Ballets Russes

From New World Encyclopedia
Ballets Russes
General information
NameBallets Russes
Year founded1909
Principal venuevarious
Artistic staff
Artistic DirectorSergei Diaghilev
Corps de Ballet

The Ballets Russes (French pronunciation: [balɛ ʁys]) was an itinerant ballet company begun in Paris that performed throughout Europe between 1909 and 1929 and on tours to North and South America. The company never performed in Russia, where the Revolution disrupted society. After its initial Paris season, the company had no formal ties there.

The company's productions created a worldwide sensation, completely reinvigorating the art of performing dance, bringing many visual artists to public attention, and significantly affecting the course of musical composition. It also introduced European and American audiences to tales, music, and design motifs drawn from Russian folklore. The company's employment of European avant-garde art went on to influence broader artistic and popular culture of the early twentieth century, not least the development of Art Deco.

Poster by Jean Cocteau for the 1911 Ballet Russe season showing Nijinsky in costume for Le Spectre de la rose, Paris


The French plural form of the name, Ballets Russes, specifically refers to the company founded by Sergei Diaghilev and active during his lifetime. (In some publicity the company was advertised as Les Ballets Russes de Serge Diaghileff.) In English, the company is now commonly referred to as "the Ballets Russes," although in the early part of the twentieth century, it was sometimes referred to as “The Russian Ballet" or "Diaghilev's Russian Ballet." To add to the confusion, some publicity material spelled the name in the singular - as in the above programme of the company's last season at Covent Garden in 1929.

The names Ballet Russe de Monte-Carlo and the Original Ballet Russe (using the singular) refer to companies that formed after Diaghilev's death in 1929.

History and productions

Sergei Diaghilev, founder of the Ballets Russes


Sergei Diaghilev, the company's impresario (or "artistic director" in modern terms), was chiefly responsible for its success. He was uniquely prepared for the role. Born into a wealthy Russian family of vodka distillers (though they went bankrupt when he was 18), he was accustomed to moving in the upper-class circles that provided the company's patrons and benefactors.

In 1890, he enrolled at the Faculty of Law, St. Petersburg, to prepare for a career in the civil service like many Russian young men of his class.[1] There he was introduced (through his cousin Dmitry Filosofov) to a student clique of artists and intellectuals calling themselves "The Nevsky Pickwickians," whose most influential member was Alexandre Benois. Others included Léon Bakst, Walter Nouvel, and Konstantin Somov.[1] From childhood, Diaghilev had been passionately interested in music. However, his ambition to become a composer was dashed in 1894 when Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov told him he had no talent.[1]

In 1898, several members of The Pickwickians founded the influential journal Mir iskusstva (World of Art) under the editorship of Diaghilev.[1] As early as 1902, Mir iskusstva included reviews of concerts, operas, and ballets in Russia. The latter were chiefly written by Benois, who exerted considerable influence on Diaghilev's thinking.[2] Mir iskusstva also sponsored exhibitions of Russian art in St. Petersburg, culminating in Diaghilev's important 1905 show of Russian portraiture at the Tauride Palace.[2]

painting of a ballet performance on stage
Ballet Russes by August Macke, 1912

Frustrated by the extreme conservatism of the Russian art world, Diaghilev organized the groundbreaking Exhibition of Russian Art at the Petit Palais in Paris in 1906, the first major showing of Russian art in the West. Its enormous success created a Parisian fascination with all things Russian. Diaghilev organized a 1907 season of Russian music at the Paris Opéra. In 1908, Diaghilev returned to the Paris Opéra with six performances of Modest Mussorgsky's opera Boris Godunov, starring basso Fyodor Chaliapin. This was Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov's 1908 version (with additional cuts and re-arrangement of the scenes). The performances were a sensation, though the costs of producing grand opera were crippling.


In 1909, Diaghilev presented his first Paris "Saison Russe" devoted exclusively to ballet (although the company did not use the name "Ballets Russes" until the following year.) Most of this original company were resident performers at the Imperial Ballet of Saint Petersburg, hired by Diaghilev to perform in Paris during the Imperial Ballet's summer holidays. The first season's repertory featured a variety of works chiefly choreographed by Michel Fokine, including Le Pavillon d'Armide, the Polovtsian Dances (from Prince Igor), Les Sylphides, and Cléopâtre. The season also included Le Festin, a pastiche set by several choreographers (including Fokine) to music by several Russian composers.

Early Paris Seasons


The 1910 Ballets Russes season featured the debut of The Firebird with music by Stravinsky, choreography by Fokine, stage sets by Golovin, and costumes by Golovin and Bakst. It was the first of Diaghilev's productions whose score was expressly composed for the Ballets Russes, and it made Stravinsky famous overnight. Other 1910 productions included: Scheherezade (choreographed to the symphonic poem by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov); Carnaval (choreographed by Fokine to the piano work by Robert Schumann, orchestrated by several Russian composers); and a revival of the classical Russian ballet "Giselle."


