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Ballets Russes

Paris-based ballet company in the early 20th C.

Top 10 Ballets Russes related articles

Ballets Russes
General information
NameBallets Russes
Year founded1909
Principal venuevarious
Artistic staff
Artistic DirectorSergei Diaghilev
  • Principal
  • Soloist
  • Corps de Ballet
Poster by Jean Cocteau for the 1911 Ballet Russe season showing Nijinsky in costume for Le Spectre de la rose, Paris.

The Ballets Russes (French: [balɛ ʁys]) was an itinerant ballet company based in Paris that performed between 1909 and 1929 throughout Europe and on tours to North and South America. The company never performed in Russia, where the Revolution disrupted society. After its initial Paris season, the company had no formal ties there.[1]

Originally conceived by impresario Sergei Diaghilev, the Ballets Russes is widely regarded as the most influential ballet company of the 20th century,[2] in part because it promoted ground-breaking artistic collaborations among young choreographers, composers, designers, and dancers, all at the forefront of their several fields. Diaghilev commissioned works from composers such as Igor Stravinsky, Claude Debussy, Sergei Prokofiev, Erik Satie, and Maurice Ravel, artists such as Vasily Kandinsky, Alexandre Benois, Pablo Picasso, and Henri Matisse, and costume designers Léon Bakst and Coco Chanel.

The company's productions created a huge sensation, completely reinvigorating the art of performing dance, bringing many visual artists to public attention, and significantly affecting the course of musical composition. It also introduced European and American audiences to tales, music, and design motifs drawn from Russian folklore. The influence of the Ballets Russes lasts to the present day.

Ballets Russes Intro articles: 5


The French plural form of the name, “Ballets Russes,” specifically refers to the company founded by Sergei Diaghilev and active during his lifetime. (In some publicity the company was advertised as Les Ballets Russes de Serge Diaghileff.) In English, the company is now commonly referred to as "the Ballets Russes" (plural, without italics), although in the early part of the 20th century, it was sometimes referred to as “The Russian Ballet” or “Diaghilev’s Russian Ballet.” To add to the confusion, some publicity material spelled the name in the singular.

The names Ballet Russe de Monte-Carlo” and the Original Ballet Russe (using the singular) refer to companies that formed after Diaghilev's death in 1929.

Ballets Russes Nomenclature articles: 2

History and productions

Sergei Diaghilev, founder of the Ballets Russes


Sergei Diaghilev, the company's impresario (or "artistic director" in modern terms), was chiefly responsible for its success. He was uniquely prepared for the role; born into a wealthy Russian family of vodka distillers (though they went bankrupt when he was 18), he was accustomed to moving in the upper-class circles that provided the company's patrons and benefactors.

In 1890, he enrolled at the Faculty of Law, St. Petersburg, to prepare for a career in the civil service like many Russian young men of his class.[3] There he was introduced (through his cousin Dmitry Filosofov) to a student clique of artists and intellectuals calling themselves The Nevsky Pickwickians whose most influential member was Alexandre Benois; others included Léon Bakst, Walter Nouvel, and Konstantin Somov.[4] From childhood, Diaghilev had been passionately interested in music. However, his ambition to become a composer was dashed in 1894 when Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov told him he had no talent.[5]

In 1898, several members of The Pickwickians founded the journal Mir iskusstva (World of Art) under the editorship of Diaghilev.[6] As early as 1902, Mir iskusstva included reviews of concerts, operas, and ballets in Russia. The latter were chiefly written by Benois, who exerted considerable influence on Diaghilev's thinking.[7] Mir iskusstva also sponsored exhibitions of Russian art in St. Petersburg, culminating in Diaghilev's important 1905 show of Russian portraiture at the Tauride Palace.[8]

Ballet Russes by August Macke, 1912

Frustrated by the extreme conservatism of the Russian art world, Diaghilev organized the groundbreaking Exhibition of Russian Art at the Petit Palais in Paris in 1906, the first major showing of Russian art in the West. Its enormous success created a Parisian fascination with all things Russian. Diaghilev organized a 1907 season of Russian music at the Paris Opéra. In 1908, Diaghilev returned to the Paris Opéra with six performances of Modest Mussorgsky's opera Boris Godunov, starring basso Fyodor Chaliapin. This was Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov's 1908 version (with additional cuts and re-arrangement of the scenes). The performances were a sensation, though the costs of producing grand opera were crippling.


