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Ballets Russes as a driving force of a new aesthetic of the 20th century

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The Ballets Russes (the Russian Ballet), an independent dance company, active between 1909 and 1929, was founded by the flamboyant Russian-born impresario Serge Diaghilev (1872−1929). By integrating contemporary music, new approaches to dance and choreography, modern stage and costume design, and publicity he encouraged the artistic experimentation and collaboration of composers, choreographers, painters and publishers and unleashed a torrent of creative activity in European theatre. Ballets Ruses placed the formerly moribund art of ballet into the Modernist framework of early 20th century design and culture and formed a new aesthetic of the era.

Russian designers Léon Bakst, Alexandre Benoit and Nicholas Roerich provided the sumptuous and exotic spectacle of the first performances while other artists joined Diaghilev later on—among them, an Avant-garde painter Michel Larionov and a neo-Primitivist Natalia Goncharova, Cubists Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso, Fauvists Henri Matisse and André Derain, Surrealists Giorgio de Chirico, Joan Miró and Pavel Tchelitchev, a muralist José Maria Sert, and Orphists Robert and Sonia Delaunay.

When Diaghilev conceived of the Ballets Russes, he hasn’t got any clear idea how performances should look like. But he was pretty sure that they have to amaze, astonish and shock the audience. So, he needed the boldest choreographers, the most wonderful dancers, and the best artists indeed to create costumes and scenery sets never seen at theatres before.

Fortunately, it was time when avant-garde practices flourished and Diaghilev could choose among a perfect set of artists who were able to switch between magazine graphics and religious frescoes and between small illustrations and the vast theatrical backdrops.

Serge Diaghilev

Diaghilev did not pick artists by their theater portfolios but rather evaluated their exhibitions at art galleries. Although he never took lessons in art but had a law degree instead, he had a keen eye and a high level of culture. He was born and raised in a family with a long line of noblemen. Their house in Perm was called the "Perm Athens", and city intellectuals and artists gathered there each Thursday. These evenings were always full of art: music, singing, and home performances. When the family moved back to St. Petersburg, he studied law at the university and music composition at the conservatory simultaneously.

He was also introduced to a circle of art-loving friends who called themselves The Nevsky Pickwickians. Aided by Alexandre Benois, one of its members, he learned much of Russian and Western art. In two years, Diaghilev had voraciously absorbed into his art studies, even traveling abroad, and came to be respected as one of the most learned of the group.
1. Sergei Diaghilev in his youth. 2. Co-founders of the art journal "Mir Iskusstva": Konstantin Somov, Walter Nouvel, Sergei Diaghilev and Dmitri Filosofov. Photo: late 19th century, credit to: lafrimeuse.com.
Diaghilev, then thirty-five, became one of the most important people in the art world of St. Petersburg. With his friends, a loosely organized fraternity of artists, musicians, critics, and other writers, he set himself the goal of liberating Russian artistic culture from the narrow political dictates (realism, nationalism, social criticism) that had dominated it since the 1860s. The group’s most influential project was its art journal, "Mir Iskusstva" (The World of Art, 1898−1904), initiated, co-founded and edited by Diaghilev. Being appointed as a chief editor to it, he also published his own art critics articles from time to time.

The magazine has become a platform for the avant-garde art of the European fin de siècle and provided readers with a valuable opportunity to meet new protagonists of the world’s art scene of the day. "Mir Iskusstva" was instrumental in converting Russian painting from an exhausted realism to the freer, more imaginative symbolist style of the early twentieth century.
Diaghilev also began to paint. Yet he became neither a lawyer, nor a composer, nor a painter but remained an amateur in all these fields, or as he himself said, a "great charlatan". His unique managerial talent developed when he melded his varied interests and knowledge to create the world’s most complex and genuine art-workshop. He was, however, too independent and extravagant, too rebellious to be accepted in Russia, and in 1901 he was fired from his job as advisor to the imperial theater. He was offended and in a demonstrative manner refused to keep on editing the "Annual of Imperial Theatres", which he turned from a dry edition into an illustrious art magazine.

Diaghilev’s international fame spread far and wide with the organization of an extraordinary exhibition of four thousand Russian historical portraits in St. Petersburg’s Tauride Palace in 1904. It attracted forty-five thousand visitors. "It must be emphasized that Diaghilev," notes Modris Eksteins, a famous Canadian historian specializing in modern culture, "the budding experimentalist who was to become manager-extraordinaire of the ‘modern spirit,' lauched himself from the foundations of the Russian past".
Maria Vasilievna Yakunchikova-Weber. The cover of the magazine "World of art"
  • "Mir Iskusstva" art journal cover, Yakunchikova, 1899.
  • "Mir Iskusstva" art journal, title page, Bakst, 1903.

