History Lesson Plan: Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes
Reimagining ballet for the 20th century
In 1909, Sergei Diaghilev organized the first Ballets Russes performance at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris. A Russian impresario, Diaghilev had been producing opera and orchestral concerts for Western audiences for two years, but this would be his first program dedicated totally to dance. Parisian theatergoers had never seen dancers with the technical and athletic caliber of the Russians (like Tamara Karsavina and Vaslav Nijinsky) and the first performance brought down the house. With such success, Diaghilev established the Ballets Russes in 1911 as an independent company that would tour Western Europe and the Americas. (The first season’s productions engaged freelance Russian artists.)
In addition to presenting classic works, Diaghilev was committed to presenting new ballets. He commissioned the most contemporary composers and artists to embellish performances and attract an aristocratic and sophisticated audience. Though it survived only 20 years (the final performance was 15 days before Diaghilev’s death in 1929), the Ballets Russes pushed ballet to modern ground: The work highlighted male dancers and elevated their artistic merit beyond supporting and lifting women. The division between the corps de ballet and soloists was also weakened, giving the corps dancers greater individual roles. And for the first time in ballet history, choreographers reached beyond classical ballet vocabulary to create new movement that was character-based and expressive, without pantomime.
Early on, Diaghilev’s programs for the Ballets Russes included Russian classics, like The Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake. But ultimately, it was the commissioned ballets by new choreographers that became the company’s signature. Many of these works live on today in the repertory of ballet companies worldwide.
• Michel Fokine
- Les Sylphides (1909): Premiered in 1907 as Chopiniana, Les Sylphides was revived in Paris for the inaugural season of the Ballets Russes. Set to orchestrated piano pieces by Chopin, it is considered the first abstract ballet ever created.
- The Firebird (1910)
- Petrouchka (1911)
• Vaslav Nijinsky
- Prelude to Afternoon of a Faun (1912): Nijinsky’s first choreographic work is set to music by Claude Debussy. The audience found it shocking, both for its departure from classical ballet vocabulary and sexually explicit content.
- The Rite of Spring (1913): With a score by Stravinsky, the opening performance ignited a riot at the theater because of its polyrhythmic and dissonant score and movement including hunched over, turned-in stomping.
• Léonide Massine
- Parade (1917): Scenario by Jean Cocteau and design by Pablo Picasso with music by Erik Satie; famous for putting cubism onstage
- The Three-Cornered Hat (1919)
- Pulcinella (1920)
• Bronislava Nijinska
- Les Noces (1923): Echoing the Russian folk movement and themes of The Rite of Spring, Nijinska (Nijinsky’s sister) painted a portrait of a Russian ritual wedding ceremony.
- Les Biches (1924)
• George Balanchine
- Apollo (1928): Inspired by Greek mythology, this was Balanchine and Stravinsky’s first neoclassical masterpiece, and their second of more than 20 collaborations.
- The Prodigal Son (1929)
Did You Know?
Artists including Coco Chanel, Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Georges Braque, Léon Bakst, Juan Gris and Joan Miró created costumes, set pieces and backdrops.
Diaghilev was the first producer to look beyond government backing and arrange private funding for his company.
Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes performers were primarily Russian—many of whom came from the Imperial Ballet—though the company never performed in Russia.
The Legacy Lives On:
• After Diaghilev’s death, a number of troupes tried to continue the great Ballets Russes legacy (many using close variations of the Ballets Russes name) and toured the West through the early 1960s. They were heavily responsible for establishing concert ballet in America, and many dancers settled in the U.S. and set up dance studios and regional companies nationwide.
• In the early 1930s, Lincoln Kirstein (who revered Diaghilev’s work as an impresario) persuaded Diaghilev collaborator George Balanchine to help establish a ballet school and company in the U.S. The School of American Ballet was founded in 1934.
• Ballets Russes dancer Adolph Bolm settled in the U.S. after a 1917 tour and was the first director and ballet master for the San Francisco Opera Ballet—forerunner to the San Francisco Ballet.
• In 1926, dancer Marie Rambert (who assisted the original staging of The Rite of Spring) established London’s oldest dance company, Ballet Rambert (now Rambert Dance Company). And in 1931, Ballets Russes dancer Dame Ninette de Valois founded the Vic-Wells Ballet, which later became The Royal Ballet.
• In 1987, the Joffrey Ballet revived The Rite of Spring, reconstructed by Millicent Hodson. She had been working for over 10 years to rebuild the original piece using diaries, sketches, photographs and several interviews with Rambert and others present at the 1913 performance.
From top: photo by Rosalie O’Connor, courtesy of Boston Ballet; by Paul Kolnik, courtesy of New York City Ballet; by Herbert Migdoll, courtesy of Joffrey Ballet