The 1911 season is best remembered for Igor Stravinsky's second commissioned score: Petrushka (with choreography by Fokine, stage sets and costumes by Bakst). Although the ballet received only four performances at the end of the season, it was soon hailed as one of the great collaborations of the early twentieth century. Another sensation was created with Le Spectre de la Rose, to Carl Maria von Weber's Invitation to the Dance as orchestrated by Hector Berlioz (choreography by Fokine, sets and costumes by Bakst). The work featured the dancing of Vaslav Nijinsky and Tamara Karsavina.

Principal productions

Year Title Image Composer(s) Choreographer(s) Sets and costumes
1909 Le Pavillon d'Armide Pavillion d'Armide by A. Benois 01.jpg Nikolai Tcherepnin Michel Fokine Alexandre Benois
Prince Igor Choumoff - Adolph Bolm, Polovtsian Dances.jpg Alexander Borodin Michel Fokine Nicholas Roerich
Le Festin Nijinsky Le Festin Michel Fokine.jpg Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (march from Le Coq d'Or used for processional entry) Konstantin Korovin (sets and costumes)

Léon Bakst (costumes)

Alexandre Benois (costumes)

Ivan Bilibin (costumes)

Mikhail Glinka ("Lezginka" from Ruslan and Ludmilla) Michel Fokine, Marius Petipa
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky ("L'Oiseau d'Or" from The Sleeping Beauty) Marius Petipa
Alexander Glazunov ("Czardas" from Raymonda) Alexander Gorsky
Modest Mussorgsky ("Hopak" from The Fair at Sorochyntsi) Michel Fokine
Mikhail Glinka ("Mazurka" from A Life for the Tsar) Nicolai Goltz, Felix Kchessinsky
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky ("Trepak" from The Nutcracker) Michel Fokine
Alexander Glazunov ("Grand Pas Classique Hongrois" from Raymonda) Marius Petipa
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky ("Finale" of the Second Symphony) Michel Fokine
Les Sylphides Les Sylphides by A.Benois.jpeg Frédéric Chopin (orch. Glazunov, Igor Stravinsky, Alexander Taneyev) Michel Fokine Alexandre Benois
Cléopâtre Cleopatra ballet by Bakst 08.jpg Anton Arensky (additional music by Glazunov, Glinka, Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Sergei Taneyev, Nikolai Tcherepnin) Michel Fokine Léon Bakst
1910 Carnaval Carnaval (Schumann) by L.Bakst 02.jpg Robert Schumann (orch. Arensky, Glazunov, Anatol Liadov, Rimsky-Korsakov, Tcherepnin) Michel Fokine Léon Bakst
Schéhérazade Scheherazade (Rimsky-Korsakov) 01 by L. Bakst.jpg Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov Michel Fokine Léon Bakst
Giselle Giselle (A. Benois) 01.jpg Adolphe Adam Jean Coralli, Jules Perrot, Marius Petipa (revival), Michel Fokine (revisions) Alexandre Benois
Les Orientales Anna Pavlova in Oriental Fantasy by L.Bakst.jpg Christian Sinding (Rondoletto giocoso, op.32/5) (orch. Igor Stravinsky for "Danse Siamoise")

Edvard Grieg (Småtroll, op.71/3, from Lyric Pieces, Book X) (orch. Igor Stravinsky for "Variation")

Vaslav Nijinsky ("Danse Siamoise" and "Variation")

Michel Fokine

Konstantin Korovin (sets and costumes)

Léon Bakst (costumes)

L'Oiseau de feu Léon Bakst 001.jpg Igor Stravinsky Michel Fokine Alexander Golovine (sets and costumes)

Léon Bakst (costumes)

1911 Le Spectre de la rose Le Spectre De La Rose by L. Bakst 01.jpg Carl Maria von Weber Michel Fokine Léon Bakst
Narcisse Leon Bakst 002.jpg Nikolai Tcherepnin Michel Fokine Léon Bakst
Sadko Sadko by B.Anisfeld 01.jpg Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov Mikhail Fokine Boris Anisfeld
Petrushka Petrouchka by A. Benois 01.jpg Igor Stravinsky Michel Fokine Alexandre Benois
Swan Lake Swan lake by S.Sudeikin 01.jpg Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky Marius Petipa, Lev Ivanov, Michel Fokine (revisions) Konstantin Korovin (sets)

Alexander Golovin (sets and costumes)

