Russian Ballet History

Diaghilev's Ballets Russes 1909-1929

The History of Diaghilev's Ballets Russes 1909-1929

The Ballets Russes was a ballet company established in 1909 by the Russian impresario Serge Diaghilev. Diaghilev had already enjoyed success in Paris in 1908 when he presented a season of Russian art, music, and opera. He was invited back the following year to give a programme of Russian opera and ballet.  The company was initially in resident at the Théâtre Mogador and Théâtre du Châtelet, in Paris years later moving to Monte Carlo.  The company returned in 1910; in 1911 it was presented under Diaghilev's Ballets Russes and made its debut in London.  Its' original members were from the Tsar's Imperial Ballet of St. Petersburg, Russia where all its dancers were associated and trained. The company consisted of 13 members, all attaining a very high standard of dance.  The company featured and premiered now-famous works by the great choreographers Marius Petipa, Michel Fokine, Bronislava Nijinska, Leonide Massine, Vaslav Nijinsky, and a young George Balanchine at the start of his career.  It created a sensation in Western Europe because of the great vitality of Russian ballet compared to French dance. Diaghilev's Ballets Russes became one of the most influential ballet companies of the 20th century, in part because of its ground-breaking artistic collaboration among contemporary choreographers, composers, artists, and dancers. Its works were part of the avant-garde culture in Paris and France.

In 1914, Leonide Massine joined Diaghilev's Ballets Russes. April 16th was the premiere of the one-act ballet, Papillons  choreographed by Fokine.  It was also the premiere of another of Fokine’s one-act ballet, La Légende de Joseph.  Only a month later, May 24th was Fokine’s opera premiere Le Coq d'Or.  A few days later, on May 26, it was the premiere performance of Le Rossignol (The Nightingale) choreographed by Boris Romanov.  Finishing off the summer season in June, Fokine premiered his newest choreographed piece, Midas. 

In America - 1916-1917    

Diaghilev's Ballets Russes came to American in 1916.  That was the only tour that Diaghilev's Ballets Russes ever danced as a company in the United States.  Their first performance was in New York.  They opened on January 17, 1916 with The Firebird, La Princesse Enchantée, Le Soleil de Nuit and Schéhérezade. The American public, except those who travelled abroad, had never seen Russian ballet before. After that performance they toured  sixteen towns, dancing in a different place each evening.  The tour wound up back in New York on April 3, 1916, at the Metropolitan Opera House.  

Nijinsky didn't join the tour until the second half, Leonide Massine had been dancing his roles.  When Nijinsky turned up he was in bad spirits and out of practice. Trying to book the rest of the year, Diaghilev approached promoter Otto Kahn about another USA tour later in the year,  Kahn stipulated that Nijinsky had to be included in the company. So Diaghilev had to agree to hand over the business end of the company to Kahn, while he and Grigoriev retired for the remainder of the year.  But on April 29, 1916, just before the end of the season, Diaghilev received an invitation for the company to perform in Madrid at King Alfonso of Spain’s request. This opportunity filled the summer season for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes.

On May 6th, they set sail back to Europe on the Dante Alighieri ship, loaded with a cargo of ammunition, horses and the Diaghilev Ballets Russes dancers.  World War I was in full swing and, the main threat to their welfare while sailing home was from German submarines lurking off the Spanish coast. Their first performance in Madrid was on May 26, 1916 at the command of King Alfonso. Lopokova enchanted everyone in Le Carnaval and Les Sylphides and Leonide Massine's Soleil de Nuit was well received. The King attended every remaining performance of the successful European season. On September, 8, 1916 Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes set sail back to America for the second tour.  Diaghilev and Grigoriev remained in Rome. Nicolas Kremnev was appointed as régisseur, under Nijinsky's management.

Telegrams arrived daily to Diaghilev in Rome; the season was going badly with factions of the company falling out with each other. Nijinsky had composed a new ballet to Strauss's “Till Eulenspiegel”.  Its first performance was October 23, 1916.  It was a failure.  This is the only ballet, in the history of Diaghilev’s company, that was seen by Diaghilev. The season finished with a large financial loss and the company's reputation so damaged, that the Diaghilev Ballets Russes was never able to appear in America again.

Hall of Mirrors Performance in Versailles Palace

Diaghilev's Ballets Russes performed Le Mariage D'Aurore or Aurora's Wedding in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles Palace on June 30, 1923.


The Final Season 

The final season for Diaghilev's Ballets Russes was in 1929.  The Ballets Russes performed in London and in Paris that year.  On July 26th, 1929, Diaghilev's Ballets Russes gave its final performance at Covent Garden Theatre in London. Diaghilev died in Venice, Italy, on August 19, 1929, and is buried on the nearby island of San Michele in the San Michele Cemetery.

After Diaghilev's Death

After Diaghilev's death in 1929, the company's property was claimed by creditors. The dancers were scattered. Colonel Wassily de Basil and his associate René Blum revived the company but Col. de Basil and Blum argued constantly, so Blum founded a new company named the Original Ballet Russe.  The Original Ballet Russe toured mostly in Europe.  During World War II the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo toured extensively in the United States, giving Americans a strong impression of what was known as "Russian Ballet."

Descendants of the Ballets Russes

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Suggested Reading

Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, by Lynn Garafola - published by Oxford University Press 1989


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