LES BALLETS RUSSES
Serge de Diaghilev ( 18721929), that 'impresario of contemporary art in all its forms and expressions', applied his genius not only to the dance but also to music and painting. He converted the ballet, hitherto nothing more than a danced interlude confined within narrow, fixed rules, into a spectacle in which everything was united to delight the eyes, ears and mind. Under his influence ballet became a synthesis of the arts of the theatre, in which music and painting were no longer embellishments but essential elements integrated into the performance and an indispensable part of it. With Diaghilev the word 'décor' lost its traditional meaning. It no longer signified that artificial setting, as false as a photographer's back-cloth, the aim of which was simply to limit the spectator's range of vision. Henceforth, form and colour were made to harmonize with the movement of the dancer, and become an integral part of it. The first artistic events arranged in Paris by Diaghilev were not ballet performances but an exhibition of Russian art at the Salon d'Automne in 1907, and a series of concerts in 1908 which included, notably, Chaliapin. In his youth Diaghilev was at first inclined towards music and painting. While studying Law at the University of St Petersburg he attached himself to a group of painters and became friendly with Benois. Under the editorship of Diaghilev and Benois the group started a publication called The World of Art, whose aim was to reform painting. The main plank in its platform was individualism, and through it Diaghilev attacked what he called sterile academism, and made a plea for the recognition of individuality, defining art as a 'free and disinterested act taking place in the soul of the artist', its only function being pleasure, and its only instrument beauty. Ballet struck him as an ideal medium for such reform, and one in which the quickest results could be obtained. One of the reasons for the founding of his ballet troupe was to give the new painting a platform. Thus it was Diaghilev's passion for music and painting that led him to ballet. In 1899 he had organized an exhibition of international art, where some important works by the French Impressionists were presented, and caused a considerable stir in Russia.
Having staged a dance performance in St Petersburg in 1907, with Fokine, Nijinsky and Pavlova, which encountered considerable opposition, Diaghilev decided to take his troupe to Paris. They gave their first performance at the Théâtre du Châtelet on the 19th of May, 1909, with a programme consisting of Le Pavillon d'Armide, Prince Igor, Polovtsian Dances, and Festin, with décors by Bakst, Benois, Korovine and Roerich respectively. This performance was one of the most extraordinary events of the early years of the twentieth century. The novelty of the spectacle, the lavishness and magnificence of the costumes and décors, and the quality of the dancers, aroused a feeling of utter bewilderment which soon changed to delirious enthusiasm. Nijinsky astounded the spectators with his prodigious leaps. The following year Diaghilev presented Schéhérazade, a fantasy of movement, colour and light. The richness of Bakst's décor, the like of which had not been seen before, filled the audience with wonder and amazement. It seemed as though all the barbarism of the Orient was tempestuously sweeping away a theatrical tradition which was to be, from then on, nothing but a futile survival. Schéhérazade was followed by the Fire Bird (décor by Golovine, costumes by Golovine and Bakst).
Until 1914 the Ballets Russes had a Paris season every year. Among the most celebrated works presented during that period were The Spectre of The Rose (d?or and costumes by Bakst); Petrouchka (décor and costumes by Benois); The Afternoon of a Faun (d?or and costumes by Bakst), one of the most outstanding ballets of the first period, which provoked a scandal, Nijinsky's performance having stressed the erotic aspect; The Rite of Spring (décor and costumes by Roerich). Le Coq d'Or (décor and costumes by Gontcharova) marks the end of this period. The novelty of these productions can be gauged if we bear in mind the fact that at that time an exaggerated, almost religious, feeling for trompe-l'œil was current in the theatre. In real life, as on the stage, half-tones and pale colours were the mode. Dim light, a mysterious melancholy -- even dust -had become in some way indispensable to any theatrical production. The works produced for the Ballets Russes by the painters with whom Diaghilev surrounded himself played a decisive role. Although they used only a few colours, these were generally extremely vivid: orange, black, pink, blue, white, emerald or Veronese green. The painter had full say in all matters affecting not only the décors but also the costumes and other accessories. For Jeux (music by Debussy, 1913) Léon Bakst used only three colours: against a décor of blue and green, flashes of white provided by the dancers themselves, dressed as tennis-players. In Petrouchka Alexander Benois depicted white-shuttered windows in a blue wall, with painted flags and banners waving in the sky; in the background a merry-go-round with wooden horses in a blaze of colour, not far from a big, yellow wall with the outline of a staircase sketched on it. When the fantastic motley crowd invaded the stage the frame was there, ready to hold it and transform it into an ordered and harmonious whole.