1912 L'après-midi d'un faune L'après-midi d'un faune by L.Bakst 01.jpg Claude Debussy Vaslav Nijinsky Léon Bakst
Daphnis et Chloé Bakst Daphnis et Chloë Set Act II 1912.jpg Maurice Ravel Michel Fokine Léon Bakst
Le Dieu bleu Le Dieu Bleu by Bakst 05.jpg Reynaldo Hahn Michel Fokine Léon Bakst
Thamar Thamar by L.Bakst 01.jpg Mily Balakirev based on his symphonic Poem Tamara Michel Fokine Léon Bakst
1913 Jeux Jeux by A. Benois 01.jpg Claude Debussy Vaslav Nijinsky Léon Bakst
Le sacre du printemps Roerich Rite of Spring.jpg Igor Stravinsky Vaslav Nijinsky Nicholas Roerich
Tragédie de Salomé Florent Schmitt Boris Romanov Sergey Sudeykin
1914 Les Papillons Papillons by L. Bakst 03.jpg Robert Schumann (orch. Nikolai Tcherepnin) Mikhail Fokine Mstislav Doboujinsky
La légende de Joseph La legende de joseph potiphar's wife 1914.jpg Richard Strauss Michel Fokine Léon Bakst
Le coq d'or Golden Cockerel by N. Goncharova 02.jpg Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov Michel Fokine Natalia Goncharova
Le rossignol Solovey by A. Benois 01.jpg Igor Stravinsky Boris Romanov Alexandre Benois
Midas Maximilian Steinberg Michel Fokine Mstislav Doboujinsky
1915 Soleil de Nuit Mikhail Larionov - Midnight sun 01.jpg Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov Léonide Massine Mikhail Larionov
1916 Las Meniñas Louis Aubert, Gabriel Fauré (Pavane), Maurice Ravel (Alborada del gracioso), Emmanuel Chabrier (Menuet pompeux) Léonide Massine Josep Maria Sert (costumes)
Kikimora Anatoly Liadov Léonide Massine Mikhail Larionov
Till Eulenspiegel Till Eulenspiegel (1916) 1.jpg Richard Strauss Vaslav Nijinsky Robert Edmond Jones
1917 Feu d'Artifice Igor Stravinsky Giacomo Balla
Les Femmes de Bonne Humeur Les Femmes de bonne humeur 01 by L. Bakst.jpg Domenico Scarlatti (orch. Vincenzo Tommasini) Léonide Massine Léon Bakst
Parade Erik Satie Léonide Massine Pablo Picasso
1919 La Boutique fantasque La boutique fantastique by L. Bakst 08.jpg Gioachino Rossini (arr. Ottorino Respighi) Léonide Massine André Derain
El sombrero de tres picos Manuel de Falla Léonide Massine Pablo Picasso
Les jardins d'Aranjuez (new version of Las Meninas) Louis Aubert, Gabriel Fauré, Maurice Ravel, Emmanuel Chabrier Léonide Massine Josep Maria Sert (costumes)
1920 Le chant du rossignol Igor Stravinsky Léonide Massine Henri Matisse
Pulcinella Igor Stravinsky Léonide Massine Pablo Picasso
Ballet de l'astuce féminine or Cimarosiana Domenico Cimarosa Léonide Massine Josep Maria Sert
Le sacre du printemps (revival) Igor Stravinsky Léonide Massine Nicholas Roerich
1921 Chout Jester ballet by M. Larionov 01.jpg Sergei Prokofiev Léonide Massine Mikhail Larionov
Cuadro Flamenco Traditional Andalusian music (arr. Manuel de Falla) Pablo Picasso
The Sleeping Beauty Sleeping Beauty by L. Bakst 04.jpg Pyotr Tchaikovsky Marius Petipa Léon Bakst
1922 Le Mariage de la Belle au Bois Dormant Pyotr Tchaikovsky Marius Petipa Alexandre Benois (sets and costumes)

Natalia Goncharova (costumes)

Mavra Mavra by L. Bakst 01.jpeg Igor Stravinsky Bronislava Nijinska Léopold Survage
Renard Igor Stravinsky Bronislava Nijinska Mikhail Larionov
1923 Les noces Little wedding by N. Goncharova 01.jpg Igor Stravinsky Bronislava Nijinska Natalia Goncharova
1924 Les Tentations de la Bergère, ou l'Amour Vainqueur Costume Design for the Shepherdess, for the Ballet 'Les Tentations de la Bergère, premiered at the Théâtre de Monte Carlo, 1924 MET DP858623.jpg Michel de Montéclair (arr. and orch. Henri Casadesus) Bronislava Nijinska Juan Gris
Le Médecin malgré lui Le Medecin malgre lui by A.Benois 01.jpg Charles Gounod Bronislava Nijinska Alexandre Benois
Les biches Francis Poulenc Bronislava Nijinska Marie Laurencin
Cimarosiana Domenico Cimarosa (orch. Ottorino Respighi) Léonide Massine, Bronislava Nijinska José-María Sert
Les Fâcheux Georges Auric Bronislava Nijinska Georges Braque
Le train bleu Darius Milhaud Bronislava Nijinska Henri Laurens (sets)

Gabrielle Chanel (costumes)

Pablo Picasso (sets)

1925 Zephyr et Flore Vladimir Dukelsky Léonide Massine Georges Braque
Le chant du rossignol (revival) Igor Stravinsky George Balanchine Henri Matisse
Les matelots Georges Auric Léonide Massine Pere Pruna
Barabau Vittorio Rieti George Balanchine Maurice Utrillo
1926 Roméo et Juliette Constant Lambert Bronislava Nijinska Max Ernst (curtain)

Joan Miró (sets and costumes)

