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.

Courtesy of The Harvard Theatre Collection
Felia Doubrovska in 'Ode.' Scene design by Pavel Tchelichev.
Courtesy of The Harvard Theatre Collection
'Petrouchka' 1911. Vaslav Nijinsky. Photograph by Elliot and Fry, London.
Courtesy of The Harvard Theatre Collection
'Le Pavillon d'Armide' 1909, Scene 2, Garden. Scene design by Alexndre Benois, Paris 1909.
Courtesy of The Harvard Theatre Collection
'Sadko' 1911, The Lake. Curtain design by Serge Soudeikine, Watercolor.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Schedule of Events:

Harvard University: Symposium, April 15-17; exhibition at Pusey Library, April 15-Aug. 28; continuing at The Groton School, Groton, Mass. in the fall.

Boston University conference, May 19-21; exhibition opening May 20; other events during week of May 16-22.

Wadsworth Athenaeum, Hartford, Conn.; exhibit through July 12, with additional lectures.

New York Public Library of the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center, exhibition, June 25-Sept. 19.

•Victoria & Albert Museum, London, exhibition, fall 2011.

Joffrey Ballet, Auditorium Theater, Chicago; "Les Noces" (Stravinsky, Nijinska), April 29-May 10.

Boston Ballet, Wang Theater, Boston; "Le Spectre de la Rose" (von Weber, Fokine), "L'Apres-midi d'une faune" (Debussy, Fokine), "The Prodigal Son" (Prokofiev, Balanchine), and a new "Le Sacred du Printemps" (Stravinsky, Jorma Elo), May 14-17.

•Royal Ballet, Covent Garden, London; "Les Sylphides" (Chopin, Fokine), "The Firebird" (Stravinsky, Fokine), May 4-30, in repertory.

English National Ballet, Sadler's Wells Theater, London; "Apollo" (Stravinsky, Balanchine)," Le Spectre de la Rose," "Faune," "Scheherazade"(Rimsky-Korsakov, Fokine)., "Le Sacred du Printemps," June 16-20.

American Ballet Theatre at Metropolitan Opera House, New York: "The Prodigal Son", June 1-6.

Kremlin Ballet of Moscow, Théâtre des Champs-Elysées; "Scheherazade," "Le Dieu Bleu" (Hahn, Fokine), "Thamar" (Balakirev, Fokine), "Bolero" (Ravel, Nijinska), created in 1928 for Ida Rubinstein's company, June 19-21.

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