Ballets Russes. Season 1909

Being rejected by Russia, Diaghilev began bringing Russian art to the West and chose Paris as his base. He arrived there in 1906 and organized a blockbuster exhibition of Russian painting and sculpture at the Petit Palais. He saw his personal mission in redeeming a declining old culture through confrontation with the elemental Russian arts. "Russian art will not only begin to play a role," he wrote before his first Paris exhibition, "it will also become, in actual fact and in the broader meaning of the world, one of the principal leaders of our imminent movement of enlightenment".

During 1907, he presented five concerts of Russian music, most of it unknown to Europeans at the time, and in 1908, he organized a triumphant production, the first in the West, of Modest Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, starring Feodor Chaliapin at the Paris Opéra.

He made a real breakthrough on 19 May, 1909, when opened the Ballets Russes (Russian ballet) at the Théâtre du Châtelet. With the first-night performance, the Polovetsian Dances from the "Prince Igor" (Act II) opera by Borodin, the Paris audience was transported to a wilder world of Russian history set in the steppes of Central Asia. Western public was delighted by a strong, powerful and attractive Adolph Bolm as the Chief Warrior in Michel Fokine’s choreography. People were longing for male protagonists in ballet, for male dancers were relegated to small roles during much of the 19th century. The audience was also amazed by Nicholas Roerich’s set featuring unusual Russian folk art and nomadic tribal history.
Nicholas Roerich. The Polovtsian camp. A sketch of the scenery for the ballet "Polovtsian dances"
  • Pierre Choumoff, Adolph Bolm, Polovtsian Dances, 1909.
  • Nicholas Roerich, The Polovtsian camp sketch
    A study is an exercise painting that helps the painter better understand the object he or she paints. It is simple and clear, like sample letters in a school student’s copybook. Rough and ready, not detailed, with every stroke being to the point, a study is a proven method of touching the world and making a catalogue of it. However, in art history, the status of the study is vague and open to interpretation. Despite its auxiliary role, a study is sometimes viewed as something far more significant than the finished piece. Then, within an impressive frame, it is placed on a museum wall.
    So, when does a study remain a mere drill, and when can we call it an artwork in its own right, full of life and having artistic value? Read more
    , 1909.
The ballet had a sensation success. The company Les Ballets Russes conquered Paris and subsequently preformed in most major cities throughout Europe (although never in Russia) and in North and South America from 1909 to 1929 until the untimely death of Diaghilev.

The stage designs for the operas and ballets brought the exoticism of Russian culture to a wider Western audience, and with it the work of Russian artists and designers such as Léon Bakst, Alexandre Benois, Natalia Goncharova and Mikhail Larionov; century’s most innovative choreographers including Michel Fokine, Vaslav Nijinsky, Léonide Massine, Bronislava Nijinska and George Balanchine; composers Igor Stravinsky, Alexander Borodin, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Nicholas Tcherepnin; and dancers such as Tamara Karsavina, Anna Pavlova, Adolph Bolm, Serge Lifar and Vaslav Nijinsky. Through the collaboration of the all-star art cast Diaghilev was able to bring to life a new vision of the Slavic, oriental, baroque, romantic and later constructivist elements of Russian culture.

Léon Bakst

The characteristic vivid colors, décor and costumes produced by Leon Bakst and Alexander Golovin for the ballet performances that were given in 1910 — Scheherazade, Cleopatra, and the Firebird — were enriched with exotic Oriental motifs and influenced both fashion and interior design in Europe.

Ballets Russes did more to transform the everyday bourgeois environment than any other preceding art trend. Leon Bakst inspired fashion designers, such as Paul Poiret, Coco Chanel and Elsa Schiaparelli. Art and fashion magazines, including Vogue, Comœdia Illustré and La Gazette du Bon Ton, published pre- and post-performance articles, photographs, drawings and paintings, which fueled the stage-to-street dialogue.
Detail of ‘Robes style Bakst réalisées par Paquin', 1913. Comoedia Illustré, no. 15, 5 May 1913, 718−19. Printed paper Private Collection.
"The Ballets Russes became finely attuned to Parisian fashion, responding to the tastes and trends, and adapting the latest styles for its artistic presentations," wrote Mary E. Davis, professor and chair of Case Western Reserve’s Department of Music, exploring this high culture exchange. "The boundaries between stage and street collapsed… haute couture met high culture on a new ground."

The merger of art and fashion created a setting in which audience showed their attire from their seats similar to dancers that performed on stage in costume. Diaghilev, with the help of Bakst’s costuming, brought a new and modern look into the early 20th century fashion world. And soon the most adventurous women were wearing harem pants, head wraps and tunics.


