Russian Ballet History

Diaghilev's Ballets Russes 1909-1929

Vaslav Fomich Nijinsky Died April 8, 1950

Vaslav Nijinsky was born in Kiev, Russia, while his parents, dancers Eleonora Bereda and Foma Nijinsky were on tour. He entered the Imperial School in St. Petersburg in 1898, and upon graduation in 1907 became a soloist with the Maryinsky Theatre.

He met Sergei Diaghilev, and Nijinsky went to Paris with him and danced the leading roles in Le Pavillion d'Armida and Les Sylphides with Anna Pavlova in 1909. The next year he danced the golden slave in Scheherazade.

He continued to dance with the Diaghilev's Ballets Russes after 1909, although Anna Pavlova left because Diaghilev favored his male dancers.





Although Vaslav danced with many great ballerinas he was most associated with Tamara Karsavina, with whom he danced in 1911 in one of the most famous ballets of the time, Le Spectre de la Rose.


Nijinsky’s choreography broke away from his classical training. His ballets were controversial, his Jeux made headlines in the morning press, and Le Sacre du Printemps had the audiences shouting obscenities in the theater and on the streets of Paris.


In 1913 the Ballets Russes toured South America, and because of his fear of ocean voyages Diaghilev did not accompany them. Without his mentor's supervision Nijinsky fell in love with Romola de Pulszky, a Hungarian dancer. They were married in Buenos Aires: when the company returned to Europe, Diaghilev, in a jealous rage, fired them both.


During World War I, Nijinsky, a Russian citizen, was interned in Hungary. Diaghilev succeeded in getting him out for a North American tour in 1916, during which he choreographed and danced the leading role in Till Eulenspiegel. Signs of his dementia praecox were becoming apparent to members of the company. He became afraid of other dancers and that a trap door would be left open. Nijinsky spent may years in and out of mental hospitals.


In 1947 the family moved to London, where he was cared for by his loving wife, Romola, until his death in 1950. He is buried in Paris at the Sacre Coeur Cemetery.

Picasso's Died, April 8, 1973

Parade was Picasso's first collaboration with the Ballets Russes and in a letter sent to a friend, Jean Cocteau the librettist said "Picasso amazes me every day, to live near him is a lesson in nobility and hard work" (Rothschild 49). Picasso's studio in Rome had a little crate that held the model of "Parade" with its trees and houses, and on a table were the painted characters: the Chinaman, Managers, American girl, and horse. Cocteau described his friend's unusual artistic process: "A badly drawn figure of Picasso is the result of endless well-drawn figures he erases, corrects, covers over, and which serves him as a foundation. In opposition to all schools he seems to end his work with a sketch." The audiences were amazed by the first ballet to have cubist costumes, sets, and choreography.  After World War I, Picasso made a number of important associations and relationships with figures associated with Serge Diaghilev's Ballets Russes. Among his friends during this period were Jean Cocteau, Jean Hugo, Juan Gris and others. In the summer of 1918, Picasso married Olga Khokhlova, a ballerina with Sergei Diaghilev’s troupe, for whom Picasso was designing a ballet, Parade, in Rome; and they spent their honeymoon in the villa near Biarritz of the glamorous Chilean art patron Eugenia Errázuriz. Khokhlova introduced Picasso to high society, formal dinner parties, and all the social niceties attendant on the life of the rich in 1920s Paris. The two had a son, Paulo, who would grow up to be a dissolute motorcycle racer and chauffeur to his father. Khokhlova’s insistence on social propriety clashed with Picasso’s bohemian tendencies and the two lived in a state of constant conflict. During the same period that Picasso collaborated with Diaghilev’s troup, he and Igor Stravinsky collaborated on Pulcinella in 1920.

April Deaths: Igor Stravinsky April 6th

The most notable of Diaghilev's composers was Igor Stravinsky, who is now recognised as the premier composer of the early twentieth 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" caused a near-riot by the audience, stunned 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.

