Russian Ballet History

Diaghilev's Ballets Russes 1909-1929

Le Dieu Bleu - Premiered May 13, 1912

Le Dieu Bleu is a one act ballet by Jean Cocteau and Federigo de Madrazo.  Fokine was the choreographer and music was by Reynaldo Hahn with décor and costume by Leon BakstLe Dieu Bleu premiered May 13, 1912 at Theatre du Chatelet in Paris.

Cocteau wrote the scenario for Ballets Russes’s Le Dieu Bleu after working with Diaghilev since 1911, and designing posters for Spectre de la Rose using portraits of Nijinsky and Karsavina, in 1912.  Cocteau and Hahn were inspired by Hindu legends, and Fokine the bas-reliefs of Brahman temples and Siamese dancers.  Sadly, Le Dieu Bleu was not successful and removed from the repertoire the following year.

Chout (Le Bouffon) - Premiered May 17, 1921

Chout (Le Bouffon) is a Russian legend in six scenes.  Music by Serge Prokofiev, choreography by Michel Larionov and Tadeo Slavinsky with décor and costumes also by Larionov. First performance was May 17, 1921 at Theatre de la Gaite-Lyrique, Paris.

Chout was considered more of a pantomime than a ballet.  It put Paris audiences off because there was no harmony between Prokofiev’s cool music and Larionov’s aggressive use of folk motifs in his sets and Constructivist costumes.

Diaghilev had to threaten the dancers before Dress Rehearsal with fines to persuade them to appear on stage in the costumes that were so heavy and cumbersome they interfered with the dances movements.

Chout was included in the company’s repertoire for the last time in Paris, in June 1922 at the Theatre Mogador.  The Principal role of Buffoon, created for Slavinsky, was danced by Bronislava Nijinska.

Parade - Premiered May 18, 1917

Parade is a realistic ballet in one scene, based on a theme by Jean Cocteau.  The music was done by Erik Satie, choreography by Massine, curtain, décor and costumes designed by Pablo Picasso.  The first performance of Parade was at Theatre du Chatelet in Paris on May 18, 1917.

Cocteau says that the first draft of the Parade ballet was a brief ballet project called David, something he had sketched out in 1914.  The ballet was to take place in front of the entrance booth of a traveling fair.  David was never written, but Cocteau’s first contact with Satie was in 1915, with his collaboration with Picasso beginning the following year.


Diaghilev met Picasso in the spring of 1916 when a mutual friend, Mme. Eugenia Errazuriz brought him to Picasso’s studio.  It was then that Diaghilev commissioned Picasso to do the mise-en-scene for Parade.  Both Picasso and Cocteau left for Rome in February of 1917, where Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes was dancing.  There they met and worked with Massine.

 Among the costumes Picasso designed was a horse, initially with a mannequin-rider.  During the dress rehearsal, the rider fell off of the horse causing the audience to laugh, so it was removed for the remaining performances.  The costume for the American Girl, which Picasso had not sketched, was actually bought the day before at a sporting goods store.  The costume for the Female Acrobat that Massine had added at the last minute was made of hand-painted spiral designed Picasso painted directly onto Lydia Lopoukhova’s legs.

After a three year absence, Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes returned to Paris’s Theatre du Chatelet with Parade, a pioneer Cubist theatrical spectacular.  Satie and Cocteau often disagreed regarding the noises that Cocteau wanted added to Satie’s scores.  But, Cocteau was over ruled by Diaghilev and they were left out.

When the curtain went down on Parade, the audience was violent and contradictory.  It was acclaimed by many intellectuals, but the public didn’t like it.  It was well ahead of its time and was never added to the regular repertoire of the Ballets Russes.

In 1923, when Diaghilev wanted to restage the ballet, he asked Picasso to touch up the curtain which had been taken over by mildew.  Picasso refused saying that it resembled the deteriorated frescoes of Pompeii and should remain that way!

(photo, left, of Massine) 


Read "DIAGHILEV And the Ballets Russes" by Boris Kochno, 1970.