Fancy dress costume, 1911

Paul Poiret (French, 1879−1944)

Seafoam green silk gauze, silver lamé, blue foil and blue and silver coiled cellophane cord appliqué, and blue, silver, coral, pink, and turquoise cellulose beading

Photo courtesy of The Met Museum

The Afternoon of a Faun

Two of the most defiant and provocative ballets were performed by Ballets Russes between 1912 and 1913. The seeds of controversy were planted by Diaghilev himself. He thought that the main choreographer, Michele Fokine, has run out of ideas and encouraged his lover Nijinsky to begin his choreographic career. Vaslav produced three ballets—The Afternoon of a Faun, Jeux, and The Rite of Spring—that had nothing in common with academic school and were absolutely opposite to what have been called ballet before. There weren’t any lovely, noble, three-dimensional shapes of the academic ballet, the five positions of the legs and arms, the turned-out feet. All of these gone.
Vaslav Nijinsky (far right) performing as the Faun in the premiere of the Ballets Russes’s production of L’Après-midi d’un faune (The Afternoon of the Faun) at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris, 1912. Edward Gooch—Hulton Archive/Getty Images
According to Nijinsky’s choreography in The Afternoon of a Faun, the dancers moved across the stage in profile as if on a bas relief, slicing the air like blades. His aim was to reproduce the stylised look of the ancient artwork on the stage. The original idea was developed by Diaghilev, Nijinsky and Bakst and was inspired by decorative painting on ancient Greek vases and Egyptian and Assyrian frescoes, which they viewed in the Louvre museum. In portrayal of the faun, played by Nijinsky himself, Vaslav managed to reproduce exactly the figure of a satyr shown on Greek vases.

It was a short, 11-minute 2-dimentional ballet, showing a salacious story about a faun, who after flirting with six nymphs, chased the main one but failed to hold on to her. Dreaming of her, he only warmed his passion and finally let out his sexual desire in a transparent nymph’s veil on a hill where he had an afternoon nap in the beginning of the performance.
Léon Bakst worked closely with choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky to achieve the frozen poses of Greek dancers seen in Antique art. He produced an appropriately layered, darkly glowing Symbolist set design, against which the dancers postured in their frieze-like positions. The nymphs' flowing costumes made of transparent veils were at the same time anchored by almost architectural underskirts in metallic pleated fabric. They were made in deliberate contrast to the sinuous, form fitting tights—the only detail of the animal-like costume worn by Nijinsky as the Faun.

The languorous and celebrated musical score for this short ballet was written by Debussy in 1894. Planned originally as merely the first part of a trilogy, he eventually understood that this one piece is enough to make a musical evocation of Stéphane Mallarmé's poem "Afternoon of a Faun," in which a faun—a half-man, half-goat creature of ancient Greek legend—awakes to revel in sensuous memories of forest nymphs.
On the opening night of May 29, 1912, the performance was met on the edge of applause and booing. There was silence as it finished. To save the ballet, Diaghilev announced that it would be repeated. The second time the audience applauded. However, a strikingly different response to the performance appeared in critical reaction the next day.

Auguste Rodin, the progenitor of modern sculpture and the revered 72-year master, defended it. He attended the premiere and stood up to cheer it. The following morning, a front-page newspaper editorial signed by Rodin praised the "deliberately awkward" and "jerky" movement. Nijinsky posed for Rodin several days later. The strong profile of the sculpted sketch
A study is an exercise painting that helps the painter better understand the object he or she paints. It is simple and clear, like sample letters in a school student’s copybook. Rough and ready, not detailed, with every stroke being to the point, a study is a proven method of touching the world and making a catalogue of it. However, in art history, the status of the study is vague and open to interpretation. Despite its auxiliary role, a study is sometimes viewed as something far more significant than the finished piece. Then, within an impressive frame, it is placed on a museum wall.
So, when does a study remain a mere drill, and when can we call it an artwork in its own right, full of life and having artistic value? Read more
bellow pays tribute to Nijinsky’s choreographic style, which mimicked Greek bas-relief sculpture.
Auguste Rodin. Nijinsky
Nijinsky
1912, 19.1×9.5×8.9 cm

The Rite of Spring

Valentine Gorss Hugo. Drawing of Marie Piltz in the "Sacrificial Dance" from The Rite of Spring, Paris, 29 May 1913



In The Rite of Spring, dancers were hunching over and hammering their feet into the floorboards. The approach to the performance was analytic, the look "ugly," the emotions discomforting.

