Russian Ballet History

Diaghilev's Ballets Russes 1909-1929

Lydia Lopokova Birthday Oct. 21, 1892

Lydia Lopokova was born in St. Petersburg, Russia. All of her siblings became ballet dancers, and one of them, Fyodor Lopukhov, was a chief choreographer of the Mariinsky Theatre from 1922-1935 and 1951-1956.

Lydia trained at the Imperial Ballet School. She left Russia in 1910, joining the Diaghilev's Ballets Russes. She stayed with the ballet briefly, leaving for the United States after the summer tour.  She rejoined Diaghilev's Ballets Russes in 1916, dancing with her former partner Vaslav Nijinsky, in New York and later in London. She first came to the attention of Londoners in The Good-Humoured Ladies in 1918, and followed this with a raucous performance with Léonide Massine in the Can-Can of La Boutique Fantasque.

When her marriage to the company's business manager, Randolfo Barrochi, broke down in 1919, the dancer abruptly disappeared, but she decided to rejoin the Diaghilev for the second time in 1921, when she danced the Lilac Fairy and Princess Aurora in 'The Sleeping Princess'. During these years she became a friend of Stravinsky, and of Picasso, who drew her many times. 

Lydia was known also as Lady Keynes, the wife of the economist John Maynard Keynes.   In 1933, Lydia danced her last ballet role, as Swanilda in Coppélia, for the new Vic-Wells Ballet.

Read about her and her life in Bloomsbury Ballerina.

October 1915 - Ballets Russes Debuts at MET in NYC


Adolph Bolm and Tamara Karsavina performed in Prince Igor in October of 1915 at the MET in NYC.  It was the first time that the Ballets Russes performed there as an ensemble. 

 In The Theatre magazine article, Nijinsky, is praised as the "greatest dancer since Vestris."

They performed twelve ballets from their repetoire.  The photo to the left was taken by the famed photographer E.O.Hoppe. 

 Members of the Ballets Russes were often photographed by Hoppe and Man Ray as well.





Artist Jean Cocteau Died Oct. 11, 1963

Jean Cocteau was born in Maisons-Laffitte, a small village near Paris.  Cocteau was a French poet, novelist, dramatist, designer, playwright and filmmaker.  At the age of fifteen, Cocteau left home. During the Great War, he served in the Red Cross as an ambulance driver. This was the period in which he met the poet Guillaume Apollinaire, artist Pablo Picasso, and numerous other writers and artists with whom he later collaborated.  

 Diaghilev challenged Cocteau to write a scenario for the ballet which resulted in Parade and was produced by Diaghilev, designed by Pablo Picasso, and composed by Erik Satie in 1917.  Jean Cocteau published articles, interviewed its principal dancers, and created posters that featured the dancers Vaslav Nijinsky and Tamara Karsavina. Between 1912 and 1927, Cocteau provided libretti or scenarios for the ballets Le Dieu Bleu, Parade, Le Train Bleu, and the opera Oedipus Rex.  Jean Cocteau (photo right) and Serge Diaghilev on opening night of Le Train Bleu, June 20, 1924.

The Russian ballet-master Diaghilev challenged Cocteau to write a scenario for the ballet which resulted in Parade and was produced by Diaghilev, designed by Pablo Picasso, and composed by Erik Satie in 1917.  After his friend and fellow poet Radiguet's sudden death in 1923,  he left Paris with Diaghilev for a performance of Les Noces (The Wedding) by the Ballets Russes at Monte Carlo.

Le Coq d'or Premiered Oct. 7, 1909 in Moscow as an Opera - It premiered as an Opera/Ballet in Paris in 1914.

The ballet Le Coq d'or (The Golden Cockerel) was originally staged in 1914 in London and Paris, by Michel Fokine for Diaghilev's Ballets Russes. This work was an opera-ballet, a danced interpretation of the Rimsky-Korsakov's epic opera of the same name, with the dancers accompanied by a chorus and solo singers.

In 1937, Fokine revised the work for the Ballets Russes company of Colonel W de Basil, creating a single-act ballet in three scenes which premiered at Covent Garden on  September 23, 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. Artist 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 United States premiere took place in the Metropolitan Opera on March 6, 1918 with Marie Sundelius in the title role, Adamo Didur and Maria Barrientos in the actual leads, and Pierre Monteux conducting.