In 1909, Diaghilev presented his first Paris "Saison Russe" devoted exclusively to ballet (although the company did not use the name "Ballets Russes" until the following year). Most of this original company were resident performers at the Imperial Ballet of Saint Petersburg, hired by Diaghilev to perform in Paris during the Imperial Ballet's summer holidays. The first season's repertory featured a variety of works chiefly choreographed by Michel Fokine, including Le Pavillon d'Armide, the Polovtsian Dances (from Prince Igor), Les Sylphides, and Cléopâtre. The season also included Le Festin, a pastiche set by several choreographers (including Fokine) to music by several Russian composers.

Principal productions

The principal productions are shown in the table below.

Year Title Image Composer(s) Choreographer(s) Sets and costumes
1909 Le Pavillon d'Armide Nikolai Tcherepnin Michel Fokine Alexandre Benois
Prince Igor Alexander Borodin Michel Fokine Nicholas Roerich
Le Festin Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (march from Le Coq d'Or used for processional entry) Konstantin Korovin (sets and costumes)

Léon Bakst (costumes)

Alexandre Benois (costumes)

Ivan Bilibin (costumes)

Mikhail Glinka ("Lezginka" from Ruslan and Ludmilla) Michel Fokine, Marius Petipa
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky ("L'Oiseau d'Or" from The Sleeping Beauty) Marius Petipa
Alexander Glazunov ("Czardas" from Raymonda) Alexander Gorsky
Modest Mussorgsky ("Hopak" from The Fair at Sorochyntsi) Michel Fokine
Mikhail Glinka ("Mazurka" from A Life for the Tsar) Nicolai Goltz, Felix Kchessinsky
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky ("Trepak" from The Nutcracker) Michel Fokine
Alexander Glazunov ("Grand Pas Classique Hongrois" from Raymonda) Marius Petipa
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky ("Finale" of the Second Symphony) Michel Fokine
Les Sylphides Frédéric Chopin (orch. Glazunov, Igor Stravinsky, Alexander Taneyev) Michel Fokine Alexandre Benois
Cléopâtre Anton Arensky (additional music by Glazunov, Glinka, Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Sergei Taneyev, Nikolai Tcherepnin) Michel Fokine Léon Bakst
1910 Carnaval Robert Schumann (orch. Arensky, Glazunov, Anatol Liadov, Rimsky-Korsakov, Tcherepnin) Michel Fokine Léon Bakst
Schéhérazade Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov Michel Fokine Léon Bakst
Giselle Adolphe Adam Jean Coralli, Jules Perrot, Marius Petipa (revival), Michel Fokine (revisions) Alexandre Benois
Les Orientales Christian Sinding (Rondoletto giocoso, op.32/5) (orch. Igor Stravinsky for "Danse Siamoise")

Edvard Grieg (Småtroll, op.71/3, from Lyric Pieces, Book X) (orch. Igor Stravinsky for "Variation")

Vaslav Nijinsky ("Danse Siamoise" and "Variation")

Michel Fokine

Konstantin Korovin (sets and costumes)

Léon Bakst (costumes)

L'Oiseau de feu Igor Stravinsky Michel Fokine Alexander Golovine (sets and costumes)

Léon Bakst (costumes)

1911 Le Spectre de la rose Carl Maria von Weber Michel Fokine Léon Bakst
Narcisse Nikolai Tcherepnin Michel Fokine Léon Bakst
Sadko Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov Mikhail Fokine Boris Anisfeld
Petrushka Igor Stravinsky Michel Fokine Alexandre Benois
Swan Lake Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky Marius Petipa, Lev Ivanov, Michel Fokine (revisions) Konstantin Korovin (sets)

Alexander Golovin (sets and costumes)