The second period of the Ballets Russes began in 1917. It was marked by the creation of some forty ballets of extraordinary diversity. Until then Diaghilev had drawn primarily on Russian artists: musicians like Stravinsky and painters like Benois, Bakst, Larionov and Gontcharova. Now he began to turn to French and other foreign artists for their collaboration. Among the musicians that he enlisted, apart from his compatriots Stravinsky and Prokofiev, were Sauguet, Satie, Milhaud, Poulenc, Manuel de Falla and Hindemith; among the painters were Picasso, Derain, Matisse, Braque, Marie Laurencin, Gris, Utrillo, Max Ernst, and Miró. The new trends in French painting were well suited to his purpose of providing something surprising, and he sensed so exactly the value of the enrichment that the painters brought to the theatre, that he made a point of reproducing their décors without any modification of his own, respecting even the tiniest details of the artist's model. He wanted from these non-specialists a new outlook that could not come from professional theatre designers, who were too tied to rules that had by then become habit.
The first ballets that marked the resumption of Diaghilev's activities in 1917 were Contes Russes (décor and costumes by Larionov), Les Femmes de Bonne Humeur (décor and costumes by Bakst), and Cocteau and Satie Parade (décor and costumes by Picasso), which created another scandal. Satie's music was accompanied by the noise of sirens and typewriters. The audience was so incensed that it hissed not only at the music but also at the splendid costumes designed by Picasso. In 1919 came the Boutique Fantasque (décor and costumes by Derain) and the Three-Cornered Hat (décor and costumes by Picasso), followed in 1920 by Pulcinella, also designed by Picasso, and Le Chant du Rossignol (décor and costumes by Matisse). The year 1924 saw the creation of Les Fâcheux by Georges Auric , with décor and costumes by Braque -- who also did those of Zéphyr et Flore in 1926 -- Les Biches (décors and costumes by Marie Laurencin), and La Tentation de la Bergère (décor and costumes by Juan Gris).
Later, Diaghilev presented Les Noces by Stravinsky (dvcor and costumes by Gontcharova), Le Train Bleu by Darius Milhaud (décor by Laurencin, costumes by Chanel), Stravinsky Oedipus Rex (there were neither décor nor costumes for this ballet, it was performed in ordinary street clothes), Apollon Musagète (décor and costumes by Bauchant), Barabau (dvcor and costumes by Utrillo), and Le Fils Prodigue (décor and costumes by Rouault). Two ballets testify to Diaghilev's constant search for novelty: Roméo et Juliette ( 1927), with décor and costumes by Max Ernst and Miró, and Le Bal ( 1929), with décor and costumes by Chirico. Both of them, the latter in particular, caused minor scandals. This list would be incomplete without mention of the constructivist ballets: La Chatte (costumes and constructions by Pevsner and Gabo), presented in 1927, Pas d'Acier (costumes and constructions by Jacoulov) and Le Renard, previously performed in 1922 with décor and costumes by Larionov, but this time ( 1929) with constructivist décors by the same artist. From this rich and impressive list one can see to what an extent the indefatigable impresario of the Ballets Russes, by giving painters a platform worthy of their talent, helped them to overcome the indifference, sarcasm and opprobrium that still threatened their art.
The death of Diaghilev, which resulted in the dispersal of the Ballets Russes company, marked the end of an exceptionally happy and fertile period in the history of the arts. But the fact remains that the brief sojourn of this impresario of genius in the world of the theatre turned upside down and inside out all the ideas then existing about production and the use of the stage. From then on the names of such painters as Matisse, Derain, Chagall, Bérard, Miró and Dufy began to figure on the posters of ballet companies, to look no farther than that. Then, too, Diaghilev started the tradition that painters be asked to supply not only a model of the décor and the costumes for any particular ballet, but also production ideas. The painter's role was now considered a key one. Throughout the life of the Diaghilev ballet the décor maintained an exceptionally high standard. Ballet after Diaghilev has had little to show in the way of discovery, and there has been a tendency to neglect décor (and music) and develop choreography. This is particularly true of England, where the choreographer is the leader of the creative team (and sometimes the whole of it) instead of being but one of the four partners that went to make a Diaghilev ballet. The result is that England's record in scenic design is not very impressive, whereas her record in choreography and dancing is outstanding. Ballet in England, as in France, derives directly from Diaghilev, whose company included a number of English dancers. His company died with him, but through the dispersed members his inspiration was carried to all the leading countries of the world, where it dominates ballet to this day.
Ballet in the United States is also descended from the Ballets Russes, although Diaghilev was almost unknown there. A number of Russian dancers settled there as teachers, but were for a long time quite unable to implant the idea that ballet was an art form and not merely a technique. This changed only with the visits of Colonel de Basil and his troupe in 1933-1934. The seeds of a sound tradition that is today growing and developing were planted by George Balanchine, who founded the American School of Ballet in 1934, and whose work is often featured by the New York City Ballet.
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