The Ballets Russes

Written by Stephen J. Trygar
Cover Photo by Lopez Robin on Unsplash

Throughout history, there are certain events, people, cultures, and organizations that have such radical and intriguing artistic styles and philosophies that it shatters what we understand about art. They not only alter the growth of popular styles and genres, but they alter the course of history along the way. I the musical world, Beethoven became a renegade and forward-thinking when the main melody of his Symphony No. 3 leaned into a C-sharp while in the key of E-flat major. Wagner’s writing style became the new style to emulate and the structures of his operas became the new standard, but today I want to introduce you to a man and his organization that saved the art-form of ballet from ruin while producing music that would seemingly skip generations and mark itself as the influence of Twentieth-Century music, art, and dance, Sergei Diaghilev and his Ballets Russes.

Today, I bring Diaghilev and his ballet company to your attention to both share their incredible history and because I write a lot about this company. My masters thesis argued that the Ballets Russes sparked the shift to performing more ballet scores at symphony orchestra concerts in the United States; my next book, The Language of Flowers: The Ballets of Claude Debussy, Paul Dukas, and Maurice Ravel, mostly contains pieces that were written for the company in the early 1900s; and my most recent episode of my podcast, The Composer Chronicles, discussed Igor Stravinsky’s initiation into the company via his ballet The Firebird. My goal today is to introduce you to the people that made the Ballets Russes what it was and give you a chance to listen to their music.

Sergei Pavlovich Diaghilev (1872 – 1929) was a Russian art critic, patron, ballet impresario born into a wealthy and cultured family in Selishchi, Novgorod Governorate, Russia. Before founding his Ballets Russes (translating to Russian Ballet), he was an art critic and put on several exhibitions before co-founding the art journal Mir iskusstva (World of Art). His plan of initiating something musically significant in Paris began after mounting a production of Modest Mussorgsky’s opera Boris Godunov at the Paris Opéra in 1908. The success of this production launched an invitation for Diaghilev to return the following year with more opera as well as ballet. This sparked Diaghilev’s decision to found a new ballet company that would primarily focus on the ballet. He would use operas as music for his dancers, but it was only to show of his talented dancers. Although founded in Paris, the Ballets Russes would begin to tour the world, including trips overseas to North and South America. The company would remain active until it closed after Diaghilev’s death in 1929.

Do not be fooled by other companies who tried to piggy-back off the success of the Ballets Russes. While these companies, such as Ballet Russe de Monte-Carlo and the Original Ballet Russe, were inspired by Diahilev’s, they were merely capitalizing off the name and would only be founded after Diaghilev’s death.

Notable Choreographers

Below are the company’s most notable choreographers. A few of the productions staged by the Ballets Russes used the choreography of the ballet master Marius Petipa (most recognized for choreographing all three of Tchaikovsky’s ballets). All of the choreographers listed were dancers at some point within the Ballets Russes’ existence with several of them performing in their own ballets.

Michel Fokine in Paquita

Michel Fokine was the company’s first in-house choreographer and paramount to the company’s initial success. His choreographing style remained very traditional with hints of a more modern style that would appear later in the Ballets Russes. He would often choreograph music that was not originally intended to be a ballet, such as Glazunov’s Chopiniana, Schumann’s Carnaval, and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade.

Nijinsky in his L’après-midi d’un faune

Vaslav Nijinsky was one of the company’s most prized dancers. He often performed in the lead roles of several of Fokine’s ballets, such as Scheherazade, Le Spectre de la rose, and Petrushka. Beginning his choreography career by setting Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, his style threw traditional ballet out the window and focused on how his choreography best represented the art and music of his projects. He only ever completed choreographing three ballets: L’après-midi d’un faune, Jeux, and Le Sacre du printemps. He started choreographing Strauss’ Josephslegende, but was removed from the project after several complications.

