It was May 1909, when a company of ballet dancers from Russia burst upon a Parisian public that considered ballet - if they thought of it at all - a minor art form in decline. But, ah, those Russian dancers!
The company known as the Diaghilev Ballets Russes set the city aflame with its dramatically colorful sets and costumes, ballets based on exotic themes, exquisite ballerinas, and robust, highflying male stars - a fervor that was to last throughout Europe and America for the next 20 years.
Among its dancers were Vaslav Nijinsky and Anna Pavlova, names that would echo down the 20th century to the present day.
The era of the Diaghilev Ballets Russes has been partially reconstructed in an exhibition of set and costume designs, along with a group of original costumes, on display through Dec. 28 at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford. The Connecticut museum holds the largest collection of Ballets Russes materials in the world, thanks to the foresight of the director, A. Everett "Chick" Austin, who bought them from Diaghilev dancer Serge Lifar in 1933 for the then-magnificent sum of $10,000.
Along with the comprehensive exhibit at the Wadsworth Atheneum, the Hartford Ballet and the Hartford Symphony have planned programs throughout the fall and early winter featuring works from the Ballets Russes by some of the artists associated with the company: George Balanchine, Igor Stravinsky, Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel, Sergei Prokofiev, and Jean Cocteau.
The ballets presented by Diaghilev were short takes on subjects that looked revolutionary to audiences bored with the evening-length, danced-out fairy tales that were holdovers from the 19th century. The new pieces took place in locales as varied as a Persian harem ("Scheherazade," 1910) and an enchanted forest in Russia ("The Firebird," 1910). They also vaulted into modernism during World War I and afterward tried astonishing experiments such as "Parade" (1917), with its designs by Pablo Picasso, and "Les Noces" (1923).
Sergei Diaghilev, who brought this treasure out of Russia, understood the importance of collaboration among artists. The ballets he produced were created by teams of choreographers, composers, performers, and designers, each as important as the other to the finished product.
At first Diaghilev recruited his teams of artists from among his friends in Russia, but after the outbreak of World War I and the Russian Revolution, his eyes turned to Europe, where he brought the most innovative creators of modern art under his banner: Picasso, Henri Matisse, Juan Gris; the choreographers Lonide Massine, Bronislava Nijinska, and Balanchine; and composers Georges Auric, Erik Satie, and Prokofiev. These, among many others, are represented in the memorabilia on display in Hartford.
The most captivating aspect of the exhibit is the array of costumes, displayed on life-size mannequins positioned in poses from the ballets. A wall-length assembly of members of a corps de ballet, dressed in Lon Bakst's marvelously detailed costumes from Diaghilev's 1921 revival of "The Sleeping Beauty," is posed for its opening cue. Around a corner, the figure of the Rose, in Bakst's design for "The Specter of the Rose" (1911), leaps overhead in his rose-petal tunic. Nearby, several mannequins droop slightly in the heavy, primitive-looking dresses of Nicholas Roerich, painted for "The Rite of Spring" (1913).
Although the Diaghilev Ballets Russes disbanded nearly 70 years ago, its legacy echoes down to our era. The Hartford exhibit recalls the continuity of ballet in the 20th century, a direct line back to Balanchine, Ninette de Valois, who founded Great Britain's Royal Ballet, Lifar, and the multitude of artists whom Diaghilev nurtured in the two decades through which his company danced.
* The Hartford Symphony presents Stravinsky's 'Firebird,' Nov. 11-12 and 'Russian Masters,' Dec. 2-3 at the Bushnell Auditorium. In addition, lectures and a Russian film series accompany the Wadsworth Atheneum exhibit. Call 860-278-2670 for information.