Ballets Russes as a driving force of a new aesthetic of the 20th century
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.
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 DiaghilevDiaghilev 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.
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’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".
- "Mir Iskusstva" art journal cover, Yakunchikova, 1899.
- "Mir Iskusstva" art journal, title page, Bakst, 1903.
Ballets Russes. Season 1909Being 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.
- Pierre Choumoff, Adolph Bolm, Polovtsian Dances, 1909.
- Nicholas Roerich, The Polovtsian campA 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., 1909.
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
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 BakstThe 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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
The Rite of Spring
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 RenaissanceThe 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."
- 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 SertIn 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.
Natalia GoncharovaBefore 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).
- 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 LarionovNatalia 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
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 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.
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
ParadeParade 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.
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
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
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
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 TricorneThe 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.
Sonia DelaunayIn 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.
Henri MatisseDiaghilev 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.
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 ChanelCoco 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.
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.
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 DiaghilevDiaghilev 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
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
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.
Title illustration: Ballets Russes posters from jewelsdujour.com.