Russian Ballet History

Diaghilev's Ballets Russes 1909-1929

The Founder Serge Diaghilev (1872-1929)                        

Serge Diaghilev was a law student when he came to St. Petersburg. While there he became co-founder of the progressive art magazine Mir Iskusstva (The World of Art) in 1899. The same year he was appointed artistic adviser of the Maryinsky Theatre. He resigned this post in 1901 and when the magazine stopped publishing in 1904, he concentrated on organizing exhibitions of Russian art in St. Petersburg and Paris. In 1908 he brought a production of "Boris Godunov" to Paris, with the famous singer, Feodor ChaliapinIn 1909 he brought to Paris a season of opera and ballet and, with the best dancers from the Maryinsky, he scored a great success.  Prior to 1909 an independent ballet company was almost unheard of.  Most ballet companies were part of an opera company or was subsidized by the court or the ruling power. The Paris Opera was the home of the ballet, even in Russia the ballet was part of the opera. In 1909 when Diaghilev decided to bring a small company of dancers to Paris he did this by bringing the great opera star Chaliapin to share the program. Both people in Russia and Paris thought that he was crazy. Diaghilev struggled to get enough money for his Paris project. After the first season in Paris, he had to raise money again, during the dancers yearly time off. He had to get them back to St. Petrersburg before their season started.



After the innagural performance May 19, 1909, repeat visits in the following years resulted in the formation of the Ballets Russes in 1911 as an independent private company.  The final season for Diaghilev's Ballets Russes was in 1929.  Diaghilev died in Venice, Italy, on August 19, 1929, and is buried on the nearby island of San Michele.


Although Diaghilev reformed European ballet, his company was often on the verge of bankruptcy. He never returned to Russia after the 1917 revolution. In fact, Diaghilev's Ballets Russes never performed in Russia. With his infallible flair, and his immaculate taste he anticipated what the audiences wanted. Instead of a full-length ballets he gave them Aurora's Wedding, and the second act of "Swan Lake," "Les Sylphides," "La Boutique Fantasque," "Les Biches," "Jeux," and many more. 


Diaghilev's Timeline of Accomplishments

1899 Diaghilev founded the magazine Mir Isskoustva (World of Art).  It ran for six years.

1900-1901 Diaghilev was the Editor-n-Chief of the Annual Report of the Imperial Theatres

1904 Diaghilev published a study of the painter, Dmitri Levitzky, who won the Uvarov Grand Prize

1905 Diaghilev was appointed to organize a historical exhibition of Russian painters in Paris shown at the Fall Salon in the Grand Palais.

1907 Diaghilev organized Concerts Historiques Russes with Rimsky-Korsakov, Glazounov, Scriabin, Rachmaninov, and Nikisch among others. It was at these concerts, that Chaliapin made his Paris debut.

1908 Diaghilev produced Moussorgsky’s Boris Godunov at the Paris Opera for the first time outside of Russia, with Chaliapin, Smirnov, conductor Blumenfeldt and the chorus of the Imperial Theatre of Moscow.

1909 Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes premiered at the Theatre du Chatelet in Paris with Pavlova, Nijinaky, Mordkin, Karsavina and Fokine.  The program included the first act of Glinka’s Russlan and Ludmila, the third act of Borodin’s Prince Igor, Les Sylphides, Cleopatre.  That same year he commissioned Daphnis et Chloe from Ravel and Firebird from Stravinsky.

1910 Was Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes’ season at Paris Opera.

1910 Was Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes’ s first season in Berlin which included Firebird, Scheherazade, Spectre de la Rose and Carnaval.

1910 Diaghilev commissioned Petrouchka from Stravinsky.

1911 Was Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes’ season in Rome at the International Exposition, and their 3rd season in Paris at Theatre du Chatelet, premiered Petrouchka and Spectre de la Rose.

1911 Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes’ first season in London at Covent Gardens, opening during the coronation of King George V.

1911 Diaghilev commissioned Le Sacre du Primtemps from Stravinsky.

1912 Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes’ 4th season in Paris, at Theatre du Chatelet with Daphnis et Chloe, L’Apres Midi d’un Faune.

1912 Diaghilev commissioned Jeux from Debussy

1913 Russian season of opera and ballet at Theatre des Champs-Elysees, with Le Sacre du Printemps, Jeux.

1913 In the autumn, Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes debuted in Latin America.

1913 Diaghilev commissioned The Legend of Joseph from Richard Strauss.

1912 -1914 Diaghilev produced London’s Covent Garden and Drury Lane Theatre’s seasons of Russian opera and ballet, including Chaliapin’s first appearance in London.

1914 Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes season at Paris Opera included Coq d’or and the Legend of Joseph with Strauss conducting.

1915 Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes performed a benefit gala at Paris Opera with The Midnight Sun.

1915 Diaghilev brought Prokofiev to Rome and commissioned him to compose Chout (Le Bouffon)

1916 Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes’ first half of its only tour of the United States, opening at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

1916 Diaghilev’s Ballets Ruses first tour of Madrid, on command of King Alfonso XIII

1916 Diaghilev commissioned Parade from Satie and Picasso and another The Three Cornered Hat from de Falla.

1916-1917 Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes’ second half of the United States Tour, headed by Nijinsky.

1917 Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes’ season at the Rome Opera and Theatre du Chatelet in Paris with The Good-Humored Ladies and Parade.

1917 Sept. 26 Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes’ 2nd tour in Latin America and final appearance of Nijinsky with the Ballets Russes.

1917 Diaghilev commissioned Stravinsky for Le Chant du Rossignol.

1917-1918 Diaghilev assembles musical fragments of Cimarosa, Paisello and Pergolesi, into Pulcinella, for the arrangement he commissioned from Stravinsky.

1918 Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes season in London lasting fifty-five weeks, from August 1918 – December 1919

1920 Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes’ season at London’s Covent Garden.

1920 Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes’ three seasons in Paris; January-February; the second, May-July, at Paris Opera (Chant du Rossignol, H. Matisse; Pulcinella, The Three Cornered-Hat, Picassso; Boutique Fantasque, A. Derain) and in December the final season at Theatre des Champs-Elysees.

1921 Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes’ season in Paris, at the Gaite-Lyrique (Le Bouffon, Cuadro Flamenco, Picasso)

1921 Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes’ season in London, June-July.

1921 Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes performed the full, uncut version of Sleeping Beauty for the first time abroad.  One hundred and fifteen consecutive performances.  It also marked Spessivitzeva’s first appearance in London.

1922 Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes season in Paris at Paris Opera.

1922 Diaghilev commissioned Poulenc for Les Biches to be choreographed by Bronislava Nijinska, Auric for Les Facheur, and Satie and Prokofiev for new ballets.

Sergei Denham - Director of Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo

Sergei Denham (1897 - 1970) was born in Moscow.  He was vice-president of the American corporation which ran the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. When Massine departed from Colonel de Basil's Ballet Russe, a reorganization of the company occurred - - leaving Denham as director for 24 years.

Suggested Reading

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


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