Thamar - Premiered May 20, 1912

The ballet Thamar, premiered on May 20, 1912 at Theatre du Chatelet in Paris.  It starred Tamara Karsavina and Adolph Bolm as the Principal dancers.   The ballet is a drama, in one scene based upon a poem by Mikhail Lermontov.  The music was by Mily Balakirev with Fokine as choreographer.  Leon Bakst did both the décor and the costumes.

The ballet itself was set in the castle of the Queen of Georgia, Thamar enticed passing suitors by fluttering her scarf out of the window.  The action centers around one particular Prince, who enters the castle and dances ecstatically for Queen Thamar.

 The queen enjoys his savage movements. She joins in the dance and their lips meet in a passionate kiss. Then she twists from his grasp and runs through the green door. He follows in pursuit.  The ballet ends violently with Queen Thamar murdering her guest and disposing of his body through a trap door.  She then returns to her window luring new victims with the waving of her scarf.

As Thamar was set in Georgia, Leon Bakst drew on authentic Georgian architecture for inspiration in designing the set for Thamar’s castle. Mikhail Fokine, too, used elements of traditional Georgian dance in the choreography.

Le Carnaval- Premiered May 20, 1910

Le Carnaval is a ballet based on the music of Robert Schumann's, Carnaval, for piano. It was orchestrated by Aleksandr Glazunov, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Anatole Liadov, Alexander Tcherepnin. Carnaval was choreographed by Ballets Russes’ Mikhail Fokine, with the costumes designed by Léon Bakst. Fokine created Carnaval for a benefit given in St. Petersburg, Russia and it premiered on February 20, 1910 in Pavlova Hall. 

Some of the leading dancers of the Imperial Ballet were cast in Carnaval: Tamara Karsavina (Columbine), Leonid Leontiev (Harlequin), Vera Fokina (Charina), Ludmila Schollar (Estrella), Bronislava Nijinska (Papillon), Vsevolod Meyerhold (Pierrot), Vasily Kiselev (Florestan), Aleksandr Shiryaev (Eusebius).

Carnaval did not become world-famous until after it was performed by Diaghilev's Ballets Russes at the Teater des Westens, in Berlin on May 20, 1910. Lydia Lopokova performed as Columbine and Vaslav Nijinsky as Harlequin.

The image above (top of page)is the cover of The Impressions of the Russian Ballet, Carnaval, written in 1918 by C.W.Beaumont, with illustrations by A.P. Allinson. The remainder of the images in this Blog are also from the booklet.
Diaghilev told a story that occurred during a performance of Carnaval. Enrico Cecchetti was miming the role of Pantalon, an elderly dandy of the Romantic period, when he mixed up the order of the program one evening and entered the stage in Carnaval dressed in his costume for the Chief Eunuch in Scheherazade!

On 14 September 1933, the ballet was revived in London by the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, staged by Leon Woizikowski, with Alexandra Danilova performing as Columbine.


The first performance was held at the Pavlova Hall in St Petersburg on 5 March 1910. The cast was led by Tamara Karsarvina as Columbine and Leonid Leontiev as Harlequin.

L'Apres-Midi d'un Faune - Premiered May 29, 1912

L'Apres-midi d'un faune was choreographed by Vaslav Nijinsky for the Diaghilev Ballets Russes and was first performed in Paris on May 29, 1912, with Nijinsky dancing the role of the Faun. Both the ballet and score to which it was set, Claude Debussy's 'Prelude a l'apres-midi d'un faune', were inspired by the poem of the same title by Stephane Malarme. Design was by Leon Bakst. Choreographic features of the work include a frieze-like archaic design, profiled stance, and alternation of movement and pose. The spare libretto centres on the faun's meeting and flirtation with nymphs, and the piece concludes with a scene of simulated masturbation that scandalized early audiences.

