Russian Ballet History

Diaghilev's Ballets Russes 1909-1929

The Diaghilev Choreographers

Mikhail Fokine (1880-1942)

Mikhail was born in St. Petersburg April 25, 1880 and studied at the Imperial School. He graduated at the age of 18 immediately entering the Maryinsky Theatre. He was promoted to soloist in 1904. He started teaching at the Imperial School and choreographed his first ballet, for a student performance, Acia and Galatea in 1905.


Mikhail Fokine is one of, if not the, best known choreographer of the 20th century. His ballets are still performed by ballet companies worldwide.  In 1907, he choreographed The Dying Swan for Anna Pavlova, in Carnival of Animals which became her iconic solo.  He also created Firebird for Pavlova, but after hearing Stravinsky’s music she refused to dance it so Tamara Karsavina danced it.


The first ballet Fokine choreographed for the Maryinsky Theatre was Le Pavillon d'Armide. This ballet was included in the repertoire of the first season of Diaghlev's Ballets Russes, in Paris in 1909. He became Diaghlev's chief choreographer, while continuing to dance in Russia until 1918.

Fokine left the Ballets Russes in 1912 because Diaghilev was favoring Vaslav Nijinsky's choreography. He freelanced, finally settling in the United States in 1923.  He married Vera Antonova Fokina, they had often been partners in Diaghilev's Ballets Russes. Fokine originally choreographed "Chopiniana", to later be renamed "Les Sylphides", for a performance outside the Maryinsky in 1907.  He restaged Les Sylphides for the then Ballet Theatre's, now ABT, inaugural performance in 1940 at New York's Center Theatre.   

Leonide Massine (1895-1979)

Massine studied at the Moscow Bolshoi School, graduated in 1912 and joined the Bolshoi Ballet.  When Diaghilev fired Nijinsky, a void was left both in the ballet company. While visiting in Moscow, Diaghilev saw a performance of the Bolshoi Ballet, and noticed Massine dancing in Don Quixote and Swan Lake.  Diaghilev persuaded him to leave the Bolshoi and join his company. Massine joined the Diaghilev's Ballets Russes company in 1914, and by 1915 he had choreographed his first ballet for the Ballets Russes. 


Massine became an outstanding-actor dancer. Before joining the Ballets Russes, Massine had considered giving up dance and becoming an actor.  Massine continued to choreograph for every major company including three years as lead dancer and choreographer for the Roxy Theatre in New York City. In 1945 and 1946 he formed his own company called Ballet Russe HighlightsMassine created over 50 ballets, he was a prolific choreographer.  A few of his ballets are: The Good-Humored Ladies, La Boutique Fantastique, The Three Cornered Hat, Les Presages, Jeux d'enfants, and Gaîte Parisienne.  Massine was for twenty years considered the Western world's greatest choreographer, but in later life he was overshadowed by George Balanchine.  Leonide Massine is more widely known because of his portrayal of the Ballet Master and shoemaker in the 1948 film “The Red Shoes.”

Bronislava Fominitshna Nijinska (1891-1972)


In 1921 Nijinska rejoined Diaghilev's Ballets Russes. One of the first pieces she choreographed was "Three Ivans" for Petipa's The Sleeping Beauty, later renamed Sleeping Princess. While she was a dancer with Diaghilev's Ballets Russes she became the chief choreographer of the company. Her first ballets were Igor Stravinsky's "Renard" in 1922 followed by "Les Noces" in 1923.


 The following year she choreographed Les Biches, Les Fâcheux and Le Train Bleu. She also helped her brother, Nijinsky with his L'Apres-Midi d'un Faune, and danced in many of his ballets.  Nijinska later choreographed for the Paris Opéra, Opéra Russe à Paris, and her own company.


She settled in California and opened a Ballet School. She was a guest teacher at the American Ballet Theatre School. She is considered to be one of the most gifted and original choreographers of the twentieth century.  


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