Innovative music by Igor Stravinsky magnified impact of rough folk slavic costumes and bright scene designs by Nicolas Roerich and of modern choreography by Nijinsky. In particular, Igor Stravinsky’s now-famous primitive and syncopated passages, made the audience erupt with a riot at its premiere on the 29 May 1913. Shouting turned into fist fighting and the police had to be called. Stravinsky retreated backstage, while Nijinsky continued bellowing counts to the dancers. Later, the audience revealed that it had not only been the music that had set the audience off, but the choreography and the costumes. Afterwards, Diaghilev claimed that the scandal was just what he wanted.

Above: Valentine Gross Hugo, Drawing of Marie Piltz in the "Sacrificial Dance" from The Rite of Spring, Paris, 29 May 1913, Published in Montjoie! magazine, Paris, June 1913.

Modernism through Renaissance

The First World War put an end to opulent and lavish fantasies. During the war years, theaters were shuttered and the Ballets Russes struggled; frivolity went out of fashion. Despite all troubles and difficulties, Diaghilev wouldn’t want his ballet be in the doldrums. So, he turned to Modernism, embracing the art’s edge. First, though, honoring the historical traditions modernists had emerged from.

In 1914, Léon Bakst designed costumes for one-act ballet, The Legend of Joseph, in the style of Italian Renaissance painter Paolo Veronese. "The commonly known biblical legend is interpreted in the way it may have been done by sixteenth century artists," Bakst later wrote. "The luxury of the flamboyant oriental colours will pass, as it were, through the artistic vision of the Renaissance."
Lev (Leon) Bakst. Costume design for Potiphar's wife in the ballet, The Legend of Joseph
Lev (Leon) Bakst. Costume design for Potiphar in the ballet The Legend of Joseph
  • Leon Bakst, Costume design for Potiphar's wife in the ballet The Legend of Joseph, 1914
  • Leon Bakst, Costume design for Potiphar in the ballet The Legend of Joseph, 1914

José Maria Sert

In two years, Diaghilev commissioned Spanish muralist José Maria Sert to design Diego Velázquez-inspired costumes for Las Meninas (1916)—a performance intended to thank Spain for sheltering the dance company during World War I. Dancers wore dresses inspired by those in Velázquez's canonical 17th-century Spanish royal portrait, foregoing tutus for corsets and wide, brocaded skirts.
1916, Las Meninas. Music by Gabriel Fauré. Choregraphy by Leonide Massine. Sets by Carlo Sokrate. Costumes by José-Maria Sert. Photo: Tamara Grigorieva, Irina Zarova, Alberto Alonso. Georges Skibine and Nicolas Ivangin for Las Meninas, 1916

Natalia Goncharova

Before Diaghilev moved to Paris, he visited a large-scale Moscow retrospective on Goncharova—a prominent member of the Russian avant-garde, inspired by folk art and Futurism in equal measure. He was amazed by her work and commission her sets and costumes for many ballets including Le Coq d’Or (The Golden Cockerel) (1914).
An extraordinary modern painter, Natalia Goncharova drew her complex neo-primitivist fantasy from a Russian fairytale adapted and rhymed by Aleksandr Pushkin’s in his 1835 poem "The Tale of the Golden Cockerel". Visually, she drew inspiration from the bold outlines of Russian icon painting and the abstract patterns of peasant embroidery, using tradition to fuel the modern. Although designed in a Modernism style, The Golden Cockerel looked to a world already disappearing, soon to be imagined only outside Russia.
Natalia Goncharova. Costume design for the Opera-ballet "the Golden Cockerel" by N.. Rimsky-Korsakov
Natalia Goncharova. Costume design for the ballet The Golden Cockerel
  • Natalia Goncharova, Costume design for the Opera-Ballet "The Golden Cockerel", 1914
  • Natalia Goncharova, Costume design for the Opera-Ballet "The Golden Cockerel", 1914

Michel Larionov

Natalia Goncharova’s husband, Michel Larionov, was one of the prominent Futurists, exhibiting in all the leading avant-garde exhibitions in Russia, as well as many abroad, including displays managed by Diaghilev in Paris and in Munich.

Larionov with Goncharova joined Diaghilev in Lausanne in 1915. Michel became Diaghelev’s close and frequent collaborator: he consulted impresario in art, was an occasional choreographer, and wrote several ballet scenarios. He was commissioned to design for Soleil de minuit (Midnight sun) (1915); the unrealised Histoires naturelles (1916); Contes russes (1917); Chout (The Tale of the Buffoon) (1921); and finally Le Renard (1922).