1912 L'après-midi d'un faune Claude Debussy Vaslav Nijinsky Léon Bakst
Daphnis et Chloé Maurice Ravel Michel Fokine Léon Bakst
Le Dieu bleu Reynaldo Hahn Michel Fokine Léon Bakst
Thamar Mily Balakirev based on his symphonic Poem Tamara Michel Fokine Léon Bakst
1913 Jeux Claude Debussy Vaslav Nijinsky Léon Bakst
Le sacre du printemps Igor Stravinsky Vaslav Nijinsky Nicholas Roerich
Tragédie de Salomé Florent Schmitt Boris Romanov Sergey Sudeykin
1914 Les Papillons Robert Schumann (orch. Nikolai Tcherepnin) Mikhail Fokine Mstislav Doboujinsky
La légende de Joseph Richard Strauss Michel Fokine Léon Bakst
Le coq d'or Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov Michel Fokine Natalia Goncharova
Le rossignol Igor Stravinsky Boris Romanov Alexandre Benois
Midas Maximilian Steinberg Michel Fokine Mstislav Doboujinsky
1915 Soleil de Nuit Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov Léonide Massine Mikhail Larionov
1916 Las Meninas Louis Aubert, Gabriel Fauré (Pavane), Maurice Ravel (Alborada del gracioso), Emmanuel Chabrier (Menuet pompeux) Léonide Massine Josep Maria Sert (costumes)
Kikimora Anatoly Liadov Léonide Massine Mikhail Larionov
Till Eulenspiegel Richard Strauss Vaslav Nijinsky Robert Edmond Jones
1917 Feu d'Artifice Igor Stravinsky Giacomo Balla
Les Femmes de Bonne Humeur Domenico Scarlatti (orch. Vincenzo Tommasini) Léonide Massine Léon Bakst
Parade Erik Satie Léonide Massine Pablo Picasso
1919 La Boutique fantasque Gioachino Rossini (arr. Ottorino Respighi) Léonide Massine André Derain
El sombrero de tres picos Manuel de Falla Léonide Massine Pablo Picasso
Les jardins d'Aranjuez (new version of Las Meninas) Louis Aubert, Gabriel Fauré, Maurice Ravel, Emmanuel Chabrier Léonide Massine Josep Maria Sert (costumes)
1920 Le chant du rossignol Igor Stravinsky Léonide Massine Henri Matisse
Pulcinella Igor Stravinsky Léonide Massine Pablo Picasso
Ballet de l'astuce féminine or Cimarosiana Domenico Cimarosa Léonide Massine Josep Maria Sert
Le sacre du printemps (revival) Igor Stravinsky Léonide Massine Nicholas Roerich
1921 Chout Sergei Prokofiev Léonide Massine Mikhail Larionov
Cuadro Flamenco Traditional Andalusian music (arr. Manuel de Falla) Pablo Picasso
The Sleeping Beauty Pyotr Tchaikovsky Marius Petipa Léon Bakst
1922 Le Mariage de la Belle au Bois Dormant Pyotr Tchaikovsky Marius Petipa Alexandre Benois (sets and costumes)

Natalia Goncharova (costumes)

Mavra Igor Stravinsky Bronislava Nijinska Léopold Survage
Renard Igor Stravinsky Bronislava Nijinska Mikhail Larionov
1923 Les noces Igor Stravinsky Bronislava Nijinska Natalia Goncharova
1924 Les Tentations de la Bergère, ou l'Amour Vainqueur Michel de Montéclair (arr. and orch. Henri Casadesus) Bronislava Nijinska Juan Gris
Le Médecin malgré lui Charles Gounod Bronislava Nijinska Alexandre Benois
Les biches Francis Poulenc Bronislava Nijinska Marie Laurencin
Cimarosiana Domenico Cimarosa (orch. Ottorino Respighi) Léonide Massine, Bronislava Nijinska José-María Sert
Les Fâcheux Georges Auric Bronislava Nijinska Georges Braque
Le train bleu Darius Milhaud Bronislava Nijinska Henri Laurens (sets)