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.

Composer Riccarto Drigo Died Oct. 1, 1930

Riccardo Drigo was an Italian composer of ballet music and Italian Opera, a theatrical conductor, and a pianist. Drigo is most noted for his long career as Director of Music of the renowned Imperial Ballet of St. Petersburg, Russia, for which he composed music for the original works and revivals of the choreographers Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov.

Riccardo Eugenio Drigo was born in Padua, Italy. Drigo attended the prestigious Venice Conservatory. Drigo graduated from the conservatory in 1864, and was hired as a rehearsal pianist at the Garibaldi Theatre in Padua.

In the spring of 1902, Drigo and a group of dancers from the Imperial Ballet were invited by Raoul Gunsbourg, director of the Opéra de Monte-Carlo, to produce a ballet in Monaco. Drigo composed the music for the ballet-divertissement titled La Côte d'Azur (The French Riviera), set to a libretto by Prince Albert I. The ballet premiered at the Salle Garnier on 30 March 1902, and featured the Prima ballerina Olga Preobrajenska.

Drigo's final original full-length ballet score was also Marius Petipa's final work — the fantastical La Romance d'un Bouton de rose et d'un Papillon. In 1919, Drigo was repatriated to his native Italy. For his farewell gala at the former Imperial Mariinsky Theatre, the Ballet Master Fyodor Lopukhov mounted a new version of La Romance de la rose et le papillon which Lopukhov staged under the title Le Conte du bouton (The Tale of the Rosebud).

Among Drigo's original scores for the ballet, he is most noted for Le Talisman (Petipa, 1889); La Flûte magique (Ivanov, 1893); Le Réveil de Flore (Petipa, 1894); and Les Millions d’Arlequin (a.k.a. Harlequinade) (Petipa, 1900). Drigo's score for Les Millions d’Arlequin spawned a popular repertory piece, the Serenade, which the composer later adapted into the song Notturno d'Amour for Beniamino Gigli. Drigo's work on Tchaikovsky's score for Swan Lake—prepared for the important revival of Petipa and Ivanov—is certainly his most well-known adaptation of existing music.

Riccardo Drigo died on October 1,1930 at the age of 74, in his birthplace, Padua. There is now a street in Padua which is named Via Riccardo Drigo in his honour.

Ida Rubenstein - Birthday Oct. 5, 1885

Born into a wealthy Jewish family but sadly orphaned at an early age. Ida had, by the standard of Russian ballet, little formal training until she was under the private tutelage of Mikhail Fokine. In 1909, Diaghilev hired her to dacne with his Ballets Russes and she danced the title role of "Cléopâtre" in the innaugural Paris season.  The costumes were designed by Leon Bakst, and the finale inspired Kees van Dongen's Souvenir of the Russian Opera Season 1909.

Ida Rubinstein danced with Diaghilev's Ballet Russe again in the 1910 season, performing in Scheherazade.  The ballet is based on the story of the Thousand and One Nights, choreographed by Fokine and written by him and Léon Bakst.

In 1911, she performed in Le Martyre de Saint Sebastien. Gabriele d'Annunzio wrote the part for her and it was scored by Claude Debussy. This was both a triumph for its stylized modernism and a scandal; the Archbishop of Paris requested Catholics not attend because St. Sebastian was being played by a woman and a Jew.

Mia Slavenska Died Oct. 5, 2002

Mia Slavenska was a famous Croatian-born Prima Ballerina.  A dancer since the age of four, she became the Prima Ballerina with the Zagreb OperaMia Slavenska was born in what was Austria-Hungary, later to become the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. Born as Mia Čorak, she changed the name soon after permanently leaving the country in 1937.

She studied in Zagreb under Josephine Weiss and made her debut in the Croatian National Theatre.  Mia became Prima Ballerina in Zagreb by the age of 17. At the 1936 Berlin Dance Olympics, she won both the Choreography and Dance Award. She left Zagreb to study in Paris with former Ballets Russes principal dancer Olga PreobrazenskaMia completed her ballet training in the Cecchetti Method under his protégé Maestro Vincenzo Celli.