Lydia Sokolova, the company’s first English ballerina and the principal character dancer, said of Mikhail Larionov’s costumes for Chout, a ballet by Sergei Prokofiev: "Although the costumes were vivid in colour and wonderful to look at, they were appallingly uncomfortable."
  • Michel Larionov, Costume for a buffoon's wife, "Chout", 1921. National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
  • Michel Larionov, Costume for a soldier, "Chout", 1921. National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
During 1916−1919, the company toured popular performances to new audiences in North and South America. Yet there were long periods in Europe without any shows, in which the company experimented with new original ideas. Lionize Massine, a new lover of Diaghilev, emerged as a talented new choreographer, drawing on influences from the countries of his travels, notably Italy and Spain.

Diaghilev’s fame introduced him to the wider world of the artists and led to him commissioning painters such as Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, André Derain, Robert and Sonia Delaunay, Georges Braque, José Maria Sert and Giorgio de Chirico to design costumes and scenery for a number of his productions in the years that followed.

Pablo Picasso

Pablo Picasso was introduced to Diaghilev by his friend, a young writer Jean Cocteau in 1915, and their acquaintance lead Picasso to his first ballet commission, the Parade (1917).

The war made many scrambling out of Paris, and Picasso decided to move to Rome in the spring of 1917 where the Ballets Russes were rehearsing and performing. He stayed there at the Hotel de Russie with Cocteau, made friends with Leonid Massine and met Igor Stravinsky, and the two became friends for a long-long time.

It was in Rome that Picasso met a Ukrainian-born ballerina Olga Khokhlova, who danced in Parade, and he married her in 1918. In 1921, she would give birth to their son, Paulo. And although they separated after ten years together, they were officially married until her death in 1955 for Picasso didn’t want to divide his estate with her.

Above: Jean Cocteau, Pablo Picasso, Igor Stravinsky, Olga Khokhlova in Antibes, 1926.

In addition to the cubist costume designs for Parade, Pablo Picasso also designed a wonderful drop curtain that was very much in his new neo-classical mode. It illustrated a group of performers at a fair consuming their lunch before a performance. The backcloth scene was a relief for the audience—it has blunted their worries about Picasso’s fancy cubic tricks. But when it went up, their anxiety came back at full…


Picasso’s large backcloth for Parade measures 16.40 m by 10.50 m and weights 60 kilos, making it the largest of his works. The Italian artist Carlo Socrate helped to fill the canvas with paint. It is now displayed in the Centre Pompidou-Metz.

Left: Pablo Picasso and scene painters sitting on the front cloth for Parade, photo by Lachmann from Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Parade

Parade is a one-act ballet surviving until present and it has nothing to do with a 'parade' in its nowadays meaning. It tells the story of a small travelling theatre group in a Paris streets presenting a parade—a little preview to lure the passers-by into attending their show. The managers try to convince the crowd to come see the show. The performance includes French and American managers, a Chinese magician, a little American girl, a horse, and two acrobats. The Picasso’s Parade was a kind of mixture of extraordinary cubist sculptures and costumes produced in different art styles.
Satie’s music for the Parade was exotic and eccentric. In addition to jazz, included for a ballet music score for the first time, he peppered it with the sounds of typewriters, sirens, airplane propellers, ticker tape and a lottery wheel. Cocteau, who wrote the ballet’s scenario, was indeed searching to kindle another riot, like that at the premiere of The Rite of Spring, in Paris, four years earlier. And Cocteau got it! But the booing that Parade received on opening night on May 18, 1917 at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris was mostly for Picasso’s Cubist designs, not for the typewriter in the pit.
Reconstruction of the ballet Parade by the trope of Teatro dell’Opera de Rome. Set design and costumes by Pablo Picasso, choreography Léonide Massine.
Picasso’s seven costumes created for Parade combined different art styles: Cubism
Cubism (fr. cubisme) is a recognizable style that originated at the beginning of the 20th century, and many of its techniques are still in demand. Its distinctive features are the direct use of geometric shapes, a narrow circle of subjects (portraits, still lifes or buildings), deformation, angularity, complete lack of realism. Shape is more important than colour. Read more
for managers, where the technical contribution of Fortunato Depero is essential; African art for the horse; the Russian folk tradition of Leon Bakst in the two acrobats. The Chinese acrobat, meanwhile, refers to Orientalism revisited in a futuristic vein. For the American girl, Picasso uses a little sailor’s dress.
The premiere of the ballet produced a number of scandals. As soon as the curtain raised, the tumult in the hall increased, the screams fused: "Go to Berlin! Sales boche!" In those times of war and austerity, the public was hostile to extravagance and only the presence of the famous French poet Guillaume Apollinaire in uniform, wounded, the shaved head, a scar on the temple and a bandage around the head, prevented raging spectators from attacking the perpetrators. Nearly causing a riot at first, the audience were drowned out by enthusiastic applause in the end.