Gabrielle Chanel (costumes)

Pablo Picasso (sets)

1925 Zephyr et Flore Vladimir Dukelsky Léonide Massine Georges Braque
Le chant du rossignol (revival) Igor Stravinsky George Balanchine Henri Matisse
Les matelots Georges Auric Léonide Massine Pere Pruna
Barabau Vittorio Rieti George Balanchine Maurice Utrillo
1926 Roméo et Juliette Constant Lambert Bronislava Nijinska Max Ernst (curtain)

Joan Miró (sets and costumes)

Pastorale Georges Auric George Balanchine Pere Pruna
Jack in the Box Erik Satie (orch. Milhaud) George Balanchine André Derain
The Triumph of Neptune Lord Berners George Balanchine Pedro Pruna (costumes)
1927 La chatte Henri Sauguet George Balanchine Naum Gabo
Mercure Erik Satie Léonide Massine Pablo Picasso
Le pas d'acier Sergei Prokofiev Léonide Massine Georges Jacoulov
1928 Ode Nikolai Nabokov Léonide Massine Pavel Tchelitchev
Apollon musagète (Apollo) Igor Stravinsky George Balanchine André Bauschant (scene)

Coco Chanel (costumes)

The Gods Go A-Begging George Frederic Handel George Balanchine Léon Bakst (sets)

Juan Gris (costumes)

1929 Le Bal Vittorio Rieti George Balanchine Giorgio de Chirico
Renard (revival) Igor Stravinsky Serge Lifar Mikhail Larionov
Le fils prodigue Sergei Prokofiev George Balanchine Georges Rouault


Dimitri Rostoff as Malatesta in Francesca da Rimini, Original Ballet Russe, 1940

When Sergei Diaghilev died of diabetes in Venice on 19 August 1929, the Ballets Russes was left with substantial debts. As the Great Depression began, its property was claimed by its creditors and the company of dancers dispersed.

In 1931, Colonel Wassily de Basil (a Russian émigré entrepreneur from Paris) and René Blum (ballet director at the Monte Carlo Opera) founded the Ballets Russes de Monte-Carlo, giving its first performances there in 1932.[9] Diaghilev alumni Léonide Massine and George Balanchine worked as choreographers with the company and Tamara Toumanova was a principal dancer.

Artistic differences led to a split between Blum and de Basil,[10] after which de Basil renamed his company initially "Ballets Russes de Colonel W. de Basil".[11] Blum retained the name "Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo", while de Basil created a new company. In 1938, he called it "The Covent Garden Russian Ballet"[11] and then renamed it the "Original Ballet Russe" in 1939.[11][12]

After World War II began, the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo left Europe and toured extensively in the United States and South America. As dancers retired and left the company, they often founded dance studios in the United States or South America or taught at other former company dancers' studios. With Balanchine's founding of the School of American Ballet, and later the New York City Ballet, many outstanding former Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo dancers went to New York to teach in his school. When they toured the United States, Cyd Charisse, the film actress and dancer, was taken into the cast.

The Original Ballet Russe toured mostly in Europe. Its alumni were influential in teaching classical Russian ballet technique in European schools.

The successor companies were the subject of the 2005 documentary film Ballets Russes.

Ballets Russes History and productions articles: 157

The dancers

Scene from Apollon musagète, 1928. Dancers: Serge Lifar, Danilova, Chernysheva, Dubrovska, Petrova

The Ballets Russes was noted for the high standard of its dancers, most of whom had been classically trained at the great Imperial schools in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Their high technical standards contributed a great deal to the company's success in Paris, where dance technique had declined markedly since the 1830s.

