The Ballets Russes (The Russian Ballets) was an itinerant ballet company from Russia which performed between 1909 and 1929 in many countries. Directed by Sergei Diaghilev, it is regarded as the greatest ballet company of the 20th century. Many of its dancers originated from the Imperial Ballet of Saint Petersburg. After the Russian Revolution of 1917, younger dancers came from those trained in Paris, within the community of exiles. 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 Bronislava Nijinska, Léonide Massine, Vaslav Nijinsky, and the young George Balanchine at the start of his career.
After Diaghilev's early death in 1929, the dancers scattered, and the company's property was claimed by creditors. In 1932 Colonel Wassily de Basil and his associate René Blum revived the company under the name Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. Balanchine and Massine worked with them as choreographers, and Tamara Toumanova was a principal dancer. De Basil and Blum argued constantly, in 1938 the founders split and De Basil founded another company, which he called the Original Ballet Russe, while Blum renamed his group Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. The three companies were the subject of the 2005 documentary film Ballets Russes.
The company's productions, which combined new dance, art and music, created a huge sensation around the world, altering the course of musical history, bringing many significant visual artists into the public eye, and completely reinvigorating the art of performing dance. The Ballets Russes was one of the most influential theatre companies of the 20th century, in part because of its ground-breaking artistic collaboration among contemporary choreographers, composers, artists, and dancers. Its ballets have been variously interpreted as Classical, Neo-Classical, Romantic, Neo-Romantic, Avant-Garde, Expressionist, Abstract, and Orientalist. The influence of the Ballets Russes lasts to this day.
Sergei Diaghilev acted as an "impresario" or organizer of the Ballet Russes, rather than a dancer or an artist. He was wealthy and had studied to be a lawyer. With Alexandre Benois and Leon Bakst, he had formed the Pickwick Club; together, the three published World of Art and created a movement. They believed that "art is free, life is paralyzed." Their ideas of developing a Russian art led to the creation of the Ballet Russes. Among the ground-breaking premieres of the Ballet Russes was The Firebird and Rite of Spring in 1913, both to music by Igor Stravinsky, as well as Balanchine's Appollon musagete to Stravinsky in 1928.
After Diaghilev's early death in 1929, the dancers scattered, and the company's property was claimed by creditors. Colonel Wassily de Basil and his associate René Blum revived the company under the name Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. Balanchine and Massine worked with them as choreographers, and Tamara Toumanova was a principal dancer. De Basil and Blum argued constantly, the founders split and Blum founded another company, which he called the Original Ballet Russe.
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, they often 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.
The Original Ballet Russe toured mostly in Europe. Its alumni were influential in teaching classical Russian ballet technique in European and British schools.
The Ballets Russes was noted for the high standard of its dancers, which contributed a great deal to its success in Paris, where dance technique had declined markedly since the 1830s. Most of the company's dancers were resident performers at the Russian Imperial Theatres in the early years. Diaghilev took them on loan to Paris during the theatres' long summer holidays.
Principal women dancers included many who earned international renown: Anna Pavlova, Tamara Karsavina, Olga Spessivtseva, Mathilde Kschessinska, Ida Rubinstein, Bronislava Nijinska, Lydia Lopokova, Diana Gould and Alicia Markova, among others.
The company was more remarkable for raising the status of the male dancer, who had been largely ignored by choreographers and ballet audiences since the early 19th century. Among the male dancers were Michel Fokine, Serge Lifar, Léonide Massine, George Balanchine, Valentin Zeglovsky, Adolphe Bolm, and the legendary Vaslav Nijinsky, who was the most popular and talented dancer in the company's history.
The three most significant choreographers of the company were (in chronological order) Fokine, Nijinsky, and Massine.
Fokine (1880–1942) created the rebirth of classical dramatic dance (though his works often included Expressionist elements). Many regard his greatest work to be Petrushka; others consider it to be Les Sylphides. Fokine also choreographed The Dying Swan, Prince Igor, and Scheherazade. Fokine graduated from the Imperial Ballet School in 1898, and eventually became First Soloist at the Mariinsky Theater.