Pastorale Georges Auric George Balanchine Pere Pruna
Jack in the Box Erik Satie (orch. Milhaud) George Balanchine André Derain
The Triumph of Neptune Lord Berners George Balanchine Pedro Pruna (costumes)
1927 La chatte Henri Sauguet George Balanchine Naum Gabo
Mercure Massine Mercure.jpg Erik Satie Léonide Massine Pablo Picasso
Le pas d'acier G. Yakulov. Le pas d'acier. 1927.jpg Sergei Prokofiev Léonide Massine Georgy Yakulov
1928 Ode Nikolai Nabokov Léonide Massine Pavel Tchelitchev
Apollon musagète (Apollo) Ballets Russes - Apollo musagète.jpg Igor Stravinsky George Balanchine André Bauschant (scene)

Coco Chanel (costumes)

The Gods Go A-Begging Tatiana Riabouchinska and Roman Jasinsky in Les Dieux mendiants (The Gods go a-begging), between Nov 1938-Aug 1940 - photograph by Max Dupain (4051611764).jpg George Frederic Handel George Balanchine Léon Bakst (sets)

Juan Gris (costumes)

1929 Le Bal Vittorio Rieti George Balanchine Giorgio de Chirico
Renard (revival) Igor Stravinsky Serge Lifar Mikhail Larionov
Le fils prodigue Sergei Prokofiev George Balanchine Georges Rouault


Dimitri Rostoff as Malatesta in Francesca da Rimini, Original Ballet Russe, 1940

When Sergei Diaghilev died of diabetes in Venice on August 19, 1929, the Ballets Russes was left with substantial debts. As the Great Depression began, its property was claimed by its creditors and the company of dancers dispersed.

In 1931, Colonel Wassily de Basil (a Russian émigré entrepreneur from Paris) and René Blum (ballet director at the Monte Carlo Opera) founded the Ballets Russes de Monte-Carlo, giving its first performances there in 1932.[3] Diaghilev alumni Léonide Massine and George Balanchine worked as choreographers with the company and Tamara Toumanova was a principal dancer.

Artistic differences led to a split between Blum and de Basil,[4] after which de Basil renamed his company initially "Ballets Russes de Colonel W. de Basil."[5] Blum retained the name "Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo," while de Basil created a new company. In 1938, he called it "The Covent Garden Russian Ballet"[5] and then renamed it the "Original Ballet Russe" in 1939.[5][6]

After World War II began, the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo left Europe and toured extensively in the United States and South America. As dancers retired and left the company, some founded dance studios in the United States or South America or taught at other former company dancers' studios. With Balanchine's founding of the School of American Ballet, and later the New York City Ballet, many outstanding former Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo dancers went to New York to teach in his school. When they toured the United States, Cyd Charisse, the film actress and dancer, was taken into the cast.

The Original Ballet Russe toured mostly in Europe. Its alumni were influential in teaching classical Russian ballet technique in European schools.

The successor companies were the subject of the 2005 documentary film Ballets Russes.

The dancers

Scene from Apollon musagète, 1928. Dancers: Serge Lifar, Danilova, Chernysheva, Dubrovska, Petrova

The Ballets Russes was noted for the high standard of its dancers, most of whom had been classically trained at the great Imperial schools in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Their high technical standards contributed a great deal to the company's success in Paris, where dance technique had declined markedly since the 1830s.

Principal female dancers included: Anna Pavlova, Tamara Karsavina, Olga Spessivtseva, Mathilde Kschessinska, Ida Rubinstein, Bronislava Nijinska, Lydia Lopokova, Diana Gould, Sophie Pflanz, and Alicia Markova, among others. Many earned international renown with the company, including Ekaterina Galanta and Valentina Kachouba.[7][8] Prima ballerina Xenia Makletzova was dismissed from the company in 1916 and sued by Diaghilev; she countersued for breach of contract, and won $4500 in a Massachusetts court.[9][10]

The Ballets Russes was even more remarkable for raising the status of the male dancer, largely ignored by choreographers and ballet audiences since the early nineteenth century. Among the male dancers were Michel Fokine, Serge Lifar, Léonide Massine, Anton Dolin, George Balanchine, Valentin Zeglovsky, Theodore Kosloff, Adolph Bolm, and the legendary Vaslav Nijinsky, considered the most popular and talented dancer in the company's history.

After the Russian Revolution of 1917, in later years, younger dancers were taken from those trained in Paris by former Imperial dancers, within the large community of Russian exiles. Recruits were even accepted from America and included a young Ruth Page who joined the troupe in Monte Carlo during 1925.[11][12][13]


The company featured and premiered now-famous (and sometimes notorious) works by the great choreographers Marius Petipa and Michel Fokine, as well as new works by Vaslav Nijinsky, Bronislava Nijinska, Léonide Massine, and the young George Balanchine at the start of his career.

