The Legacy of the Ballets Russes by FIRE AND AIR Assistant Director Sophie Andreassi

Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes existed for a mere twenty years, and yet it is difficult to overstate the company’s influence on dance, art, music, and design in Western Europe and beyond. From its inception in 1909 to Diaghilev’s death and its dissolution in 1929, the company drew throngs of spectators, eager to witness the product of Diaghilev’s latest, carefully-orchestrated collaborations among promising artists of different disciplines. The itinerant company’s experiments galvanized the art world in their time, and forever altered the trajectory of art and culture in the 21st century.

Diaghilev capitalized on a vibrant Paris arts scene and engaged his talented circle of Russian émigrés. Artists who secured Diaghilev’s approval were poised to take on a near-cult following. Visual artists and designers such as Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dalì, Coco Chanel, Henri Matisse, Joan Miró, Natalia Goncharova, André Derain, Léon Bakst and Georges Braque enjoyed the exposure afforded them by creating works for the company’s stages. The company’s composers included Claude Debussy, Francis Poulenc, Sergei Prokofiev, Erik Satie, Igor Stravinsky, and Richard Strauss. If not already prominent in their field, these and other composers achieved legendary status, especially after the creation of such enduring works as Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and Debussy’s L’après-midi d’un faune.

Diaghilev’s choreographic protégés, including Michel Fokine, Vaslav Nijinsky, Bronislava Nijinska, Léonide Massine, Serge Lifar, and a young George Balanchine, tested the viability of currents within modernism at the level of the body while exploring the limits of the classical ballet vocabulary. Significantly, the Ballets Russes challenged the centrality of the idealized female body to ballet. It was the male body was of special importance to Diaghilev’s aesthetic.

Following Diaghilev’s death, offshoots of the company formed to continue to tour the company’s existing repertoire internationally. Over the course of the 1930s and 1940s, national companies on both sides of the Atlantic grew in prominence, often under the purview of Ballets Russes disciples. On the American side, Fokine, Massine, and Nijinska were some of the first choreographers to be engaged by the newly-formed Ballet Theater, now known as American Ballet Theater, in New York in 1939. Balanchine, too, moved to the States and, with Lincoln Kirstein, created the School of American Ballet in 1934 and the New York City Ballet in 1948.

In the 1970s, Robert Joffrey, director of the Joffrey Ballet, began a project of reconstructing select pieces from the Ballets Russes canon, inviting Massine to oversee some of his and Fokine’s ballets. Later, Joffrey set about the ambitious project of reviving works by Nijinsky, including Rite of Spring, relying on extensive research by dance historians to attempt to capture the spirit of the piece in the absence of any films.

Under Diaghilev’s ingenious, if heavy-handed, supervision, the Ballets Russes reimagined ballet as the fusion of movement, art, and music. The product of these experiments was a rich legacy of innovation and an addicting history that continued to inspire artists, scholars, and the popular imagination through to the present day.

Photo: Alexandra Danilova and Serge Lifar in the Ballets Russes’ Apollo (originally Apollon musagète) in 1928.