For many years, Mia danced with Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo.  She moved to U.S. in the outset of the World War II, gaining her American citizenship in 1947.  Also in 1947, she gave birth to her daughter Maria.  In 1950, she co-founded the Slavenska-Franklin Ballet Company, with Freddie Franklin.  In 1954, she became the Prima Ballerina of the Metropolitan Opera Ballet. 

She opened a ballet studio in New York in 1960.  In 1961, Mia dancer at Brooklyn College, New York, partnered by Igor Youskevitch.  She retired frm the stage July 17th, 1961 at the American Dance Fastival at the Metropolitan Arts Center.  Later she moved to California, she taught at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) from 1969 to 1983 and concurrently at California Institute for the Arts (CalArts) from 1970 to 1983.  Slavenska died in a California retirement home on October 5, 2002.  On April 18, 2005, Mia's ashes were interred in the Mirogoj Cemetery in Zagreb, Croatia.  A biography on Mia's life was published in Croatia in 2004.

Serge Grigoriev's Birthday Oct.5

Serge Grigoriev was born in Tikhvin, Russia. Grigoriev was trained at the Imperial Theatre School in St. Petersburg, from where he graduated in 1900. He was appointed regisseur for Diaghilev's Ballets Russes in 1909 and remained in that position until the company disbanded on Diaghilev's death in 1929. With the Diaghilev company he also created the roles of Shah Shariar in Scheherazade, Guidone in Le Coq d'or and the Russian Merchant in La Boutique Fantasque.

After Diaghilev's death Grigoriev worked with Colonel de Basil and his various companies from 1929 to 1951. For de Basil he drew on his earlier experiences to stage ballets from the Diaghilev repertoire. He came to Australia as regisseur-general on the Covent Garden Russian Ballet tour of 1938 to 1939 and the Original Ballet Russe tour of 1939 to 1940. He was accompanied on the Original Ballet Russe tour by his wife, the ballerina Lubov Tchernicheva. Later, with Tchernicheva he was responsible for mounting revivals in the 1950s and 1960s of ballets by Fokine and overseeing rehearsals of works by Leonide Massine. Grigoriev's memoirs were published as The Diaghilev Ballet 1909-1929 and were translated into English in 1953.

Vera Trefilova's Birthday Oct. 8, 1875

Vera Trefilova was born in Vladikavkaz in 1875. She studied at the Imperial Ballet School and graduated in 1894.  She joined the Mariinsky Theatre in 1894 and was promoted to soloist in 1901. She became prima ballerina in 1906 at the Maryinsky, known for her 32 fouettés. She was triumphant as Princess Aurora in Sleeping Beauty, but resigned in 1910 due to a rivalry with ballerina Mathilde Kschessinska's. 

In 1917 Vera left Russia during the revolution and opened a school in Paris. In 1921 Diaghilev invited her to dance Princess Aurora in the London performances of his Ballets Russes’ Sleeping Princess.  She alternated the role with Olga Spessivtseva.  She danced Odette-Odile with Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in 1924. She was almost 50 years old, but she still amazed the audience.

Artist Natalia Gonchorova Died Oct., 17, 1902

Natalia Sergeevna Goncharova was born in Nagaevo village near Tula, Russia on June 4, 1881. Her great-aunt was Natalia Pushkina, wife of the poet Alexander Pushkin.  Natalia studied sculpture at the Moscow Academy of Art, but turned to painting in 1904. She was deeply inspired by the primitive aspects of Russian folk art and attempted to emulate it in her own work while incorporating elements of fauvism and cubism. Together with her husband Mikhail Larionov she first developed Rayonism.

They organized the pre-Revolution Russian avant-garde Donkey's Tail exhibition of 1912.   The Donkey's Tail was conceived as an intentional break from European art influence and the establishment of an independent Russian school of modern art.

As leaders of the Moscow Futurists, they organized provocative lecture evenings.  Natalia Goncharova was also involved with graphic design - writing and illustrating a book in Futurist style.  Goncharova was a member of the Der Blaue Reiter avant-garde group from its founding in 1911. 

In 1915, she began to design ballet costumes and sets in Geneva. Her designs for the ballet Liturgy: Six Winged Seraph,Angel, St. Andrew, St. Mark, Nativity etc. were started in 1915. The Liturgy was commissioned by Diaghilev with Goncharova, Léonide Massine and Igor Stravinsky. She moved to Paris in 1921 where she designed a number of stage sets of Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes. She became a French citizen in 1939, and she died in Paris on October 17th in 1962.