Michel Fokine

The choreography of Michel Fokine was of paramount importance in the initial success of the Ballets Russes. Fokine had graduated from the Imperial Ballet School in Saint Petersburg in 1898, eventually becoming First Soloist at the Mariinsky Theater. In 1907, Fokine choreographed his first work for the Imperial Russian Ballet, Le Pavillon d'Armide. In the same year, he created Chopiniana to piano music by the composer Frédéric Chopin as orchestrated by Alexander Glazunov. This was an early example of creating choreography to an existing score rather than to music specifically written for the ballet, a departure from the normal practice at the time.

Fokine established an international reputation with his works choreographed during the first four seasons (1909–1912) of the Ballets Russes. These included the Polovtsian Dances (from Prince Igor), Le Pavillon d'Armide (a revival of his 1907 production for the Imperial Russian Ballet), Les Sylphides (a reworking of his earlier Chopiniana), The Firebird, Le Spectre de la Rose, Petrushka, and Daphnis and Chloé . After a longstanding tumultuous relationship with Diaghilev, Fokine left the Ballets Russes at the end of the 1912 season.

Vaslav Nijinsky

Vaslav Nijinsky in Scheherazade

Vaslav Nijinsky had attended the Imperial Ballet School, St. Petersburg since the age of eight. He graduated in 1907 and joined the Imperial Ballet where he immediately began to take starring roles. Diaghilev invited him to join the Ballets Russes for its first Paris season.

In 1912, Diaghilev gave Nijinsky his first opportunity as a choreographer, for his production of L'Après-midi d'un faune to Claude Debussy's symphonic poem Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune. Featuring Nijinsky himself as the Faun, the ballet's frankly erotic nature caused a sensation. The following year, Nijinsky choreographed a new work by Debussy composed expressly for the Ballets Russes, Jeux. Indifferently received by the public, Jeux was eclipsed two weeks later by the premiere of Igor Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring (Le Sacre du printemps), also choreographed by Nijinsky.

Nijinsky eventually retired from dance and choreography, after he was diagnosed with schizophrenia in 1919.

Léonide Massine

Léonide Massine was born in Moscow, where he studied both acting and dancing at the Imperial School. On the verge of becoming an actor, Massine was invited by Sergei Diaghilev to join the Ballets Russes, as he was seeking a replacement for Vaslav Nijinsky. Diaghilev encouraged Massine's creativity and his entry into choreography.

Massine's most famous creations for the Ballets Russes were "Parade," "El sombrero de tres picos," and "Pulcinella." In all three of these works, he collaborated with Pablo Picasso, who designed the sets and costumes.

Massine extended Fokine's choreographic innovations, especially those relating to narrative and character. His ballets incorporated both folk dance and demi-charactère dance, a style using classical technique to perform character dance. Massine created contrasts in his choreography, such as synchronized yet individual movement, or small-group dance patterns within the corps de ballet.

Bronislava Nijinska in Petrushka

Bronislava Nijinska

Bronislava Nijinska was the younger sister of Vaslav Nijinsky. She trained at the Imperial Ballet School in St. Petersburg, joining the Imperial Ballet company in 1908. From 1909, she (like her brother) was a member of Diaghilev's Ballets Russes.

In 1915, Nijinska and her husband fled to Kiev to escape World War I. There, she founded the École de movement, where she trained Ukrainian artists in modern dance. Her most prominent pupil was Serge Lifar (who later joined the Ballets Russes in 1923).

Following the Russian Revolution, Nijinska fled again to Poland, and then, in 1921, re-joined the Ballets Russes in Paris. In 1923, Diaghilev assigned her the choreography of Stravinsky's "Les Noces." The result combines elements of her brother's choreography for "The Rite of Spring" with more traditional aspects of ballet, such as dancing en pointe. The following year, she choreographed three new works for the company: "Les biches," "Les Fâcheux," and "Le train bleu."

George Balanchine

Born Giorgi Melitonovitch Balanchivadze in Saint Petersburg, George Balanchine was trained at the Imperial School of Ballet. His education there was interrupted by the Russian Revolution of 1917. Balanchine graduated in 1921, after the school reopened. He subsequently studied music theory, composition, and advanced piano at the Petrograd Conservatory, graduating in 1923. During this time, he worked with the corps de ballet of the Mariinsky Theater. In 1924, Balanchine (and his first wife, ballerina Tamara Geva) fled to Paris while on tour of Germany with the Soviet State Dancers. He was invited by Sergei Diaghilev to join the Ballets Russes as a choreographer.[14]

Balanchine choreographed "Apollon musagète" and "Le fils prodigue" for the company.

The designers

Diaghilev invited the collaboration of contemporary fine artists in the design of sets and costumes. These included Alexandre Benois, Léon Bakst, Nicholas Roerich, Georges Braque, Natalia Goncharova, Mikhail Larionov, Pablo Picasso, Coco Chanel, Henri Matisse, André Derain, Joan Miró, Giorgio de Chirico, Salvador Dalí, Ivan Bilibin, Pavel Tchelitchev, Maurice Utrillo, and Georges Rouault.