The de Basil Ballets Russes revival of L'Apres-midi d'un faune premiered in London on 2 October 1933, and Australian audiences first saw the work during the 1936-1937 tour by the Monte Carlo Russian Ballet. Its first performance was in Adelaide on 20 October 1936. The review in The Advertiser the following day noted that the work 'struck a new note in ballet', and hailed Leon Woizikowsy as 'magnetis[ing] the audience with his amazing delineation of the part of The Faun'. The ballet was subsequently seen in Sydney and Melbourne. During the second Ballets Russes tour by the Covent Garden Russian Ballet a truncated solo version was performed by David Lichine in a 'principals only' farewell gala in Sydney on 27 April 1939.

Narcisse by Fokine Premiered April 26, 1911

Narcissse is a classical ballet performed in one actNarcisse premiered on April 26, 1911 at Casino, Monte Carlo.  Narcisse was a replacement ballet for Daphnis Et Chloe. Diaghilev had invited Ravel to St. Petersburg, to work with Bakst and Fokine on Daphnis Et Chloe.  However, Ravel was late in producing the score, and Fokine could not begin the choreography, so Narcisse was done in its place.

Narcisse was originally danced by the legendary Tamara Karsavina, Bronislava Nijinska and Vaslav Nijinsky

In the photo on the right, is Bronislava Nijinska dancing in Narcisse with Fokine's wife Vera Fokina.

The costumes were designed by Leon Bakst, as was the decor.  Fokine was the choreographer, and the music was by Nicolas Tcherepnine who also composed Le Pavillon d'Armide.

Petrouchka - Premiered June 13, 1911

Petrouchka premiered in Paris at the Chatelet Theatre on 13 June 1911. The work was created for Diaghilev's Ballet Russe and the opening night featured Vaslav Nijinsky as Petrouchka, Tamara Karsarvina as the Ballerina, Alexandre Orlov as the Blackamoor and Enrico Cecchetti as the Showman. It was danced to a score by Igor Stravinsky, its choreography was by Michel Fokine and it was designed by Alexandre Benois. Stravinsky and Benois were responsible for the libretto.

The first performance of Petrouchka in Australia was produced by Louise Lightfoot for the First Australian Ballet. Lightfoot choreographed her version (called Petrouschka on the program) without ever having seen the Fokine original or any other version. It featured Trafford Whitelock as Petrouchka, Moya Beaver as the Ballerina and Mischa Burlakov as the Blackamoor. It was presented on 18 and 20 July 1936 at the Conservatorium of Music, Sydney.

A few months afterwards, on 14 November 1936, the Monte Carlo Russian Ballet, on tour in Australia, opened its production of Petrouchka in Melbourne. Helene Kirsova starred as the Ballerina, Leon Woizikowsky as Petrouchka and Thadee Slavinsky as the Blackamoor. Between 1936 and 1940 the work was performed over 70 times in Australia by three touring Russian Ballet companies, the Monte Carlo Russian Ballet, the Covent Garden Russian Ballet and the Original Ballet Russe.

Chopinianna - Les Sylphides

Chopinianna premiered in 1907 at the Maryinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg as Rêverie Romantique: Ballet sur la musique de Chopin. However, this also formed the basis of a ballet, Chopiniana, which took different forms, even in Fokine's hands. The second version was performed in 1908 at the Maryinsky Theatre, danced by Pavlova, Karsavina, Nijinsky and Preobrajenska.

Chopinianna premiered as Les Sylphides, with Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes on 2 June 1909 at Théâtre du Châtelet, Paris. The Diaghilev premiere is the most famous, as its soloists were Tamara Karsavina, Vaslav Nijinsky (as the poet, dreamer, or young man), Anna Pavlova, and Alexandra Baldina. The London premier, in the first season of the Diaghilev Ballets Russes, was at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. With more sylph-like elusiveness, the North American premiere might be dated by an unauthorized version in the Winter Garden, New York, on 14 June 1911, featuring Baldina alone from the Diaghilev cast. However, its authorized premiere on that continent, by Diaghilev Ballets Russes, was at the Century Theater, New York City, 20 January 1916, with Lopokova . Nijinsky danced it with Ballets Russes at the Metropolitan Opera, April 14, 1916.

