Russian Ballet History

Diaghilev's Ballets Russes 1909-1929

The Company’s Metamorphosis

Diaghilev's Ballets Russes was the premier ballet company of Europe from 1909 to 1929.  The Ballets Russes was also the major ballet company in the Western World until Diaghilev's death in 1929.  After his death, many of Diaghilev’s dancers continued with other companies throughout the world, while some dancers started their own companies. 


The year of Diaghilev's death was the beginning of the Great Depression. The Depression was worldwide. Regardless, companies sprung up all over the western world.  Many of the companies took the name Ballet Russe: Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, The Original Ballet Russe, Rene Blum's Ballet Russe.


Two men who joined forces to continue the Diaghilev tradition were René Blum, director of the Monte Carlo Opera Ballet, and Colonel Vassili de Basil, associated with L'Opera Russe à Paris. They hired George Balanchine and Leonide Massine as choreographers and Serge Grigoriev as regisseur-general. Grigoriev had a remarkable ability for remembering every detail of Diaghilev's repertoire.


The repertoire consisted of works from Diaghilev's company and new works by Balanchine and Massine.  Balanchine was fired in the first year, because the audiences preferred Diaghilev's repertoire and Massine's ballets.


René Blum and Col. de Basil Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo company was about to declare bankruptcy when an American impresario, Sol Hurok (photo below), took over the management in 1934 and booked the company in the USA at the St. James Theatre.  Hurok thought ballet deserved a rightful place in American culture, so he booked the company with the Metropolitan Opera House and the season was a success. The name was changed to the singular Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo.


Because of difficulties between Blum and de Basil, Blum gave up his share of the partnership, leaving Massine and Col. de Basil to run the company. According to many reports, it was impossible to work with de Basil. Massine left after his contract was fulfilled and returned to Monte Carlo, where he formed another company with Blum. Many of de Basil's dancers followed Massine and joined René Blum's Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo.  The new company got backing from Julius Fleischmann, of the Cincinnati Yeast Fleischmanns, who became President. New York financier Serge Denham served as vice president.


When Massine discovered his ballets belonged to Col. de Basil, he brought a law suit in London that captured the imagination of the press. They reported the events of the trial daily. Finally, the courts decided de Basil did own the ballets. Both companies could use the name Ballet Russe, but de Basil had to drop "de Monte Carlo."  Hurok also severed his connection with Col. de Basil's company and became manager for Massine and Blum. Hurok was sure the American public could not support two companies, so he tried to get the companies back together.


Meanwhile, Col. de Basil's (photo below) company called themselves Covent Garden Ballet Russe, and finally Original Ballet Russe. In 1938 the two companies were performing in London at the same time. Col. de Basil was at Covent Garden and Blum was two blocks away at the Drury Lane. Ballet lovers could run back and forth, from one theater to the other, and see the ballets of their choice.

Through an all-night session, the management of the two companies got together and ironed out their differences. But at the last moment de Basil said no to the offer.  Once Hurok was managing both companies at the same time, and he booked the Ballet Russe to play four weeks at the Hollywood Theatre (now called the Mark Hellinger), immediately followed by the Original Ballet Russe. It was the longest ballet season to hit New York -- a solid fifteen weeks.


Eventually Serge Denham took over the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo as director and artistic advisor. When World War II started, the companies made New York City their permanent home. The quiet, reserved René Blum remained in Europe and was imprisoned at the Auschwitz concentration camp and murdered by the Nazis in 1942.  For years, dancers would perform in one company one season and in another company the next.  The common thread uniting all these companies was Sol Hurok.

Sol Hurock (Gurkov) (1888-1974)

Ballet in America was nonexistent outside the very large cities in the 1920's. Sol Hurock brought music and dance to the small towns across America, playing an important role in America's artistic development.


Ballet in America was nonexistent outside the very large cities in the 1920's. Sol Hurock brought music and dance to the small towns across America, playing an important role in America's artistic development.


Hurok was born Solomon Gurkov in 1888 in the Ukrainian village of Pogar. Although the family was Jewish, in an era marred by outbreaks of anti-Semitism, Hurok downplayed his Jewish background throughout his life.  When Sol was 18 years old, his father gave him 1000 rubles to go to Kiev, but he didn't stop there.  He kept going until he reached America.  He had borrowed enough money to get to Philadelphia to live with his brother. He delivered newspapers to earn money.  After visiting New York City he saw his future and he moved there in 1906. Soon he joined the Socialist Party and took an active part in getting people to attend the meetings. He began to employ musicians as an added attraction. When Hurok convinced the young violin virtuoso, Efrem Zimbalist, to perform at a meeting in Brownsville, Brooklyn it was considered a real coup. Encouraged by this success, Hurok thought that he could do more, and he managed to book Zimbalist into a performance at Carnegie Hall, which was sold out. Hurok was now on his way to becoming an impresario.


Hurok often spent time at the Hippodrome Theatre in Manhattan standing in the back.  When Anna Pavlova was performing he never missed a show, he
became such a fixture at the Hippodrome that one day Pavlova's manager asked him if he would like to meet her. This meeting began a friendship and professional association that would last until Pavlova's death.  It was Pavlova who introduced Hurok to the dance world. Because of financial difficulties in 1927 Hurok was evicted from his apartment.  Even though he kept his office, he slept in Central Park rather than let anyone know of his hardships.  From the 1920's on, almost every program for a dance performance carried the heading, "S. Hurok Presents." As his success increased he finally was able to manage his idol, Fyodor Chaliapin. in 1921.


Sol Hurok made ballet part of America's entertainment world. After Pavlova's last performance here in 1926 there were only brief spurts of dance activity until Hurok took over the management of the René Blum and Col. de Basil's Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. He brought them to the St. James Theatre in New York City in 1934.

In 1935 when Rene Blum and Col. de Basil had a falling out, Blum left and started a new company. Hurok, a shrewd businessman, ended up managing both companies.

When Ballet Theatre, now ABT, founded by Lucia Chase and Anton Dolin, made its debut in 1940, many dancers left the Ballet Russe to dance with this new company. Sol Hurok took over its management, with Chase after the first year, but that arrangement only lasted two years.  During World War II, Ballet Russe and Ballet Theatre continued to tour America. The “S. Hurok Presents” always appeared over the name of the performer or organization.


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