Diaghilev commissioned many other original scores, as well as borrowing freely from the existing musical canon. His ballets variously included music by Debussy, Milhaud, Poulenc, Prokofiev, Ravel, Satie, Respighi, and Richard Strauss.

April Special Features - Birthdays And Passings

Serge Lifar was born on April 2, 1903 in Kiev, Ukraine and trained there by Bronislava Nijinska. Lifar was dynamic and controversial in his personal life. He was accepted into the Ballets Russes in 1923. Serge Lifar's career was delayed a year because he did not accept Serge Diaghilev's invitation to breakfast.  Diaghilev insisted that Lifar's training continue with Enrico Cecchetti, Nicolai Legat and Pierre Vladimirov. Lifar was known for his notorious and unscrupulous displays of ego. While partnering Alicia Markova at London's Drury Lane Theatre, his extremely unprofessional jealousy of her triumph caused a scandal. In 1938, they danced again when Markova was making her debut in America. The ballet was almost ruined by Lifar's attempts to steal scenes, causing a critic to write that his performance in Giselle would justify changing the name of the ballet to Albrecht.

Lifar eventually replaced Anton Dolin as Diaghilev's favorite, when Dolin left to dance in Cochran's Revues with Vera Nemtchinova. Diaghilev made sure Lifar continued his daily classes with Enrico Cecchetti. Wherever Lifar went, Cecchetti was there to give him lessons. Lifar was the last of the Ballets Russes' Premier Danseurs, although Dolin did return to the company as one of the stars. Two of Lifar's greatest achievements as a dancer in the Ballets Russes were in Balanchine's Apollo and The Prodigal Son.

After Serge Diaghilev's death in 1929, Lifar became Premier Danseur of the Paris Opera Ballet, whose reputation had declined since the Victorian era. By 1933, he had become its Director and Professor of Dance. In 1939, Lifar joined the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo where he again danced with Alicia Markova, this time at London's Covent Garden.

Lifar held the position of Director at the Paris Opera Ballet for 20 years, creating 90 percent of the choreography and dancing many leading roles. Although he himself was trained by Cecchetti, he replaced the Italian technique at the Paris Opera with the modern Russian Vaganova School, named for the great Kirov teacher Aggripina Vaganova.  He remained as director of the Paris Opera Ballet until 1945, when charges of collaboration with the Germans caused him to leave and become director of the Nouveau Ballet de Monte Carlo. Lifar, cleared of the charges and given a year's suspension, returned as director of the Paris Opera Ballet in 1947.  In 1949, he danced again, and his last performance at the Opera was as Albrecht in ''Giselle'' in 1956. He resigned as director in 1958, although he was briefly re-engaged as choreographer in 1968.

In the summer of 1994 on the stage of the National Ukraine Opera the First International Ballet Contest was held named after Serge Lifar. The new contest happened to be unique. For the first time in Europe young ballet artists and balletmasters contended simultaneously. The Sixth Lifar International Ballet Competition was held in April, 2006.

Joan Miro - Birthday April 23, 1893

Joan Miró i Ferrà born April 23, 1893 to the families of a goldsmith and watchmaker, the young Miró was drawn towards the arts community that was gathering in Montparnasse and in 1920 moved to Paris. There, under the influence of the poets and writers, he developed his unique style: organic forms and flattened picture planes drawn with a sharp line. 

In 1926, he collaborated with Max Ernst on designs for Sergei Diaghilev. With Miró's help, Ernst pioneered the technique of grattage, in which he troweled pigment onto his canvases. Miró married Pilar Juncosa in Palma de Mallorca on October 12, 1929; their daughter Dolores was born July 17, 1931. Shuzo Takiguchi published the first monograph on Miró in 1940. In 1948–49, although living in Barcelona, Miró made frequent visits to Paris to work on printing his techniques at the Mourlot Studios (lithographs) and at the Atelier Lacourière (engravings). A close relationship lasting forty years developed with the printer Fernand Mourlot and resulted in the production of over one thousand different lithographic editions.

