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:

diaghilev

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:

Exhibitions

  • 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]

Books

  • 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]

On UK TV

  • 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. A self-confessed Alexei Ratmansky devotee, she has seen (and adores) 20+ of his pieces. Non ballet: literature, theatre, opera, rock, art, food, travel, fashion, and foreign languages.

11 Comments

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  • [...] is staged by Ann Whitley who was a choreologist here in the sixties and seventies. Madame Rambert was with the Ballets Russes when Nijinsky was performing this work, so she would have seen him dance over 30 performances of [...]

  • [...] Based on Chazin-Bennahum’s extensive research of previously undiscovered letters and documents from the Arts du Spectacle, the Archives Sciences Politiques in Paris, and the New York Public Library’s dance collection, the narrative centers on Blum’s life and his key role in the development of dance in the United States. Blum’s efforts to save his ballet company eventually helped to bring many of the world’s greatest dancers and choreographers – among them Fokine, Balanchine, and Nijinska – to American ballet stages, shaping the path of dance in the country. [...]

  • [...] The ballet was a success, not only because of Pugni’s memorable score, but also due to the grand scale of scenes on the magical underwater world, one of the places Ivan has to travel to at the command of the Tsar. As was typical at the time, the ballet ended with a divertissement celebrating the Russian Empire. Thirty years later (1895) Marius Petipa would use parts of Pugni’s score (combined with incidental music by Riccardo Drigo) to recreate – under the title The Tsar Maiden  – his own version for the acclaimed prima Pierina Legnani. Interestingly, this particular version of The Little Humpbacked Horse would be the first work to ever be performed by the newly formed Ballets Russes. [...]

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  • May 3, 2010

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  • March 5, 2010

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    [...] – Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes great dance revolution steamrolls through Europe. They abstain from visiting Copenhagen so the [...]

  • [...] times, ballet did manage to evolve beyond that garment over the years. A revolution took place when Diaghilev and his Ballets Russes steamrolled their own artistic movement out of Russia, spreading their view of dance as art and as [...]

  • October 21, 2009

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    [...] productions and collaboration with the seminal artists of its time” ties in with the feats of Diaghilev’s own legendary [...]