Apollinaire, the greatest defender of Cubism, was one of the first to have supported Picasso in his debut. In the program notes for the premiere, he said that the Parade had "a kind of surrealism" ("une sorte de surréalisme"), thus coining the word three years before Surrealism
Surrealism (Fr. surréalisme) is an avant-garde art movement of the first half of the twentieth century characterized by the fusion of reality with something else, but not oppositional. Surrealism is a dream which is neither real, nor surreal. The style is characterized by allusions and a paradoxical combination of forms, visual deception. In the paintings of the Surrealists hard objects and rocks often melt, and the water, on the contrary, hardens. Read more
emerged as an art movement in Paris.
Cocteau got his scandal, although not in the way he was anticipating. After the premiere in Paris, Satie sent an insulting postcard to the critic Jean Poueigh, who published a hostile review of the ballet even though the music itself wasn’t actually mentioned. It read: "Sir and dear friend — you are an arse, an arse without music! Signed, Erik Satie." Poueigh brought a libel case against Satie and won.

The point was that Satie sent him a postcard without an envelope. Poueigh’s reputation was damaged: the words may have been read by a postman and a concierge! Satie was sentenced to 8 days in prison with a fine of 100 francs, and 1,000 francs in damages, despite a spirited defence by Cocteau in the courtroom. Actually, the writer was repeatedly yelling "arse" defending his friend in the courtroom. So, he was also arrested and beaten by the police. Satie appealed against the judgement, the sentence was suspended, and the Princesse de Polignac helped Satie to pay his fine.

Picasso, Stravinsky, Massine and Cocteau visited Pompeii during rehearsal period of the Parade. In Naples they were introduced to folk art and the commedia dell’arte — an improvised kind of popular comedy in Italian theaters in the 16th-18th centuries, based on a set of characters. In it, actors adapted their comic dialogue and action according to a few basic plots (commonly love intrigues) and to topical issues. The men were inspired by what they saw, and three years later, Picasso, Stravinsky and Massine premiered their new ballet, Pulcinella. It was the ballet Picasso was most proud of.

Left: Pablo Picasso and Leonid Massine photographed by Jean Cocteau at Pompeii

Pulcinella

Reconstruction of the ballet Pulcinella by Europa Danse, 2007. Photo: M. Loginov
Picasso and his friends fell in love with Naples at first sight. Picasso wrote to his friend Guillaume Apollinaire that they discovered a city of wonders, "half Spanish, half eastern", an "Arab Montmartre" and that "everything is easy here." Picasso based his sketches of the set design for the Pulcinella ballet on the sketches of the city made at plein air during his trip to Naples: the fountain of Neptune, the Place de la Bourse, Vesuvius smoking, seen from the district of Santa Lucia, the Umberto I gallery, the district of Sanità.
Pablo Picasso. Study design for the ballet Pulcinella
Pablo Picasso. Study design for the ballet Pulcinella
Pablo Picasso. Study design for the ballet Pulcinella


Even though Picasso made dozens of sketches to the scenery set in baroque style, he finally chose the one close to Cubism, in blue gamma. He abandoned the lavish baroque extravagances and simplified the whole form to its utmost: an opening prospect, allowing to see the night sky between houses with a large full moon, hanging over a boat in a harbor, was interpreted by him in a strictly cubist manner.

Above: Set design for the ballet Pulcinella by Pablo Picasso, 1920. Museum of Picasso, Paris

Pablo Picasso. Costume design for the ballet "Pulcinella"





For Pulcinella’s costume design, Picasso drew inspiration from the eighteenth century models. He composed it of a traditional white tunic with a wide black belt and a soft hat. The mask covering his face was a masterpiece of synthetic cubism. It was inspired by similar masks used in Neapolitan theaters since the eighteenth century.





Left: Costume for the ballet Pulcinella by Pablo Picasso, 1920. Museo of Picasso, Paris

Le Tricorne

The same epoch inspired Picasso when he created costumes and sets for the ballets Le Tricorne (1919) and Cuadro Flamenco (1921).

The main protagonists of the ballets were the traditional Spanish music, songs and dances inserted into the music score by the composer Falla as was requested of Diaghilev.
The costumes for the Tricorne evoke the traditional Spanish costumes of the eighteenth century, to which Picasso added bold ornaments, lines and arabesques. He was inspired by paper dolls and small models used in haute couture—a universe discovered by Coco Chanel at the time.