   On June 18, 2007, Goncharova's 1909 painting Picking Apples was auctioned at Christie's for $9.8 million, setting a record for any female artist. A year later, Goncharova's 1912 still-life The Flowers sold for $10.8 million.



Sergei Denham's Birthday Oct. 22, 1896

Sergei Ivanovich Denham was born Sergei Ivanovich Dokouchaiev on October 22, 1896 in Russia. Sergei was one of eight children, and when his banker father died, a French governess was hired to help care for the children.  It was his governess that Denham gave credit for nurturing his early love of ballet. She once made him a play theater out of an orange carton and cut out paper ballerina dolls for him to play with.

The family moved from Samara on the Volga to Moscow, and Sergei was sent to boarding school near St. Petersburg. Eventually he finished his schooling at The Moscow Commercial Institute. Sergei had a particular talent for the piano. In May of 1915, Serge Denham married Valentine Nikolaevna Yershova, the daughter of a wealthy merchant. The couple had two daughters of their own, Irina, Valentine.

Denham's professional career was extremely diversified. When World War I began he worked for the Red Cross. After the 1917, Revolution he took his family east, first to the home of relatives in Uralsk, then to Vladivostok, where he became director of dormitories at the university. Next he served as representative of Admiral A. V. Kolchak's anti-Bolshevik government. His job entailed procuring funds to support Kolchak's troops -- work that would later prove quite useful in raising money for the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. After the revolution, he and his family immigrated to the United States.

In 1921, they arrived in the United States and the first job he found was in an antique store on West 59th Street. A newly acquired friend introduced Denham to the banking world, and he soon found himself vice-president at Bankers Trust. He was put in charge of establishing and overseeing branches in Eastern Europe and eventually London, Paris, and Vienna. Denham was an outgoing, social man and through his travels was able to meet many people who would help precipitate his ultimate career choice. One was Serge Diaghilev whom Denham said first planted the seed of the idea that America could and should be the next great center of ballet; another was a group of Colonel de Basil's dancers on tour whom he found enchanting; and yet another was Watson Washburn, an attorney and balletomane whom Denham first met on the boat from Shanghai. Washburn, in turn, introduced Denham to several wealthy ballet lovers, setting the final stage for what was to come.

By the mid-thirties the Blum/de Basil Company was having problems. Seizing the moment, Denham called together his new friends and formed World Art Inc., a stock corporation which then purchased Blum's company. Denham was appointed president of this new ballet organization -- a post he was to hold throughout the entire length of the company's existence.

Along with the classics, the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, under Denham's direction, produced several quite novel works, including Bacchanale, Labyrinth, Rodeo, Frankie and Johnny, and Billy Sunday, as well as a number of works by women ballet choreographers including Agnes de Mille, Bronislava Nijinska, and Ruth Page.

Sergei Denham died in New York City on January 30, 1970, after being struck by a bus as he was leaving the Ballets Russes offices. His wife died several months later. He is survived by his two daughters.

Artist Marie Laurencin's Birthday Oct. 31, 1883

Marie Laurencin was born on October 31, 1883 in Paris. At 18, she studied porcelain painting in Sèvres. She then returned to Paris and continued her art education at the Académie Humbert, where she changed her focus to oil painting.

During the early years of the 20th century, Laurencin was an important figure in the Parisian avant-garde and a member of the circle of Pablo Picasso. She became romantically involved with Picasso's friend, the poet Guillaume Apollinaire, and has often been identified as his muse.

During the First World War, Marie left France for exile in Spain with her German-born husband, Baron Otto von Waëtjen, since through her marriage she had automatically lost her French citizenship. The couple subsequently lived together briefly in Düsseldorf. After they divorced in 1920, she returned to Paris. 

Marie Laurencin was commissioned by Serge Diaghilev in 1923 to provide costume and set designs for Bronislava Nijinska's ballet Les Biches.

From 1924 Marie also worked on designing stage sets. She produced various stage designs for Diaghilev's Ballets Russes and the set for the "Comédie Francaise" in 1928.

She also illustrated books, such as André Gide's "La Tentative Amoureuse" and Lewis Caroll's "Alice in Wonderland."

Artist Picasso's Birthday Oct. 25, 1881

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. 


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