!!!! This is so impressive!!! Thanks Mark for posting this and a big THANK-YOU to Carol Shults for taking the time to write such a fascinating letter. There’s always something new to learn — and enjoy– from this extraordinary treasure trove of dance.

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