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by Alexandra Anderson-Spivy
One hundred years ago a troupe of a hundred Russian ballet dancers burst onto the French cultural scene and set le tout Paris on its ear. The fledgling company included the now legendary Vaslav Nijinsky, Tamara Karsavina, Anna Pavlova and Adolf Bolm. Their charismatic leader was Russian art critic, editor, curator and impresario, Serge Diaghilev, who possessed boundless energy, an obsession for detail and a passion for flamboyant color. For the first Paris season he even extravagantly reupholstered the theater’s 2,500 seats in crimson velvet. His path to the ballet came through the visual arts. In the years leading up to that first dance season in Paris, he had already organized 16 exhibitions of painting. Among these was the huge exhibition of Russian art at the 1906 Salon d"Automne.

There has been no one like him since (not even Robert Wilson -- though he’s a contender). As founder and director of the Ballets Russes, this physically imposing and highly theatrical figure was a magnificent synthesizer. Diaghilev supervised every detail of its elaborate productions, controlling everything from programming, lighting and set design to ballet scores and publicity. Unmistakable in his signature monocle and homburg hat, this intrepid talent scout developed new choreographers, commissioned collaborations among dancers, artists, writers and emerging composers, raised money, oversaw the organization of the tours and the endless routine tasks essential to a peripatetic company that, until the last few years of its life, had no permanent home.      

The debut performance of the Ballet Russes on 18 May 1909 at the Théâtre du Châtelet featured choreographer Michel Folkine’s rococo confection, "Le Pavilion d’Armide" and some exotic, lively Russian-flavored dances excerpted from "Prince Igor." The company’s brief ensuing season marked the birth of modern ballet, changed the course of modernism and began a revolution in the performing arts and the relationship of the visual arts to the stage. By 1911, when Diaghilev premiered "L’Après-midi d’un faune" in Paris and mounted the company’s first London season, presenting Nijinsky’s great leap through the debutante’s window in "Le Spectre de la Rose" (set and costumes by Bakst), the Ballets Russes instantly became the prevailing cultural and artistic rage with both high society and the avant-garde. The rest, as they say, is history.   

This summer, the performances, symposiums and exhibitions celebrating the centenary of the Ballets Russes give us a chance to reconsider the lasting impact of Diaghilev’s colossal achievements. While his influence is more widely understood in Europe than it is in America, Diaghilev created an international artistic phenomenon. It’s hard to overrate his effect on modernism and the repercussions of his inspired integration of modern art, dance, stage design and music.  As one of modern art’s most important catalysts, for twenty years this linchpin figure fearlessly blended tradition and radical experimentation, transmuting European modernism to the stage and synthesizing popular and avant-garde culture.

His 1917 production of "Parade" in the middle of World War I provides one of the best-known examples of one of these groundbreaking collaborative undertakings. Cocteau wrote the libretto, Picasso designed the spectacular drop curtain, stage sets and zany, towering costumes, Satie composed the score, Apollinaire wrote the program notes and Massine created the choreography. The Paris audience reacted with ferocity to the production, igniting a riot, and consequently Satie and Cocteau were arrested (Satie’s jail sentence and fine immediately enhanced the umbrella-collecting composer’s reputation). As Roger Shattuck observed in The Banquet Years, more than any other event at the time, "Parade"’s gleeful appropriation of the trappings and tempo of modern life and its exploitation of the absurd set the tone for the Dadaist esthetic that would dominate the postwar era.

As distinguished dance historian Lynn Garafola, the curator of the fascinating new exhibition "Diaghilev’s Theater of Marvels: The Ballets Russes and Its Aftermath" at The New York Public Library of the Performing Arts, points out, the high-energy impresario not only exerted a profound influence on music, choreography and fashion but also on 20th-century art. Without Diaghilev’s creative genius, would Picasso, Matisse, Juan Gris, Leger, Marie Laurencin, de Chirico, Miro, Andre Derain or Pavel Tchelichev ever have designed for the stage? (In 1918 Picasso married Ballets Russes ballerina Olga Kokhlova, who had danced in "Parade," subsequently immortalizing her in his numerous neo-classical period portraits.)

