A Man For All Seasons

First of all, I am a great charlatan, although one of brilliance; second, I’m a great charmer; third, I’ve great nerve; fourth I’m a man with a great deal of logic and few principles; and fifth, I think I lack talent; but if you like, I think I’ve found my real calling — patronage of the arts. Everything has been given me but money — mais ça viendra. Sergei Diaghilev, in a letter to his stepmother.

Ballets Russes stamp. Source: Wikipedia

Ballets Russes stamp. Source: Wikipedia

The centenary celebrations of the Ballets Russes continue worldwide. Here in London Sadler’s Wells Theatre has a week bookended by them. In the Spirit of Diaghilev having just finished its run, Morphoses now prepares to take over with an opening programme featuring works inspired by the legendary Diaghilev company.

The Ballets Russes’ first appearance at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris on 18 May 1909 marked not only ballet’s ressurection in the West, but also its upgrade to a serious art form, no longer an antique resting on the laurels of the great Romantic era, no longer an appendix to opera. The fact that the Diaghilev troupe had been profoundly affected by political change in Russia made the art they created relevant, topical. Ballet was finally considered “cool”, an art that spoke and was spoken of, that was not afraid to experiment with subject matter and style.

We could go on forever trying to expand on why the “entire ideal of classical ballet in Western Europe and the rest of the world acknowledges a debt to Diaghilev” (from How to Enjoy Ballet, by Mary Clarke and Clement Crisp), trying to imagine what the ballet and, more generally, the arts landscape would be like today had that pivotal Paris season never taken place. Diaghilev’s presence in the West set a chain of key collaborations, incubations and inspirations which were instrumental in the evolution of classical dance. That landscape would have certainly been less vast without him, as we can see in the “family tree” below:


While it would be difficult to draw a comprehensive chart of Diaghilev’s influence on Western ballet, we hope this sketch can give a flavor of the historical importance of this legendary man & his company

Centenary Celebrations:


  • Diaghilev’s Theater of Marvels, curated by Lynn Garafola (now closed) [link]
  • From Russia with Love – Costumes for the Ballets Russes 1909 – 1933 (ongoing) [link]
  • Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes at the V&A (opening 2010) [link]


  • Diaghilev: A Life, by Sjeng Scheijen. Reviewed by Bee Wilson for The Sunday Times [link]
  • Ballets Russes: the Stockholm Collection. Absolutely wonderful book of archival costumes and designs [link]


  • Ballets Russes related programmes on BBC Three and Four [link]

Sources and Further Information:

  • Wikipedia entry on the Ballets Russes [link]
  • Dancing with the Stars, a review of 3 Ballets Russes related exhibitions by Alexandra Anderson-Spivy [link]
  • Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes: a century of sensation, by Judith Mackrell [link]
  • How to Enjoy Ballet by Mary Clarke and Clement Crisp [link]

Likes ballets that taste like 85% cocoa: pure, extra bitter, dark or intense. Her favorites are La Sylphide, Manon, Mayerling, Ondine, Symphonic Variations and McGregor's Chroma. Her favorite Ratmansky ballets are: The Little Humpbacked Horse, Russian Seasons, Cinderella and The Shostakovich Trilogy. She is always ready to chase new Ratmanskys around the globe. Non ballet: literature, theatre, opera, rock, art, food, travel, fashion, translating and interpreting.


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