Their designs contributed to the groundbreaking artistry of the company's productions. The premiere performance in Paris of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring was considered scandalous by many of the audience and caused a near riot. The scandal has been partly attributed to the provocative aesthetic of the costumes of the Ballets Russes.[15]

While they created amazing works most of the designers were not trained in theater but started out as studio painters.

Alexandre Benois

Alexandre Benois had been the most influential member of The Nevsky Pickwickians and was one of the original founders (with Bakst and Diaghilev) of Mir iskusstva. His particular interest in ballet as an art form strongly influenced Diaghilev and was seminal in the formation of the Ballets Russes. Benois was also focused on historical accuracy and had an extensive knowledge of fashion history. In addition, Benois contributed scenic and costume designs to several of the company's earlier productions: "Le Pavillon d'Armide," portions of "Le Festin," and "Giselle." Benois also participated with Igor Stravinsky and Michel Fokine in the creation of "Petrushka," to which he contributed much of the scenario as well as the stage sets and costumes.

Léon Bakst

Léon Bakst was also an original member of both "The Nevsky Pickwickians,' and Mir iskusstva. “He regarded the nude body as an aesthetic totality whose artistry had been forgotten under the weight of nineteenth century social and theatrical dress.”[16] He participated as designer in productions of the Ballets Russes from its beginning in 1909 until 1921, creating sets and costumes for "Scheherazade," "The Firebird," "Les Orientales,' "Le Spectre de la rose," "L'Après-midi d'une faune," and "Daphnis et Chloé," among other productions.

Pablo Picasso

Picasso collaborated on several productions with the Ballets Russes. His Cubist sets and costumes were used by Sergei Diaghilev in the production of "Parade," (1917, choreography: Léonide Massine), "Le Tricorne" (The Three-Cornered Hat) (1919, choreography: Massine), "Pulcinella" (1920, choreographer: Massine), and "Cuadro Flamenco" (1921, choreography: Spanish folk dancers). Picasso also drew a sketch with pen on paper of "La Boutique fantasque" ("The Magic Toyshop"), (1919, choreography: Massine) and designed the drop curtain for "Le Train Bleu" (1924, choreography: Bronislava Nijinska), based on his painting "Two Women Running on the Beach" ("The Race"), 1922.[17]

Natalia Goncharova

Natalia Goncharova was born in 1881 near Tula, Russia. Her art was inspired by Russian folk art, Fauvism, and Cubism. She began designing for the Ballets Russes in 1921.

Although the Ballets Russes firmly established the twentieth-century tradition of fine art theater design, the company was not unique in its employment of fine artists. For instance, Savva Mamontov's Private Opera Company had made a policy of employing fine artists, such as Konstantin Korovin and Golovin, who went on to work for the Ballets Russes.

Composers and conductors

Igor Stravinsky with Vaslav Nijinsky in costume for Petrushka

For his new productions, Diaghilev commissioned the foremost composers of the twentieth century, including: Debussy, Milhaud, Poulenc, Prokofiev, Ravel, Satie, Respighi, Stravinsky, de Falla, and Strauss. He was also responsible for commissioning the first two significant British-composed ballets: "Romeo and Juliet" (composed in 1925 by nineteen-year-old Constant Lambert) and "The Triumph of Neptune" (composed in 1926 by Lord Berners).

The impresario also engaged conductors who were or became eminent in their field during the twentieth century, including Pierre Monteux (1911–16 and 1924), Ernest Ansermet (1915–23), Edward Clark (1919–20) and Roger Désormière (1925–29).[18]

Igor Stravinsky

Diaghilev hired the young Stravinsky at a time when he was virtually unknown to compose the music for "The Firebird," after the composer Anatoly Lyadov proved unreliable. The opportunity proved instrumental in launching Stravinsky's career in Europe and the United States of America.

Stravinsky's early ballet scores were the subject of much discussion. The Firebird (1910) was seen as an astonishingly accomplished work for such a young artist (Debussy is said to have remarked drily: "Well, you've got to start somewhere!"). Many contemporary audiences found "Petrushka" (1911) to be almost unbearably dissonant and confused. "The Rite of Spring" (1913) nearly caused an audience riot. It stunned people because of its willful rhythms and aggressive dynamics. The audience's negative reaction to it is now regarded as a theatrical scandal as notorious as the failed runs of Richard Wagner's Tannhäuser at Paris in 1861 and Jean-Georges Noverre's Les Fêtes Chinoises in London on the eve of the Seven Years' War. Stravinsky helped to pioneer modern music and his early ballet scores are now widely considered masterpieces of the genre.

Centennial exhibitions and celebrations

Russian stamp: Sergei Diaghilev

Paris, 2008: In September 2008, on the eve of the 100th anniversary of the creation of the Ballets Russes, Sotheby's announced the staging of an exceptional exhibition of works lent mainly by French, British and Russian private collectors, museums and foundations. Some 150 paintings, designs, costumes, theater decors, drawings, sculptures, photographs, manuscripts, and programs were exhibited in Paris, retracing the key moments in the history of the Ballets Russes. On display were costumes designed by André Derain ("La Boutique fantasque," 1919) and Henri Matisse ("Le chant du rossignol," 1920), and Léon Bakst.

