In 1909, the brilliant Russian impresario Serge Diaghilev ignited a revolution in dance. A former administrator at the Imperial Theaters in St. Petersburg, Diaghilev assembled a group of stellar dancers from the Imperial Theaters: including Anna Pavlova, Vaslav Nijinksy, Tamara Karsavina, Michel Fokine and Ida Rubinstein: and staged a season of ballet at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris. The result was the rebirth of ballet in a new 20th century form: simultaneously sophisticated, daring, glamorous, controversial, intelligent, exotic and contemporary.
By collaborating with composers, designers, artists and choreographers, Diaghilev formulated a vision that championed ballet as an art form that wedded many forms of art and pushed the boundaries of theatricality. The Ballets Russes was the birthplace of groundbreaking ballets such as Fokine's The Firebird and Petrouchka, George Balanchine's Apollo and The Prodigal Son, Nijinsky's Afternoon of a Faun and Bronislava Nijinska's Les Biches.
New York City Center's 2009 Fall for Dance Festival celebrates the centennial of the Ballets Russes by presenting recreations and reinterpretations of some of the original ballets produced by the legendary company. "I wanted City Center to participate in the celebration of the Ballets Russes," says Arlene Shuler, the President and CEO of City Center. "Fall for Dance seemed like the ideal venue to do that. Many of the audience members are newcomers to dance, so this would be a way for them to learn about one important aspect of its history." As part of the celebration, New York City Center and The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts will exhibit portions of Diaghilev's Theater of Marvels: The Ballets Russes and Its Aftermath during this year's Fall for Dance Festival at New York City Center.
Despite the name, the Ballets Russes was really a Euro-centric, itinerant troupe with a large Russian exile population that performed internationally. Paradoxically, the company that stood for a new Russian esthetic in dance never danced in Russia. Diaghilev drew on the fin de siècle in Russian arts and assembled major players in European music, dance, painting and design. Over two decades, the troupe transformed tastes in art, showcased unique forms of choreography and set the stage for a new age of modern dance and neoclassicism. This was, not insignificantly, the company that produced the famous premiere of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring that provoked a riot in Paris.
The influence of the Ballets Russes has been everlasting in many forms of theatrical dance, as can be seen in the City Center programs this fall. For clarification purposes, Diaghilev's troupe lasted until the impresario's death in 1929. Later companies, directed by Sergei Denham and Colonel Wassily de Basil, used the title "Ballet Russe" and carried on some of the legacy with repertory, choreographers, and dancers associated with Diaghilev.
Just consider the roster of talent presented by Diaghilev. The choreographers he featured included Leonide Massine and Nijinska (Nijinsky's sister), as well as Balanchine, Fokine and Nijinsky. Diaghilev's insider status with music circles allowed him to commission ballet scores from Stravinsky, Ravel, Glazounov, Prokofiev, Debussy, de Falla, Poulenc, Rimsky-Korsakov, Milhaud and Satie. The painters and designers contracted by the Ballets Russes included Bakst, Benois, Braques, Derain, Picasso, Gontcharova, Matisse, Tchelichew, Roerich, Roualt, de Chirico, Cocteau, and Chanel. Dance: and fashion: were forever transfigured.
Among the highlights of the Fall for Dance Festival are two rarely seen Ballets Russes works: Nijinska's Les Biches and Balanchine's La Chatte. The premise of Les Biches, reconstructed by Ballet West, revolves around a party filled with beautiful men and women who are self-involved and morally loose. It was conceived as a sharp satire on the narcissism of high society in the 1920s. La Chatte, revived by Teatro dell'Opera di Roma Ballet Company, dates from 1927. The storyline involves a young man who prays to Aphrodite to change a comely cat into a woman. Both works are emblematic of the Ballets Russes era in their neoclassical approach: the distillation and streamlining of ballet technique.
Other more familiar Ballets Russes works on the Fall for Dance roster are Nijinsky's frieze-like, sensual Afternoon of a Faun; Fokine's Le Spectre de la Rose, in which a young woman coalesces the images of a man and a rose in her dream state; and the famous ballerina vehicle The Dying Swan, originally danced by Pavlova.
Fall for Dance has also included some updated versions of ballets originally presented by the Ballets Russes. Basil Twist's Petrushka Suite uses life-size puppets to tell the poignant story of the Russian clown Petrushka. Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montréal presents Stijn Celis's Noces, set to Stravinsky's monumental score Les Noces, which details the upheaval and celebration of a Russian wedding. And Mark Dendy's Afternoon of the Faunes uses Debussy's score to explore the conflicted mind of Nijinsky, the first male superstar of ballet.
Diaghilev has been described in many ways: a taskmaster, a genius, a mentor, a monster, a magician, a prophet of the arts. He died penniless in Venice in 1929. But what he accomplished left a timeless impression.
"The Ballets Russes was so inventive," ays Shuler. "This was not traditional 19th century classical ballet. You could really see the beginning of innovation that influenced so much work that was yet to come."
Visit New York City Center for more on Fall for Dance.
Joseph Carman writes about the arts and is the author of Round About the Ballet.