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Diaghilev's ballet revolution still stepping out 100 years on

Entrepreneurial Russian changed the course of modern ballet with his inventive and talent-filled Ballets Russes.

By Iris FangerContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / April 7, 2009

Felia Doubrovska in 'Ode.' Scene design by Pavel Tchelichev.

Courtesy of The Harvard Theatre Collection

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Modern times for ballet began in Paris on May 19, 1909, when a troupe of dancers picked by impresario Serge Diaghilev from the Imperial theaters of St. Petersburg and Moscow, gave its opening performance. The Ballets Russes was the first company to present an evening of three short works rather than a full-length ballet.

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Without official funding from the czar due to his enemies at court, Diaghilev became the first artistic director to depend on private donations and the first to establish a company continually on tour to audiences throughout Europe, the United States, and South America. And modern, indeed, were his struggles to keep the company together over a 20-year period, 1909-1929, through a world war and the Russian Revolution that closed borders as well as theaters.

This spring, events throughout the US and Europe are celebrating the centennial of Diaghilev's Ballets Russes (see schedule at end of story).

Beyond the survival mode of running a company that had no permanent, year-round home, Diaghilev developed artistic innovations that continue to influence dance companies to the present day.

Rather than enlisting journeymen designers and second-rank composers as was often the case in 19th-century Russia – Tchaikovsky excepted – Diaghilev worked with a collaborative team of equals to create each ballet. Under the personal banner of "Étonne Moi!" he chose the most visionary and avant-garde of choreographers, visual artists, and composers he could find as he sought to make ballet relevant to the era. The list of personalities reads like a who's who of 20th-century geniuses: Vaslav Nijinsky, Igor Stravinsky, Pablo Picasso, Leonide Massine, Ninette De Valois, Serge Lifar, and George Balanchine, among them.

To understand the impact of the Diaghilev Ballets Russes on Parisian audiences, let us imagine we are at Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris on that first night in May 1909. Diaghilev, not sure where his next sou is coming from, has ordered the theater to be repainted and yards of red velvet to recover the seats. Nine rows of seats were removed to permit a larger orchestra, imported from Moscow. A publicity campaign filled the newspapers for weeks in advance, resulting in ticket sales so strong that extra performances were scheduled, even before the opening. Tout Paris is in attendance around us: titled ladies and gentlemen, foreign ambassadors, and artists such as composer Maurice Ravel, sculptor August Rodin, Russian opera singer Feodor Chaliapin, chanteuse Yvonne Guilbert, and the American "barefoot" dancer Isadora Duncan.