Les Ballets Russe

by Chris Devonshire-Ellis

December 15th, 2009

Having been watching an excellent documentary on the life of Stravinsky this past weekend, I was taken (and surprised) by how much of his work was theatrically inspired. Indeed, the man wrote many ballets, and with leading choreographers of the time – Diaghilev, Nijinsky and so on. Stravinsky’s music, often when listened to on its own, can appear jagged, discordant and overly sonic. Not for nothing was there a riot at the 1913 premiere at the Theatre des Champs Elysee of his “Rite of Spring” – a ballet featuring primitive rhythms; the story of a spring maiden who dances herself to death. However, when paired together with dance, his ballets especially take on a marvelous quality of grace, humor and incredible sophistication. Stravinsky’s biography lead to researching the primary foil for his ballet compositions – Les Ballets Russe.

As Russia tore itself in shreds following the Revolution, many aristocrats and artists, especially those associated with the Russian Imperial Court, fled their homeland. That proved a boon to Russian choreographer Sergey Diaghilev, who had anticipated problems, and who anyway had ideas for dance that would not have been accepted by the Tsarist regime anyway. Diaghilev had based himself in Paris, and with a steady stream of Russian talent looking for a home in Europe – Diaghilev, well versed it the art of the French ballet, which was in serious decline, was well positioned to launch his Ballet Russe – a company of exiled Russian dancers, choreographers and theatre hands who rapidly began putting their considerable talents to spectacular, and uncensored use. Throw into the mix the Parisian art elite of the time – Picasso, Matisse, Coco Chanel, Salvador Dali and Benois, Les Ballets Russe was an immediate sensation. Costumes designed by Picasso, sets by Dali, the list of cooperative talent went on and on. The sets and costumes were so lavish that even Cartier used them as inspirations for jewellery – especially that of the ballet Sheherazade, whose exotic Arabic themes coincided with the discovery of the Tomb of Tutankhamun in Eygpt in 1922.

During the course of the company’s life, the female dancers included Anna Pavlova (after whom the cake is dedicated), Tamara Karsavina, Olga Spessivtseva, Mathilde Kschessinska, Ida Rubinstein, Bronislava Nijinska, Lydia Lopokova, Diana Gould and Alicia Markova. The company was, however, more remarkable for raising the status of the male dancer, who had been largely ignored by choreographers and ballet audiences since the early nineteenth century. Among the male dancers were Michel Fokine, Serge Lifar, Léonide Massine, George Balanchine, Adolphe Bolm, and the legendary Vaslav Nijinsky who was, by far and away, the most popular and talented dancer in the company’s history. Les Ballets Russe went on to be a long lasting sensation until Diagilhev’s death in 1929, then continuing under the guise of Ballet Russe des Monte Carlo, which had been the companies winter season and rehearsal studio venues, before finally bowing out in 1958.

However, a recreation of Les Ballets Russe has recently been put on by the Bolshoi, and released on a DVD, “The Return of the Firebird”. Comprising the Stravinsky ballets “Petrushka”, “The Firebird” and Rimsky-Koraskov’s “Sheharazade” it provides restoration of the original sets, costumes and choreography, and is truly spectacular. Very very Russian, yet unbelievably glamorous, this is tremendous seasonal viewing as market places at Christmas come into play with a magician bringing three puppets to life in Petrushka, the defeat of the evil Kashchei the Immortal with the help of one of the exotic Firebirds feathers, and the tale of sex, slaughter and chaos in the Harem in Sheharazade. I thoroughly enjoyed it – and for Christmas – so will you. As for Les Ballet Russe – reforming the company would be a splendid idea, and one in which I for one would almost certainly invest. That would be a fitting way to celebrate what is, after all, the one hundredth year since its formation.


You Tube (not viewable in China): Sheherazade.