Principal female dancers included: Anna Pavlova, Tamara Karsavina, Olga Spessivtseva, Mathilde Kschessinska, Ida Rubinstein, Bronislava Nijinska, Lydia Lopokova, Diana Gould, Sophie Pflanz, and Alicia Markova, among others; many earned international renown with the company, including Ekaterina Galanta and Valentina Kachouba.[13][14] Prima ballerina Xenia Makletzova was dismissed from the company in 1916 and sued by Diaghilev; she countersued for breach of contract, and won $4500 in a Massachusetts court.[15][16]

The Ballets Russes was even more remarkable for raising the status of the male dancer, largely ignored by choreographers and ballet audiences since the early 19th century. Among the male dancers were Michel Fokine, Serge Lifar, Léonide Massine, Anton Dolin, George Balanchine, Valentin Zeglovsky, Theodore Kosloff, Adolph Bolm, and the legendary Vaslav Nijinsky, considered the most popular and talented dancer in the company's history.

After the Russian Revolution of 1917, in later years, younger dancers were taken from those trained in Paris by former Imperial dancers, within the large community of Russian exiles. Recruits were even accepted from America and included a young Ruth Page who joined the troupe in Monte Carlo during 1925.[17][18][19]

Ballets Russes The dancers articles: 19

The choreographers

The company featured and premiered now-famous (and sometimes notorious) works by the great choreographers Marius Petipa and Michel Fokine, as well as new works by Vaslav Nijinsky, Bronislava Nijinska, Léonide Massine, and the young George Balanchine at the start of his career.

Michel Fokine

The choreography of Michel Fokine was of paramount importance in the initial success of the Ballets Russes. Fokine had graduated from the Imperial Ballet School in Saint Petersburg in 1898, and eventually become First Soloist at the Mariinsky Theater. In 1907, Fokine choreographed his first work for the Imperial Russian Ballet, Le Pavillon d'Armide. In the same year, he created Chopiniana to piano music by the composer Frédéric Chopin as orchestrated by Alexander Glazunov. This was an early example of creating choreography to an existing score rather than to music specifically written for the ballet, a departure from the normal practice at the time.

Fokine established an international reputation with his works choreographed during the first four seasons (1909–1912) of the Ballets Russes. These included the Polovtsian Dances (from Prince Igor), Le Pavillon d'Armide (a revival of his 1907 production for the Imperial Russian Ballet), Les Sylphides (a reworking of his earlier Chopiniana), The Firebird, Le Spectre de la Rose, Petrushka, and Daphnis and Chloé . After a longstanding tumultuous relationship with Diaghilev, Fokine left the Ballets Russes at the end of the 1912 season.[20]

Vaslav Nijinsky

Vaslav Nijinsky in Scheherazade

Vaslav Nijinsky had attended the Imperial Ballet School, St. Petersburg since the age of eight. He graduated in 1907 and joined the Imperial Ballet where he immediately began to take starring roles. Diaghilev invited him to join the Ballets Russes for its first Paris season.

In 1912, Diaghilev gave Nijinsky his first opportunity as a choreographer, for his production of L'Après-midi d'un faune to Claude Debussy's symphonic poem Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune. Featuring Nijinsky himself as the Faun, the ballet's frankly erotic nature caused a sensation. The following year, Nijinsky choreographed a new work by Debussy composed expressly for the Ballets Russes, Jeux. Indifferently received by the public, Jeux was eclipsed two weeks later by the premiere of Igor Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring (Le Sacre du printemps), also choreographed by Nijinsky.

Nijinsky eventually retired from dance and choreography, after he was diagnosed with schizophrenia in 1919.

Léonide Massine

Léonide Massine was born in Moscow,[21] where he studied both acting and dancing at the Imperial School. On the verge of becoming an actor, Massine was invited by Sergei Diaghilev to join the Ballets Russes, as he was seeking a replacement for Vaslav Nijinsky. Diaghilev encouraged Massine's creativity and his entry into choreography.

Massine's most famous creations for the Ballets Russes were Parade, El sombrero de tres picos, and Pulcinella. In all three of these works, he collaborated with Pablo Picasso, who designed the sets and costumes.

Massine extended Fokine's choreographic innovations, especially those relating to narrative and character. His ballets incorporated both folk dance and demi-charactère dance, a style using classical technique to perform character dance. Massine created contrasts in his choreography, such as synchronized yet individual movement, or small-group dance patterns within the corps de ballet.

