Culture and Recreation
Why is the Ballets Russes! famous?
The notoriety of the Ballets Russes began on a May night in 1909. It was then that the company, created by Russian impresario Sergey Diaghilev (1872–1929), performed innovative ballet choreographed by Michel Fokine (1880–1942). The Parisian audience, made up of the city’s elite, was wowed by the choreography, set design, and musical scores, as well as the performances of the lead dancers—the athletic vigor of Vaslav Nijinsky, the delicate beauty of Tamara Karsavina, the expressiveness of Anna Pavlova, and the exotic quality of Ida Rubinstein. Ballet had been freed of the constraints and conventions that had held it captive. The art form was reawakened.
The reforms were on every level: choreography, performance, costuming, and design. The company’s chief set designer was Léon Bakst (1866–1924), whose sense of color had influenced not only stage designs but even women’s fashions. Soon Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes were at the center of the art world: Major twentieth-century painters, including Robert Edmond Jones, Pablo Picasso, Andre Derain, Henri Matisse, and Joan Miró, created set and costume designs for the dance company. And Diaghilev commissioned music that could match the spectacular dancing, choreography, and decor of his ballets. History’s most celebrated composers, including Maurice Ravel, Claude Debussy, Richard Strauss, Sergei Prokofiev, and Igor Stravinsky, provided the scores for the dances performed by Ballets Russes. The company, under Diaghilev’s direction, had created a completely different kind of dance drama, bringing ballet out of the shadows of opera and asserting it as an art form unto itself.
The ballet companies of today are the lasting legacy of the Ballets Russes. Diaghilev illustrated that through a collaborative process, excellent art could be created outside the traditional academy. The Ballets Russes provided twentieth-century dance with the model of the touring ballet company and seasonal repertory.