Mikhail Fokine - Birthday April 25, 1880

Mikhail Mikhailovich Fokine was born on April 25, 1880 in St. Petersburg, Russia, the seventeenth of eighteen children, five of whom grew to adulthood. His father, Michael, was a merchant and his mother, Catherine, a native of Mannheim, Germany, loved the theater. Older brother, Nicholas, a cavalry officer, frequently attended ballets which he would describe in detail to a much younger Michel. Hundreds of applications were submitted each year for the ten or twelve spots in the Imperial School of Ballet at St. Petersburg. Michel was granted a secret audition because his father frequently stated, “I do not want my Mimotchka to be a ‘hoofer’’.” However, once his father learned that Michel had achieved the number one ranking, he relented.



In 1889 Fokine entered the Imperial School of Ballet where dance instruction was intense and academic subjects secondary. Upon graduating in 1898 Michel joined the Maryinski Imperial Ballet at St. Petersburg, the home of opera and ballet in Russia, as a soloist, and began dancing with the famous Anna Pavlova.

When creating the ballets Firebird and Petrouchka, Fokine collaborated with Igor Stravinsky and with Maurice Ravel for Daphnis and Chloe. He also worked closely with Serge Rachmaninoff to present Paganini in 1939.

On January 23, 1942 Fokine’s last ballet, The Russian Soldier premiered at the Boston Opera House. That summer he went to Mexico City to stage Helen of Troy and injured his leg, causing him to return to New York. He was hospitalized with pleurisy, developed double pneumonia and died on August 22, 1942. His body was waked at the Campbell Funeral Home in Manhattan, a funeral service was held at the Russian Orthodox Church of Christ the Saviour and burial took place at Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale. Vera joined him there in 1958 and Vitale in 1977.

As a memorial to Michel Fokine, one of his eighty–one ballets, Les Sylphides, was performed simultaneously by seventeen ballet companies around the worl

Adolph Bolm Died-April 16th

Adolph Bolm was a student at the Imperial School in St. Petersburg. Adolph joined Diaghilev's Ballets Russes for his 1909 Paris season as a leading dancers.  Bolm was an outstanding character dancer and scored great successes as the chief warrior in Mikhail Fokine's Polovtsian Dances and Pierrot in his Le Carnaval. He did not join the 1910 tour, but in 1911 he left the Maryinsky to become a regular member of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. After the company's second half of the American tour, in 1916, he decided to stay in the United States.

In 1918, he was the choreographer for the New York Metropolitan Opera, and the Chicago Civic Opera in 1920. Bolm toured South America in 1928 and took up residence in Hollywood where he choreographed many movies. He was the guest choreographer for the first season of the San Francisco Ballet in 1933.  In 1940, he choreographed Peter and the Wolf for Ballet Theatre in New York City.

Vera Zorina Died-April 9th

Vera Zorina was born Eva Brigitta Hartwig in, Berlin, Germany. Her father Fritz was a German and her mother Billie Hartwig was Norwegian.  Zorina was brought up in Kristiansund where she debuted as a dancer at the Festiviteten, the oldest opera house in Norway. She received her education at the Lyceum for Girls in Berlin but was trained in dance by Olga Preobrajenska and Nicholas Legat.  She was presented to Max Reinhardt at age 12 who cast her in his A Midsummer Night's Dream (1929) and Tales of Hoffman (1931). A performance at London's Gaiety Theatre led to her entrance into the company of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo in 1933.

She changed her stage name to Vera Zorina when she joined the Ballet Russe. She won a lead role in the London company of On Your Toes (1937) and was seen by American film producer Samuel Goldwyn, who signed her to a seven year film contract. Between 1938 and 1946, she would appear in a number of Hollywood movie productions.

She was George Balanchine's second wife; they were married from 1938 to 1946. She danced in productions he choreographed, both on the stage and screen, including On Your Toes, a Broadway hit later adapted for the screen by Lawrence Riley.


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