Sonia Delaunay

In 1911, Sonia Delaunay, a Ukrainian-born artist, began to experiment with abstract patterns, producing artworks that epitomized the concept of Simultanisme (Orphism) or ‘simultaneous contrasts'. In addition to paintings, she made collages, book bindings and clothes. By using color in a bold, imaginative way and by employing simple geometric forms—circle, square, rectangle, and triangle—in conjunction with color, she was able to suggest different depths of planes and a sense of movement in her work. She spent the rest of her career exploring how forms and colours interact, particularly in fabric.

At the outbreak of World War I in 1914, she moved to Madrid and Portugal. Sonia had studied there dances such as flamenco and tango before meeting Diaghilev. In 1917, he requested her to create costumes for the Ballets Russes revival of Cléopâtre (1918). And she did it brilliantly. Sonia Delaunay’a bold, bright, geometric designs gave gravitas to her budding fashion career. In a way, Diaghilev helped her to launch a career in design, particularly fashion.
Sonia Delaunay. Costume for the ballet 'Cléopâtre'
Sonia Delaunay. A Cleopatra costume for productions of "Russian seasons" Diaghilev

Henri Matisse

Diaghilev produced Stravinsky’s opera, Le Rossignol (The Nightingale), in 1914. However, the original opulent orientalist set and costumes by Benois were destroyed during the World War I and Diaghilev wanted to commission a new ballet version which, following his successful engagements with Picasso and Derain, he hoped would be designed by another major artist. He has chosen Henri Marisse and decided to persuade him to work on the production in 1919. Diaghilev was lucky—Matisse admired Massine’s choreography and even had a collection of exotic birds. However, Matisse had no theatre experience but this wasn’t a critical point for Diaghilev. He trusted Matisse level of style in art.

Matisse took the commission with enthusiasm. The story was based on a Hans Christian Andersen fairytale of the same name, Le Chant du Rossignol (The Song of the Nightingale) and Matisse was determined to produce a design different from the high-keyed exoticism associated with the Ballets Russes.
Henri Matisse, Léonide Massine and the mechanical nightingale from the ballet Le Chant du Rossignol, Monte-Carlo 1920. Photo by Joseph Enrietti. Credit to Victoria & Albert Museum, London
His backdrop was porcelain-white, his refined costumes were of light colors and based on traditional Chinese Ming court dress derived from Chinese ceramics and lacquer. The courtiers' costumes were elaborately tailored in silk, and Matisse himself decorated them with his own painting. Dancers in his costumes created the impression of a continuous pattern on the stage, as if the audience was reading a scroll painting.

Matisse invented the animal-like cloaks for the mourners gathered around an ill Emperor which were among the most breathtaking of Matisse’s designs. They were made from a white felt-like curtain lining material with appliquéd triangles and chevrons of navy blue velvet, inspired by the markings on Chinese deer.

Coco Chanel

Coco Chanel was a rule breaker in life and work. By 1920, she was famous, well-connected and wealthy enough to be noticed by Ballets Russes impresario Sergei Diaghilev. Chanel happily joined his circle of creative groundbreakers and financed the revival of the Ballets Russes' scandalous pre-war hit, The Rite of Spring. She linked herself to the stage, not to mention her relationship with the married composer Igor Stravinsky—a scandalous affair in the winter of 1920.
Igor Stravinsky (third right) and Coco Chanel (right) at a party.
Pablo Picasso. Women Bathing


Diaghilev took notice of Chanel’s modern design aesthetic at the time. As a woman, Coco knew how painful it was for women being cinched into tight, wasp-waisted corsets and covered neck-to-toe in elaborately draped fabric. She chose to relieve them of this burden revealing the body’s natural contours in comfortable, softened silhouettes.

Her provocative bathing suits were as revolutionary as Cubism. These "sports clothes" became instantly popular in the Reviera, and Diaghilev asked her to design costumes for his new contemporary production Le Train Bleu (The Blue Train) about the luxury locomotive that transported wealthy Europeans to Monte Carlo.


Above: Chanel’s clingy new bathing suits captured by Picasso in "Women Bathing" 1918.

In 1924, Chanel created costumes to outfit the dancers of the ballet Le Train Bleu, with libretto by Jean Cocteau and choreography by Bronislava Nijinska (Nijinsky's sister). They were based on Coco’s own everyday designs—signature black bathing suit, caps, accessorized with slippers and the Kodak cameras. This 'highly original' attire should fit a group of idle rich holiday-makers who take the brand-new tourist train south to the Riviera. The satirical ballet poked gentle fun on vacationers and the audience loved it. However, the performers were less enthused.
Bronislava Nijinska, Anton Dolin, Jean Cocteau, Leon Wolzikowski and Lydia Sokolova on stage of Le Train Bleu, 1924. Photo: Sasha. Credit to Victoria & Albert Museum, London

The dance historian Sarah Woodcock writes that Chanel’s loose-fitting knit swimsuits were "potentially dangerous" for the ballet dancers. A male dancer would have trouble keeping "a firm grip on his partner in the complex throws and catches." Hoop skirts cut dancers' shins and left them tottering during spins, and arched headdresses "slipped and were then impossible to adjust."

