The Ballets Russes (French for The Russian Ballets) was an itinerant ballet company which performed under the directorship of Sergei Diaghilev between 1909 and 1929. Some of their places of residence included the Théâtre Mogador and the Théâtre du Châtelet, though they worked in many countries, including England, the U.S.A., and Spain. Many of its dancers originated from the Imperial Ballet of St. Petersburg. Younger dancers were trained in Paris, within the community of exiles after the Russian Revolution of 1917. The company featured and premiered now-famous (and sometimes infamous) works by the great choreographers Marius Petipa, Michel Fokine, Bronislava Nijinska, Leonide Massine, Vaslav Nijinsky, and a young George Balanchine at the start of his career.
It created a huge sensation around the world, altering the course of musical history, bringing many significant visual artists into the public eye, and completely reinvigorating the art of performative dance. The Ballets Russes was one of the most influential theatre companies of the twentieth century, in part because of its ground-breaking artistic collaboration among contemporary choreographers, composers, artists, and dancers. Its ballets have been variously intepreted as Classical, Neo-Classical, Romantic, Neo-Romantic, Avant-Garde, Expressionist, Abstract, and Orientalist. The influence of the Ballets Russes lasts to this day in one form or another.
After Diaghilev’s early death in 1929, the dancers were scattered, and the company’s property was claimed by creditors. Colonel Wassily de Basil and his associate René Blum revived the company under the name Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo. George Balanchine and Leonide Massine worked with them as choreographers, and Tamara Toumanova as a principal dancer. De Basil and Blum argued constantly, so Blum founded another company under the name Original Ballet Russe.
During World War II the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo toured extensively in the United States. When dancers retired and left the company, they often founded dance studios in the United States or South America, or taught at other dancers’ studios. With Balanchine’s founding of the New York City Ballet, many former Ballet Russes de Monte Carlo dancers went to New York to teach.
The Original Ballet Russe toured mostly in Europe. Its alumni were influential in teaching classical Russian ballet technique in European and British schools.
The Serge Lifar collection of Ballets Russes costumes and other memorabilia is on display at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut.
Two of the male stars of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in 1909 were Adolph Bolm (1884-1951) and Mikhail Mordkin (1880-1944). Bolm was a student at the Imperial School in St. Petersburg and Mordkin was trained at the Bolshoi, in Moscow. They both joined Diaghilev for his Paris season as leading dancers although they ranked above Nijinsky. Diaghilev made sure that the press wrote more about his young favorite.
Mikhail Mordkin graduated from the Bolshoi Ballet School in 1899, and in the same year was appointed ballet master. He joined Diaghilev’s ballet in 1909 as a leading dancer. After the first season he remained in Paris to dance with Pavlova. He then formed his own company, All Star Imperial Russian Ballet, which toured America in 1911 and 1912. Mikhail returned to the Bolshoi and was appointed its director in 1917. He left Russia after the October Revolution, first working in Lithuania, and finally settling in the United States in 1924. He founded the Mordkin Ballet in1926, for which he choreographed a complete Swan Lake and many other ballets. His company included such distinguished artists as Hilda Butsova, Felia Doubrovska, Pierre Vladimiroff, and Nicholas Zvereff. After a European tour the company disbanded in 1926. Mordkin continued to be a freelance artist and teacher. From among his students in America he formed a new Mordkin Ballet in 1937, the forerunner of Ballet Theatre (now American Ballet Theatre). His student Lucia Chase helped finance his company and after the first season of Ballet Theatre, she and Richard Pleasant took over the management from Mordkin because they thought his plans lacked ambition. Although he had been pushed into the background, Mordkin, like Bolm, helped build the foundation for ballet in America.
You may remember one of Diaghilev’s most famous dancers, Leonide Massine (1895-1979), because of his portrayal of the ballet master and shoemaker in the 1948 film The Red Shoes . Massine studied at the Moscow Bolshoi School, graduated in 1912 and joined the Bolshoi Ballet.
When Diaghilev fired Nijinsky after his marriage a void was left both in the ballet company, and Diaghilev’s life. Mikhail Fokine was working on a new ballet, The Legend of Joseph. While visiting in Moscow Diaghilev saw the Bolshoi Ballet, and noticed in Don Quixote and Swan Lake a handsome young man with big dark eyes who reminded him of St. George in an ikon. This was Leonide Massine not a particularly good dancer (with poorly shaped legs), but who had stage presence that would make him into a great star. Diaghilev became infatuated with Massine and persuaded him to leave the Bolshoi and join his company. It was understood that he would replace Nijinsky on and off the stage. Massine immediately began to work with the Ballets Russes’ teacher Enrico Cecchetti and was soon ready to star in Fokine’s new ballet.
Massine became an outstanding-actor dancer. Before joining the Ballets Russes, Massine had considered giving up dance and becoming an actor. He had even been offered the role of Romeo in Shakespeare’s play at the Maly Theatre in Moscow.
Massine joined the company in 1914 and by 1915 he had choreographed his first ballet for the Ballets Russes. To Diaghilev’s dismay Massine followed the same path as his predecessor and got married to the first of four wives in 1921. Diaghilev called him an ingrate, saying, “Nothing but a good-looking face and poor legs.” 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 46 he formed his own company called Ballet Russe Highlights.
He was a prolific choreographer he created 50 ballets. His greatest achievement is considered by many to be the development of the symphonic ballet as a separate art form.
To list all his ballets would take a whole page. A few are: The Good-Humored Ladies, La Boutique Fantasque, 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 .
* The Ballet Rousses at Wang Theater Boston.Oh my god! I am speechless.Centenial Anniversary of Diaglev’s Ballet Company. Mikko, great job. What a surprise at the end Fire red costumes and real fire created a sensuous scenery. The illusion of 3D. A true CLASSIC.
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