SIXTY years after its termination, the Ballets Russes de Serge Diaghilev holds a mythic allure for audiences and scholars that seems to increase over the years. In recent weeks some new productions and a new book gave us another opportunity to think about the Russian impresario who, with his artistic collaborators, carried ballet into the modern age in two extraordinary decades. No one can deny the glamour of Diaghilev's fast-evolving circle - Nijinsky, Fokine, Karsavina, Stravinsky, Picasso, Massine, Balanchine were among them - or the impact most of them made on dance in their subsequent careers. But the Diaghilev ballets that survive don't look anything like the dance of today, and the public basically doesn't care much about history. Yet Diaghilev is something of an industry in the ballet world. Books keep coming out; long-dormant ballets keep being resurrected. Each arrival evokes curiosity, controversy, and sometimes revelation.
``Diaghilev's Ballets Russes'' by Lynn Garafola (Oxford, $29.95) examines the company's popularity in its own time from three perspectives: art, enterprise, and audience. This is not a study of choreography or a gossip's field day, both of which have been amply applied to the Ballets Russes by others. Instead, Ms. Garafola sees the company's power as stemming from political, artistic, economic, and social forces in varying combinations during the company's existence. The ballets almost recede into the background as she fits the Ballets Russes into the culture of modernity that was emerging, mainly in Paris and London, before and after World War I.
The usual ballet history, self-preoccupied and inbred, makes ballet seem a kind of religious practice, available only to initiates, who gather in overheated studios to enact arcane rituals and then collectively, intuitively arrive at elusive metaphors of Truth and Beauty. The mundane world, when it intrudes at all, disturbs them very little.
Garafola doesn't see it that way. For her, ballet is a product of the times, bearing the indelible marks of world events. The early years of Diaghilev's dynasty were provoked by social conscience and republicanism - the ideals of the Russian Revolution - and by the modernist breakthroughs of the revolutionary Russian stage. Almost from the first Paris season in 1909, Garafola thinks, Diaghilev responded to both the siren song of modernism and the detaining clutches of conservatism.
In the process, he not only brought into being a repertory of persistent novelty and frequent genius; he changed the way Europe thought about ballet. Garafola sees Diaghilev as propelling ballet from the rarefied status of high culture to a popular and accepted theatrical form. Ingeniously, Garafola looks at the artists, literati, and social climbers that adopted the Ballets Russes, the tastemakers who presented it, and the influence supporters exerted on the repertory.
GARAFOLA focuses on three choreographers as successively shaping the Ballets Russes character: Michel Fokine, the first, democratizing force; Vaslav Nijinsky, a modernist who definitively gave ballet a Western sensibility; and his sister, Bronislava Nijinska, whose ballets criticized society and its sexual mores. After 1924, Garafola thinks, straitened economics led Diaghilev to a more eclectic mix of styles as he courted popularity.
As she details the social and artistic surges in which the Ballets Russes were swept along, Garafola doesn't attempt to single out any significant breakthrough or culminating style. This is a refreshingly evenhanded view of history, designating neither the exoticism of Fokine nor the neoclassicism of Balanchine as Diaghilev's principal legacy. Considering the turbulent artistic currents of the period, the many areas of private and public life that were drawn to the Ballets Russes and that had some part in shaping its course, Garafola demonstrates that there's no one way to write history, and that even after this fascinating book, the history of the Ballets Russes can still be worked on.
This, I think, is the way we can also view each new reconstruction of a Ballets Russes work. Since authenticity is so much in debate in the ephemeral realm of dance, even revivals coming from the same hand can look different, and no audience can say for sure which version is closest to the original ballet.
The Joffrey Ballet's new production of Bronislava Nijinska's ``Les Noces'' (1923) was staged by the choreographer's daughter, Irina, and Howard Sayette, the same team responsible for the Dance Theater of Harlem (DTH) version. Yet the ballet looks quite different on each company. While DTH had a strong sense of ensemble when they performed ``Les Noces'' last spring, I thought they overacted and romanticized the parts of the bridal couple and their parents. The Joffrey cast I saw, headed by Julie Janus and Daniel Baudendistel, treated the characters more impersonally, more like icons, and created the strange, modernistic sculptural designs with a solemn and beautiful formality.
AN even more drastic account of what's come to be the accepted version of a classic is the ``new'' ``Apr`es-Midi d'un Faune'' (1912), shown recently in New York by the Juilliard Dance Theater. Most Americans know ``Faune'' from the version taught to Rudolf Nureyev and the Joffrey by Elizabeth Schooling in 1979. This ballet, much inscribed with Nureyev's personal mannerisms, has remained in the Joffrey rep, looking more and more peculiar as the years go by. Now Ann Hutchinson Guest and Claudia Jeschke have discovered and read the notations Vaslav Nijinsky himself made for his ballet. Their account of the ``Faune'' is softer in line and less extreme in every way.
The interest in reconstruction has even given us startling new ways to look at Diaghilev ballet. This fall the Joffrey was able to offer ``Faune'' and ``Noces'' on a program with Millicent Hodson's reconstruction of Nijinsky's ``Le Sacre du Printemps.'' This could never have happened in historical time, since ``Sacre'' was withdrawn during its initial season in 1913 and re-choreographed in 1920 by L'eonide Massine. So, unlike Diaghilev's contemporaries, we could see together the Nijinksy-Nijinska works that have often been compared.
For me, ``Les Noces,'' in spite of its rigor and abstractness, is an altogether more accessible ballet. The ``plot'' is familiar and is told in a graphic, even cinematic form. Stravinsky's music is more melodic, more ongoing, the themes longer, the rhythms more sustained than in his barbaric ``Sacre.'' Choreographically this is represented in large, clear group movements, a minimum of complex counterpoint, and an easy-to-read offsetting of principal characters to the corps.
In ``Sacre'' the rhythms are foreshortened, the melodies fragmentary, the harmonies crudely dissonant. Similarly, the choreography is almost confused; you can't follow it or assemble it into neat counterpoint. The motifs are curtailed, almost cursory, but each one is an outcry. The sparse individual characters and choreographic markers are not set apart, but rise to the surface for a moment like bubbles bursting.
``Le Sacre'' is ritual at its most raw and primitive. ``Les Noces'' shows a community that is already more socialized, submitting itself to a more prescribed, confining religious order. What they have in common is a nonballetic, nonvirtuosic, severe and sculptural movement style and a tight massing of groups that Garafola attributes to constructivism.