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.
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The curtain rises on "Pavillon d'Armide," picturing an 18th-century French rococo setting of pale greens, pinks, and turquoise, designed by Alexander Benois, that includes a huge staircase at the rear and a clock whose figures are represented by live dancers. Later, the characters on a Gobelins-made tapestry will step down to perform. After a pas de trois, Nijinsky leaps off stage to such a height that he leaves the viewers gasping.Skip to next paragraph
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In contrast to the decorum of "Pavillon," next up on the program is "Polvetsian Dances," from Borodin's opera "Prince Igor." The male dancers, costumed as warriors from the Russian steppes, leap onto stage among scantily clad women undulating in a circle, the scene building to a frenzy, further startling the audience. The evening ends with "Le Festin," a group of excerpts from older Russian ballets that showcases the virtuosity of the performers.
At the time, patrons were ecstatic as were the newspaper reviews that followed. For Diaghilev, the wild success meant no turning back.
During the first five years, 1909-1914, Diaghilev could recruit dancers, composers, and artists from Russia, including the young composer, Stravinsky, who produced a score for "The Firebird," followed by "Petrushka" and "The Rite of Spring." After the war began, Diaghilev was forced to seek collaborators from the West. A young English girl, Hilda Munnings, was renamed Lydia Sokolova and catapulted to international stardom. American dancers Ruth Page and Chester Hale danced with the Ballets Russes for awhile, then forged their careers back home. The American modernist Robert Edmund Jones designed costumes and sets for Nijinsky's last ballet, "Till Eulenspiegel," which premiered in New York on the company's second US tour in 1916-1917. The ballet was never seen in Europe due to Nijinsky's quick descent into the mental illness that ended his career. Picasso courted and then married one of the Russian dancers, Olga Khoklova, and designed sets and costumes for four of the ballets, starting with "Parade" in 1917, which brought Cubism onto the stage. In 1924, George Balanchine was one of a small group of dancers who immigrated from Petrograd to the West and were hired by Diaghilev.
The artifacts that remain serve to nudge the recollections – designs for scenery and costumes, sepia-tinted photographs, porcelain figurines of the dancers in their best-loved roles, old contracts and letters. Many of these will be displayed in the various exhibitions to take place this spring and summer, continuing in 2011 at London's Victoria & Albert Museum.
Ballet remains the most personal of art forms because its traditions are handed down in class and the rehearsal studio from mentor to student. Diaghilev's legacy continues, embedded in the generations of dancers who came afterward, to study with the artists he fostered, following their dispersal throughout Europe, the US, and South America, after the company danced its final performance in 1929.