Les Sylphides has no plot, but instead consists of many white-clad sylphs dancing in the moonlight with the poet or young man dressed in white tights and a black top.  New York City Ballet produced its own staging of the standard version, omitting the Polonaise in A major and leaving the Prelude in A major in its original position, under the original title, Chopiniana. The NYCB premiere was staged by Alexandra Danilova and took place 20 January 1972, at the New York State Theater, Lincoln Center. The original cast included Karin von Aroldingen, Susan Hendl, Kay Mazzo, and Peter Martins.

Le Spectre de La Rose

Le Spectre de La Rose was choreographed by Michel Fokine, music by Carl Maria von Weber and designs by Leon Bakst.  Le Spectre de la rose premiered on April 19, 1911 in Monte Carlo by Diaghilev's Ballet Russe. Dancers at the premiere were Vaslav Nijinsky as the Spirit of the Rose and Tamara Karsarvina as the Young Girl.

The ballet tells the story of a young woman who returns from a ball and brings home a rose. She falls asleep in a chair and dreams of dancing with the spirit of the rose until the spirit disappears with a spectacular leap through the window and she awakes.

Australian audiences first saw the Fokine version as part of the very first performance by the Monte Carlo Russian Ballet on its 1936-1937 tour to Australia. It opened on 13 October in Adelaide's Theatre Royal and featured Valentina Blinova and Igor Youskevitch. Spectre was subsequently performed by the Covent Garden Russian Ballet on its 1938-1939 tour to Australia and by the Original Ballet Russe on the tour of 1939-1940. It was given over 120 performances during the three Ballets Russes tours. 

The Ballets Russes performances of Fokine's Le Spectre de la rose were followed in the 1940s by those of the Borovansky company, initially during their first Australian tour in 1944. In 1947, Kathleen Gorham performed as the Young Girl after her promotion to the rank of junior ballerina with this company. The work entered the repertoire of the Ballet Guild in 1953, featuring Laurel Martyn and Raymond Trickett. Australian audiences also saw Ballet Rambert performing Fokine's Spectre during their 1947-9 tour, and, in 1962, Margot Fonteyn performing as the Young Girl while touring with an ensemble of 8 dancers from the Royal Ballet. Fonteyn was personally coached in this role by Karsavina.

Le Coq d'or

The ballet Le Coq d'or (The Golden Cockerel) was originally staged in 1914 by Michel Fokine for Serge Diaghilev's Ballet Russe. This work was an opera-ballet, a danced interpretation of the Rimsky-Korsakov epic opera of the same name, with the dancers accompanied by a chorus and solo singers. In 1937, Fokine revised the work for the Ballet Russe company of Colonel W de Basil, creating a single-act ballet in three scenes which premiered at Covent Garden on 23 September 1937. For this straight-dance version, the Rimsky-Korsakov score was adapted and arranged by Nicolas Tcherepnin, and Fokine condensed the original opera libretto, which Vladimir Bielsky had adapted from a Pushkin poem. Natalia Gontcharova based her neo-primitive set and costume designs on those she had made for the 1914 version, recreating the original curtain and modifying other elements to produce a brilliantly colourful tableau. Her costume for the Cockerel, using real gold thread, was introduced in the 1937 production, the 1914 version having used a prop to represent this character.

The story of Le Coq d'or concerns the fate of the lazy King Dodon when he renegs on his promise to reward an astrologer with anything he desires in exchange for the gift of a magical golden cockerel. Dodon is seduced by the beautiful Queen of Shemakhan, against whom he has been waging war, and brings her home as his bride. When the astrologer claims the Queen as his reward, the King kills him in a fit of rage and is, in turn, killed by the cockerel. Despite the surface naivety and humour, the story has strong undercurrents of both sensuality and satire. There is an emphasis in the 1937 version on the contrast between fantasy and reality, with the Astrologer reminding the audience at the end that, apart from himself and the Queen, all was illusion. The Golden Cockerel and the Queen are the only roles danced on pointe. Both are technically demanding, and provide strong balletic highlights amid the mime and burlesque elements.


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