Bronislava Nijinska

Bronislava Nijinska was the younger sister of Vaslav Nijinsky. She trained at the Imperial Ballet School in St. Petersburg, joining the Imperial Ballet company in 1908. From 1909, she (like her brother) was a member of Diaghilev's Ballets Russes.

In 1915, Nijinska and her husband fled to Kiev to escape World War I. There, she founded the École de movement, where she trained Ukrainian artists in modern dance. Her most prominent pupil was Serge Lifar (who later joined the Ballets Russes in 1923).

Following the Russian Revolution, Nijinska fled again to Poland, and then, in 1921, re-joined the Ballets Russes in Paris. In 1923, Diaghilev assigned her the choreography of Stravinsky's Les Noces. The result combines elements of her brother's choreography for The Rite of Spring with more traditional aspects of ballet, such as dancing en pointe. The following year, she choreographed three new works for the company: Les biches, Les Fâcheux, and Le train bleu.

George Balanchine

Born Giorgi Melitonovitch Balanchivadze in Saint Petersburg, George Balanchine was trained at the Imperial School of Ballet. His education there was interrupted by the Russian Revolution of 1917. Balanchine graduated in 1921, after the school reopened. He subsequently studied music theory, composition, and advanced piano at the Petrograd Conservatory, graduating in 1923. During this time, he worked with the corps de ballet of the Mariinsky Theater. In 1924, Balanchine (and his first wife, ballerina Tamara Geva) fled to Paris while on tour of Germany with the Soviet State Dancers. He was invited by Sergei Diaghilev to join the Ballets Russes as a choreographer.[22]

Ballets Russes The choreographers articles: 17

The designers

Diaghilev invited the collaboration of contemporary fine artists in the design of sets and costumes. These included Alexandre Benois, Léon Bakst, Nicholas Roerich, Georges Braque, Natalia Goncharova, Mikhail Larionov, Pablo Picasso, Coco Chanel, Henri Matisse, André Derain, Joan Miró, Giorgio de Chirico, Salvador Dalí, Ivan Bilibin, Pavel Tchelitchev, Maurice Utrillo, and Georges Rouault.

Their designs contributed to the groundbreaking excitement of the company's productions. The scandal caused by the premiere performance in Paris of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring has been partly attributed to the provocative aesthetic of the costumes of the Ballets Russes.[23]

Alexandre Benois

Alexandre Benois had been the most influential member of The Nevsky Pickwickians and was one of the original founders (with Bakst and Diaghilev) of Mir iskusstva. His particular interest in ballet as an art form strongly influenced Diaghilev and was seminal in the formation of the Ballets Russes. In addition, Benois contributed scenic and costume designs to several of the company's earlier productions: Le Pavillon d'Armide, portions of Le Festin, and Giselle. Benois also participated with Igor Stravinsky and Michel Fokine in the creation of Petrushka, to which he contributed much of the scenario as well as the stage sets and costumes.

Léon Bakst

Pablo Picasso (wearing a beret) and scene painters sitting on the front cloth for the ballet Parade

Léon Bakst was also an original member of both The Nevsky Pickwickians and Mir iskusstva. He participated as designer in productions of the Ballets Russes from its beginning in 1909 until 1921, creating sets and costumes for Scheherazade, The Firebird, Les Orientales, Le Spectre de la rose, L'Après-midi d'une faune, and Daphnis et Chloé, among other productions.

Pablo Picasso

In 1917, Pablo Picasso designed sets and costumes in the Cubist style for three Diaghilev ballets, all with choreography by Léonide Massine: Parade, El sombrero de tres picos, and Pulcinella.

Natalia Goncharova

Natalia Goncharova was born in 1881 near Tula, Russia. Her art was inspired by Russian folk art, Fauvism, and cubism. She began designing for the Ballets Russes in 1921.

Although the Ballets Russes firmly established the 20th-century tradition of fine art theatre design, the company was not unique in its employment of fine artists. For instance, Savva Mamontov's Private Opera Company had made a policy of employing fine artists, such as Konstantin Korovin and Golovin, who went on to work for the Ballets Russes.