Posters recalling the surge of creativity that surrounded the Ballets Russes included Pablo Picasso's iconic image of the Chinese Conjuror for the audacious production of Parade and Jean Cocteau's poster for "Le Spectre de la rose." Costumes and stage designs presented included works by Alexander Benois, for '"'Le Pavillon d'Armide" and "Petrushka"; Léon Bakst, for "La Péri" and "Le Dieu bleu"; Mikhail Larionov, for "Le Soleil à Minuit"; and Natalia Goncharova, for "The Firebird" (1925 version). The exhibition also included important contemporary artists, whose works reflected the visual heritage of the Ballets Russes – notably an installation made of colorfully painted paper by the renowned Belgian artist Isabelle de Borchgrave, and items from the Imperial Porcelain Factory in St. Petersburg.[19]

Monte-Carlo, 2009: In May, in Monaco, two postage stamps "Centenary of Ballets Russians of Diaghilev" went out, created by Georgy Shishkin.

London, 2010–11: London's Victoria and Albert Museum presented a special exhibition entitled Diaghilev and the Golden Age of the Ballets Russes, 1909–1929 at the V&A South Kensington between September 5, 2010 and January 9, 2011.

Canberra, 2010–11: An exhibition of the company's costumes held by the National Gallery of Australia was held from December 10, 2010 – May 1, 2011 at the Gallery in Canberra. Entitled Ballets Russes: The Art of Costume, it included 150 costumes and accessories from 34 productions from 1909 to 1939; one third of the costumes had not been seen since they were last worn on stage. Along with costumes by Natalia Goncharova, Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, André Derain, Georges Braque, André Masson and Giorgio de Chirico, the exhibition also featured photographs, film, music and artists’ drawings.[20]

Washington, DC, 2013: Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes, 1909–1929: When Art Danced with Music. National Gallery of Art, East Building Mezzanine. May 12— September 2, 2013. Organized by the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, in collaboration with the National Gallery of Art, Washington.[21]

Stockholm, 2014–2015: Sleeping Beauties – Dreams and Costumes. The Dance Museum in Stockholm owns about 250 original costumes from the Ballets Russes, in this exhibition about fifty of them are shown.


Originally conceived by impresario Sergei Diaghilev, the Ballets Russes is widely regarded as the most influential ballet company of the twentieth century, in part because it promoted ground-breaking artistic collaborations among young choreographers, composers, designers, and dancers, all at the forefront of their several fields. Diaghilev commissioned works from composers such as Igor Stravinsky, Claude Debussy, Sergei Prokofiev, Erik Satie, and Maurice Ravel, artists such as Vasily Kandinsky, Alexandre Benois, Pablo Picasso, and Henri Matisse, and costume designers Léon Bakst and Coco Chanel.

Film of a performance

Diaghilev always maintained that no camera could ever do justice to the artistry of his dancers, and it was long believed there was no film legacy of the Ballets Russes. However, in 2011 a 30-second newsreel film of a performance in Montreux, Switzerland, in June 1928 was discovered. The ballet was Les Sylphides and the lead dancer was identified as Serge Lifar.[22]