In 1907 Fokine created his first work for the Imperial Russian Ballet, entitled Pavilion d'Armide. That same year he created Chopiniana, a piece to music by the composer Frédéric Chopin. This was an early example of creating choreography to an existing score rather than to music specifically written for the ballet (a dramatic departure in practice at the time.)
Fokine established his reputation while the Chief Choreographer for Serge Diaghilev's first ballet seasons in the West. Diaghilev gave Fokine the chance to break away from the academic form of late 19th-century ballet and implement his reforms. Among his most famous ballets created for the Ballets Russes were the Polovtsian Dances from Prince Igor, Les Sylphides, Le Spectre de la Rose and Petrushka.
As a young man, Nijinsky (1888?–1950) danced at the Mariinsky Theater, where he was a huge success. In 1912 he began his career as a choreographer. He created several works for Diaghilev's Ballet Russes during his career. He is sometimes thought of as the father of Expressionist Dance. His most influential works were the innovative L'Apres-midi d'un Faune and The Rite of Spring (to music by Stravinsky).
Nijinsky collaborated with Stravinsky for Le Sacre du Printemps in 1913 (also known as The Rite of Spring), as well as the set designer Roerich. Millicent Hodson and Kenneth Archer have since reconstructed the piece, including sets and costumes, and set it on the Joffrey Ballet. In Nijinsky's time, the work was shocking and controversial, both for the music and wildness of the dance. As a result, many people in the theater on opening night created a near riot. Because of mental illness, Nijinsky eventually retired from dance; he was diagnosed with schizophrenia.
Léonide Massine was born in Moscow in 1896. He studied both acting and dancing at the Imperial School in Moscow. On the verge of becoming an actor, Massine was invited by Sergei Diaghilev to join his company, as he was seeking a replacement for Vaslav Nijinsky. Diaghilev encouraged Massine's creativity and his entry into choreography.
Massine choreographed works such as Le Tricorne and Parade. In Parade, the visual was paramount. Massine collaborated with the contemporary artist Pablo Picasso for this work. As set designer, Picasso created a visual vocabulary based on cubism. Massine used jazz music for the piece.
Massine extended Fokine's choreographic innovations – he worked especially on 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.
Diaghilev secured the employment of many great music composers for his ballets. This served to distinguish his ballets from many 19th-century ballets, for which the music had usually been provided by less inspired composers such as Drigo, Minkus, and Pugni.
Diaghilev commissioned many original scores, and borrowed freely from the existing musical canon. His ballets included music by artists such as Debussy, Milhaud, Poulenc, Prokofiev, Ravel, Satie, Respighi, Igor Stravinsky and Richard Strauss.
The most notable of Diaghilev's composers was Igor Stravinsky, who is now recognised as the premier composer of the early 20th century. Diaghilev had 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. Diaghilev was thus 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 nearly caused an audience riot. It stunned people because of its willful rhythms and aggressive dynamics. The Rite of Spring had to be pulled after just a few performances. 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 and David Garrick's Chinese Ballet at London on the eve of the Seven Years' War. However, Stravinsky's early ballet scores are now widely considered masterpieces of the genre. Even his later ballet scores (such as Apollo), while not as startling, were still superior to most ballet music of the previous century.
The company invited the collaboration of rising contemporary fine artists in the design of sets and costumes. These included Benois himself, Bakst, Braque, Gontcharova, Larionov, Picasso, Chanel, Matisse, Derain, Miró, de Chirico, Dalí, Bilibin, Tchelitchev, Utrillo, Nicholas Roerich, and Rouault. Their designs contributed to the groundbreaking excitement of the company's productions. The scandal caused by the premiere performance in Paris of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring has been partly attributed to the provocative aesthetic of the costumes of the Ballets Russes