The Lincoln Center Library show cleverly displays everything from Diaghilev’s notebooks, ballet costumes and video documentaries, to postcards, drawings, dance notations, paintings and musical scores. It is rich in charming ephemera, including Pavlova’s pink satin toe shoes and posters designed by Cocteau, who became besotted with the company after its 1909 debut. There are also ballet programs, banquet menus and many period photographs, as well as various portraits of the dancers. The walls teem with brilliant costume and set design drawings by Bakst, Benois, Picasso, Gris, Laurencin, de Chrico, Goncharova, Roerich and Tchelichev. And there are some of the complicated costumes recreated for the Joffrey Ballet version of "Parade," as well as now rather campy videos of Royal Ballet productions of "Firebird" and "Les Noces," plus films of the Joffrey productions of "Petroushka" and "Parade."

Unfortunately, Diaghilev never allowed movies of Ballets Russes performances, making the later filmed recreations all the more valuable. His death in 1929 would dissolve the original company, but his Venetian demise also became the catalyst for the major ballet companies that sprang up in Europe and America, including the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo, the Ballet Rambert, The Royal Ballet, Dance Theater of Harlem and the New York City Ballet. Diaghilev fostered the careers of so many cultural treasures -- dancers, composers and artists who ended up either temporarily or permanently in America.

One of his greatest legacies was his influence on George Balanchine, who became the most important contemporary choreographer in the world of ballet. Diaghilev’s influence in America is most directly traced through this Ballets Russes dancer and ballet master turned founding choreographer of the New York City Ballet. (Lincoln Kirstein, Edward Warburg and Chick Austin, then the elegant, always resourceful director of the Wadsworth Atheneum, brought Balanchine to America in October 1933.) The Wadsworth’s recent exhibition, "The Ballets Russes: Celebrating the Centennial" showcased costumes and set and costume designs in its collection that Austin bought from dancer Serge Lifar for the museum at the same time he helped get Balanchine his immigration papers.

Lifar was a star student of Nijinsky’s sister, Bronislava Nijinska, herself a gifted dancer in the Ballets Russes. She also choreographed many of its dances, including "Les Noces" and "Le Train Bleu." Somehow after she died in Los Angeles in 1972 her archives ended up in The Library of Congress. Who knew? The Library has now organized  "Serge Diaghilev and His World: A Centennial Celebration of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, 1909-1929," which contains many of the items from Nijinska’s personal collection, including rare photographs of Diaghilev and members of the company, musical scores, production photographs, costume designs, dance notation manuscripts, souvenir programs and posters advertising various performances.   

I also did not remember that the Harvard University Theater Collection houses another massive cache of Ballets Russes material. Its curator, Fredric Woodbridge Wilson, has organized "Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, 1909-1929: Twenty Years that Changed the World of Art." Paying tribute to the impresario’s genius as a cultural entrepreneur, this scholarly show demonstrates how essential primary material is to understanding the significance of the stunning set and costume designs and sketches that make for a delectable visual experience. On display in the Nathan Pusey Library are more than 200 original Ballets Russes-related documents, including the bronze bust Lady Una Troubridge made of Nijinsky in 1913 (Una’s career as a sculptor long has been eclipsed by the notoriety she gained as writer Radcliffe Hall’s lesbian lover.) The exhibition is heavily loaded with those gorgeous set designs and costume drawings that serve to animate the manuscripts, costumes, musical scores, dance notations, letters and costumes essential to the complex creation of the Ballets Russes productions. 

The actual Ballets Russes costumes, heavily used, often mended, suffered serious deterioration, so the originals are rare. Nevertheless in 2011 London’s Victoria and Albert Museum is seeking them out. It will launch, "Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes" in late in 2010 or early in 2011. This major retrospective will examine the company’s origins, development and influence on the arts, and feature many of the original costumes that still exist. In the meantime, these three shows on the centenary are more than worth the visit.

"Diaghilev’s Theater of Marvels: The Ballets Russes and Its Aftermath," The New York Library of the Performing Arts, Lincoln Center, NYC, through Sept. 13, 2009.

"Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, 1909-1929: Twenty Years that Changed the World of Art." Nathan Marsh Pusey Library, main floor galleries, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass, through Aug. 28, 2009.

"Serge Diaghilev and His World: A Centennial Celebration of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, 1909-1929," At the Library of Congress, Washington, DC, through Oct. 10, 2009.

ALEXANDRA ANDERSON-SPIVY is an art critic, biographer and art historian who lives and works in New York.