Massine in Josephslegende

Léonide Massine followed in the footsteps of Fokine, extending upon his innovations in narrative and character within the dance. He incorporated folk-dance into several of his ballets, capturing the flavor of the music and the setting.

Nijinska in Petrushka

Bronislava Nijinska was the younger sister of the famed Vaslav Nijinsky. She started her career with the Ballets Russes as a dancer, but later fled to Kiev after the start of World War I. She would start her own company there, École de movement (School of Movement), and finally return to the Ballets Russes in 1921. Two years later, she was given her first project to choreograph, Stravinsky’s Les Noces, in which she would retain the style of her brother. Her style would continue to extrapolate from her brothers while adding in aspects of classical ballet, such as dancing en pointe.

George Balanchine

George Balanchine is possibly the most recognized choreographer to come from the Ballets Russes, particularly in the United States. He would be invited by Diaghilev to become a choreographer for the Ballets Russes after fleeing to Paris from the Soviet State Dancers while on a tour in Germany. His style was similar to that of Fokine and Massine with aspects of classical ballet, but he would use various other techniques from many other popular forms of dance at the time. His production of Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker is still a holiday favorite in the United States.

Notable Composers

There are simply too many composers who’s music was either used or written for the Ballets Russes to be able to give brief overviews of their careers. However, there are certain composers of note who made composing for the company a priority over other commissions. For a list of all productions and their composers, together with the choreographers and designers, go to the Ballets Russes page on Wikipedia (believe me, I’ve checked the validity of this list).

Stravinsky with Nijinsky as Petrushka

Igor Stravinsky was the composer that Diaghilev seemed to trust and respect the most. After tasking him with several (re)orchestrations of various pieces, Diaghilev would commission the young composer to write his first ballet, The Firebird. After that, Stravinsky would write five more ballets and allow the company to set several more works.

Sergei Prokofiev

Sergei Prokofiev was to be the protégé of Stravinsky. Diaghilev heard Prokofiev’s music and instantly saw in him the next great “trend setter” that Stravinsky had been years prior. His first attempt for the Ballets Russes was never staged, as Diaghilev declined the work failing to see danceable elements. He would eventually prove his worth to the company, and it was his work there that would eventually bring him to prominence as the composer to reinstate classical ballet to the Soviet Union’s stages.

Notable Designers

The Ballets Russes wasn’t just an important part in advancing the musical and dancing worlds, it also promoted several up-and-coming artists that designed sets to compliment the avant-garde productions. Below are a few notable designers who used their artistic skills to create sets and costumes for the Ballets Russes. While there are many other designers used for the company, such as Coco Chanel, Natalia Goncharova, and Henri Matisse, the following had multiple commissions from them.

Alexandre Benois was one of the co-founders of Mir iskusstva, together with Diaghilev and Léon Bakst. He had a hand in designing some of the company’s earliest successes, such as Les Sylphides and Petrushka.

Benois’ set for Petrushka

Léon Bakst was one of the Ballets Russes most valuable members. He was a regualar designer of sets and costumes for the ballet company from its beginnings in 1909 up until 1921. His designs are probably the most recognizable when considering the art that came from the Ballets Russes, especially his costumes for The Firebird and La Péri that consistently find their ways into writings about the company.

Bakst’s costume drawing for the Firebird

Bakst’s set for L’après-midi d’un faune

Pablo Picasso began designing sets and costumes for the company in 1917 using the Cubist style he is well known for. His biggest projects were for Erik Satie’s Parade and Manuel de Falla’s El sombrero de tres picos.

Picasso’s costumes for Parade

I have put together a playlist of several of the ballets that come from the productions of the Ballets Russes. The playlist is made up of an anthology of recordings done by the SWR Classics Label. The music that came out of this insurmountable ballet company is some of my favorite music throughout history. I hope you enjoy them as much as I do. ‘

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Published by Stephen J. Trygar

I am a musicologist and music historian currently residing in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. My primary focus is on theatrical music (opera, ballet, and incidental music) and symphonic music.

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