Ballets Russes of Sergei Diaghilev.

Founded in 1909 by impresario and art patron Sergei Diaghilev (1872-1929), the Ballets Russes is recognized as the most influential and distinguished ballet company of the twentieth-century. A bastion of modernism in art, Diaghliev sought with his Ballets Russes to innovate and create the new, while also bringing Russian culture and folklore to Europe. As he wrote in 1909, “I need a ballet and a Russian one—the first Russian ballet, since there is no such thing” (Homans 301).

Bakst, Leon (1866-1924) – 1905 Portrait of Sergei Diaghilev and his Nanny.

The Ballets Russes revolutionized dance by returning to prominence the danseur (male dancer), as well as cultivating young Russian dance and choreographic talent from such luminaries as Michel Fokine (1880-1942), Anna Pavlova (1881-1931), Vaslav Nijinsky (1890-1950), and George Balanchine (1904-1983). The fostering of “artistic unity and harmonious cooperation” was also a tenet of the Ballets Russes, as collaborations between choreographers, composers, and artists created theatrical masterpieces and experiments, many of which have been immortalized in contemporary accounts, photographs, and modern re-stagings and reconstructions.

Leonide Massine, Ballets Russes dancer and choreographer. Photograph from 1916 souvenir program.

Lydia Sokolova and Nicholas Kremneff in L’Apres-midi d’un faune (1912). Episode Choreographique by Nijinsky: Music by Debussy; scenery and costumes designed by Bakst.

As The New York Times stated on January 16, 1916, “The arts of painting and decoration and of music go hand in hand with choreographic art.”

“Visually, the first Ballets Russes seasons were marked by the exotic designs of the Russian-born artist Léon Bakst. His bejewelled colours, swirling Art Nouveau elements and sense of the erotic re-envisioned dance productions as total works of art.

Following his critical triumph in 1909, and despite a financial loss of 76,000 francs (over £350,000 today), Diaghilev was in demand across Europe. So in 1911 he established the Ballets Russes as a year-round touring operation rather than a seasonal enterprise.

The First World War saw the collapse of the Russian, German, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires. After a brutal civil war, Russia came under Communist control and Diaghilev never returned. The belle époque that had seen the birth of the Ballets Russes had been shattered forever.

Diaghilev’s great themes – Russia, the classical world and the Orient – were now treated in the context of modernity. Other ballets reflected topical interests such as beach culture, films and sport.

Stockholm 1914. Mihail Fokin & Vera Fokin in the ballet Scheherazade. Glass plate negative.

Stockholm 1914. Mihail Fokin in the ballet Scheherazade. Glass plate negative.

By 1920 the Ballets Russes had a considerable repertoire to which new ballets were added each year. French avant-garde artists such as Matisse, Derain and Braque designed productions, while the choreographers Massine, Nijinska and Balanchine approached movement in innovative ways.

Diaghilev and his company had to adjust to very different economic circumstances. Monte Carlo now provided a winter base in which to create new works, while long seasons in London provided some financial stability.

Signed photograph of Vaslav Nijinsky in Le Spectre de la Rose, by Bert, 1913. Valentine Gross Archive, © Victoria & Albert Museum, London.

The repertoire of the Ballets Russes remains an invaluable resource for choreographers today. Over 200 different versions of The Rite of Spring have been choreographed since Diaghilev commissioned it. Diaghilev’s achievements continue to inspire the worlds of art, theatre, music and dance.”

 ⁃ Based on the materials of Victoria & Albert Museum, London