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 Lynn Garafola, Diaghilev's Ballets Russes (New York, N.Y.: Da Capo Press, 1998, ISBN 978-0306808784), 150-151, 438.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Simon Morrison, "The 'World of Art' and Music," in Mir Iskusstva: Russia's Age of Elegance Yevgenia Petrova, ed. (Omaha, NE, Minneapolis, MN, and Princeton, N.J.: Palace Editions, 2005, ISBN 0967845130),  14, 38.
  3. Amanda, "Ballets Russes", The Age, July 17, 2005. Retrieved August 16, 2023.
  4. Jennifer Homans, "René Blum: Life of a Dance Master," New York Times, July 8, 2011. Retrieved August 16, 2023.
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 Debra Craine and Judith Mackrell (eds.), "Les Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo," in The Oxford Dictionary of Dance, 2nd ed. (Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press, 2010, ISBN 978-0199563449). Retrieved August 17, 2023.
  6. Victoria Tennant, Irina Baronova and the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2014, ISBN 978-0226167169), 21. Retrieved August 17, 2023.
  7. Valentina Kachouba, "Diaghileff Ballet Russ Arrives," Musical America (24) (September 23, 1916): 33. Retrieved August 17, 2023.
  8. Valentina Kachouba, "They Look Pretty, Too," The Los Angeles Times via, December 16, 1916, 15. Retrieved August 17, 2023.
  9. Vanessa Banni-Viñas, "Correcting a Ballerina's Story: The Truth Behind Makletzova v. Diaghileff," American Journal of Legal History 53(3) (2013): 353–361.
  10. Xenia P. Makletzova v. Sergei Diaghileff, 227 Mass. 100, March 13, 1917 — May 25, 1917, Suffolk County MA., Retrieved August 17, 2023.
  11. Joellen A. Meglin, "Ruth Page - Early Architect of the American Ballet," Dance Heritage. Retrieved August 17, 2023.
  12. Jack Anderson, "Ruth Page, Dancer, Is Dead at 92; Proudly American Choreographer," The New York Times, April 9, 1991. Retrieved August 17, 2023.
  13. "Ruth Page Collection, (S)*MGZMD 16, Jerome Robbins Dance Division, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts," New York Public Library Archives. Retrieved August 17, 2023.
  14. Joseph Horowitz, Artists in Exile: How Refugees from Twentieth-Century War and Revolution Transformed the American Performing Arts (New York, N.Y.: Harper Collins, 2008, ISBN 978-0060748500).
  15. Jane Albert, "Inside the dress circle," The Sydney Morning Herald, "Spectrum" section, December 11, 2010, 2.
  16. Jane Pritchard, Diaghilev and the golden age of the ballet russes (London, U.K.: V&A Publishing, 2010, ISBN 978-1851776139), 104.
  17. Susan Au, Ballet and Modern Dance (London: Thames and Hudson Ltd. 2002, ISBN 978-0500203521), 105-106.
  18. Richard Buckle, Diaghilev (1979; London, U.K.: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1993, ISBN 978-0297813774).
  19. "Dancing into Glory: The Golden Age of the Ballets Russes," Retrieved August 17, 2023.
  20. Robert Bell, Ballets Russes: the art of costume (London, U.K. and Seattle, WA: Thames & Hudson UK and University of Washington Press, 2010, ISBN 978-0642541574).
  21. Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes, 1909–1929: When Art Danced with Music National Gallery of Art, May 12 – October 6, 2013. Retrieved August 30, 2023.
  22. Maev Kennedy, "Ballets Russes brought back to life on film" The Guardian, January 31, 2011. Retrieved August 17, 2023.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Amanda. "Ballets Russes", The Age, July 17, 2005. Retrieved August 16, 2023.
  • Anderson, Jack. "Ruth Page, Dancer, Is Dead at 92; Proudly American Choreographer," The New York Times, April 9, 1991. Retrieved August 17, 2023.
  • Au, Susan. Ballet and Modern Dance. London: Thames and Hudson Ltd. 2002, ISBN 978-0500203521.
  • Bell, Robert. Ballets Russes: the art of costume. London, U.K. and Seattle, WA: Thames & Hudson UK and University of Washington Press, 2010. ISBN 978-0642541574
  • Buckle, Richard. Diaghilev. London, U.K.: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1993 (original 1979). ISBN 978-0297813774
  • Craine, Debra, and Judith Mackrell (eds.). The Oxford Dictionary of Dance, 2nd ed. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press, 2010. ISBN 978-0199563449
  • Garafola, Lynn. Diaghilev's Ballets Russes. New York, NY: Da Capo Press, 1998. ISBN 978-0306808784
  • Horowitz, Joseph. Artists in Exile: How Refugees from Twentieth-Century War and Revolution Transformed the American Performing Arts. New York, NY: Harper Collins, 2008. ISBN 978-0060748500
  • Petrova, Yevgenia (*ed.). Mir Iskusstva: Russia's Age of Elegance. Omaha, NE, Minneapolis, MN, and Princeton, NJ: Palace Editions, 2005. ISBN 0967845130
  • Pritchard, Jane. Diaghilev and the golden age of the ballet russes. London, U.K.: V&A Publishing, 2010. ISBN 978-1851776139
  • Tennant, Victoria. Irina Baronova and the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo] (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2014. ISBN 978-0226167169

Further reading

  • Anderson, Jack. Ballet and Modern Dance: A Concise History, 3rd.ed. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Book Company, 2018. ISBN 978-0871273963
  • Anderson, Margot, et al. Creative Australia and the Ballets Russes. Published in conjunction with the Exhibition, Arts Centre, Melbourne 2009. ISBN 978-0980295818
  • Berggruen, Olivier. The Writing of Art. London, U.K.: Pushkin Press, 2012. ISBN 978-1906548629
  • Clarke, Mary, and Clement Crisp. Design for Ballet. London, U.K.: Studio Vista, 1978. ISBN 978-0289705964
  • Garafola, Lynn. The Ballet Russe and its World. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1999. ISBN 978-0300061765
  • Purvis, Alston, The Ballets Russes and the Art of Design. New York, NY: The Monacelli Press, 2009. ISBN 978-1580932547
  • Shead, Richard. Ballets Russes. Wellfleet, MA: Wellfleet Press, 1989. ISBN 978-1555214388
  • Gosudarstvennyĭ russkiĭ muzeĭ (Russian State Museum), Foundation for International Arts and Education, Joslyn Art Museum, Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum, and Princeton University Art Museum, Mir Iskusstva: Russia's Age of Elegance. St. Petersburg, RU, Omaha, NE, Minneapolis, MN, and Princeton, NJ: Palace Editions, 2005. ISBN 978-0967845135

External links

All links retrieved August 22, 2023.

Ballets Russes

Ballets Russes Centennial and other exhibitions


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