As Tina Sutton wrote in "The Making of Markova" (biography of a cherished baby ballerina of Serge Diaghilev): "Consider poor Lydia Sokolova. Chanel presented her with a wool jersey bathing costume and rubber slippers that stuck to the stage. What could be worse? The ballerina also had to wear oversized faux pearl earrings, much like the costume jewels favored by Chanel’s affluent clientele, the very ones who would be in the audience on opening night. The ear bobs were so large and cumbersome, Sokolova couldn’t hear her orchestra cues. Leon Woizikowski fared no better. He had to master grand leaps while wearing his Chanel-designed golf knickers, shirt, tie and striped long sleeve sweater; and Nijinska’s tennis dress came complete with a full-size racket."

Yet, Coco Chanel teased out the influence of fashion on art and art on fashion—a trend that continues today.

Above: Costume by Coco Chanel for Le Train Bleu, 1924

The Prodigal Son—the last ballet of Serge Diaghilev

Diaghilev did not follow the prescriptions of doctors and in late 1920s, he suffered from severe pains in legs caused by diabetes. Thoughts of close death occupied his mind quite often. "Are all of us doomed to come to an end through decay? Or is there a chance to be taken to heaven alive?" he once said. He knew that immortality is only possible through repentance in Christianity. And for Diaghilev, his last ballet Le Fils Prodigue (The Prodigal Son) was the repentance.

He was glad being a Godfather of the performance with the music score by Serge Prokofiev and told that it was "the best music of the three ballets Prokofiev has composed." Diaghilev commissioned libretto to Boris Kochno, choreography to George Balanchine and sets and costumes to Georges Rouault, a French painter, draughtsman, and printer, whose work associated with Fauvism
Fauvism is considered the first avant-garde art movement of the 20th century. It got its name in 1905, and it lived for only a couple of years, then each of the artists who called themselves the Fauves went deep into own creative search. The brightest representatives of the Fauvism are Henri MatisseAndré Derain and Maurice de Vlaminck. Read more
and Expressionism
You can hardly tell the exact day or year of the birth of Expressionism, which is usual for all powerful art movements. You cannot draw a border on the map and indicate the territory where Expressionism took its start and got stronger. Overall, it’s all roughly known. Except for one rock-solid spatiotemporal benchmark: Northern Europe on the eve of the First World War. Expressionism is an avant-garde art movement, a new tragic worldview, and a whole set of significant motifs, symbols, and myths. Moreover, it is a revolutionary reaction both to the shabby, lifeless traditional academic art, and the light, idyllic southern impressionistic “appearance” of the world. Read more
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The ballet’s story based on the biblical parable written in the Gospel of Luke. However, Boris Kochno added much dramatic material and emphasized the themes of sin and redemption by ending the story with the Prodigal’s return home.

Dance historian and an archivist Susan Au wrote about the ballet: "Adapted from the biblical story, it opens with the prodigal’s rebellious departure from home and his seduction by the beautiful but treacherous siren, whose followers rob him. Wretched and remorseful, he drags himself back to his forgiving father."

Left: Serge Lifar and Ofelia Doubrovska in The Prodigal Son. Photographer unknown, undated. Credit to: Howard D. Rothschild Collection.


The Prodigal Son was enthusiastically received by both audience and critics. It was one of Balanchine’s first ballets to achieve an international reputation. Its eternal themes, expressive score, and abstract but thoroughly dramatic movement make it as modern, exciting, and powerful today as it was back in 1929.


Above: Maria Kowroski as The Siren and Joaquin De Luz as The Prodigal Son, New York City Ballet. Photo: Paul Kolnik

The Prodigal Son was the last ballet of the Ballets Russes. Serge Diaghilev died in August 1929, three months after its premier in Paris, surrounded by his close friends—Boris Kochno, Serge Lifar, Coco Chanel, and Misia Sert. After his death, the Ballets Russes disbanded.

Three years later the company was recreated under the same name, and Diaghilev’s legacy extended far beyond. His leading dancers and choreographers opened ballet schools or founded ballet theaters. And his daring spirit of innovation and collaboration continues to inspire artists of all disciplines up to this day.

Created over a century ago, the productions of the Ballets Russes revolutionised early 20th-century arts and continue to influence cultural activity today.
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