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The Ballets Russes (French for The Russian Ballets) was an itinerant ballet company which performed under the directorship of Sergei Diaghilev between 1909 and 1929. Some of their places of residence included the Théâtre Mogadormarker and the Théâtre du Châteletmarker, as Paris had a large Russian exile population. They performed in many countries, including England, the U.S.A., and Spain. Many of the company's dancers originated from the Imperial Ballet of Saint Petersburgmarker. Younger dancers were trained in Paris, within the community of exiles after the Russian Revolution of 1917. The company featured and premiered now-famous (and sometimes notorious) works by the great choreographers Marius Petipa, Michel Fokine, as well as new works by Bronislava Nijinska, Léonide Massine, Vaslav Nijinsky, and the young George Balanchine at the start of his career.
Ballets Russes poster, 1911
The company's productions, which combined new dance, art and music, created a huge sensation around the world, altering the course of musical history, bringing many significant visual artists into the public eye, and completely reinvigorating the art of performing dance. The Ballets Russes was one of the most influential theatre companies of the twentieth century, in part because of its ground-breaking artistic collaboration among contemporary choreographers, composers, artists, and dancers. Its ballets have been variously intepreted as Classical, Neo-Classical, Romantic, Neo-Romantic, Avant-Garde, Expressionist, Abstract, and Orientalist. The influence of the Ballets Russes lasts to this day in one form or another.

After Diaghilev's early death in 1929, the dancers were scattered, and the company's property was claimed by creditors. Colonel Wassily de Basil and his associate René Blum revived the company under the name Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. Balanchine and Massine worked with them as choreographers, and Tamara Toumanova as a principal dancer. De Basil and Blum argued constantly, so Blum founded another company under the name Original Ballet Russe.

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

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

The company's genesis

The Ballets Russes was an offshoot from the Russian Mir iskusstva movement. The World of Art, led by Alexandre Benois, had mainly occupied itself with painting exhibitions and the publication of a culture magazine. Benois and his circle conceived the idea of bringing Russian nationalist opera to Paris in 1907. They were warmly received there, and plans were laid for another season the following year. In 1908, the group presented a mixture of opera and ballet in Paris, and enjoyed riotous success, particularly in the latter artform. They thereafter presented mainly ballets. By the time the group returned to Paris in 1909 for the first 'official' Ballets Russes shows, Diaghilev had firmly taken the reins from Benois, though the latter continued to work for Diaghilev for some years afterwards.


The Ballets Russes was noted for the high standard of its dancers, which contributed a great deal to its success in Paris, where dance technique had declined a great deal since the 1830s. Most of the company's dancers were resident at the Russian Imperial Theatres in the early years, and were merely taken on loan by Diaghilev to Paris during the theatres' long summer holidays.

During the course of the company's life, the female dancers included Anna Pavlova, Tamara Karsavina, Olga Spessivtseva, Mathilde Kschessinska, Ida Rubinstein, Bronislava Nijinska, Lydia Lopokova, Diana Gould and Alicia Markova, among many others.

The company was, however, more remarkable for raising the status of the male dancer, who had been largely ignored by choreographers and ballet audiences since the early nineteenth century. Among the male dancers were Michel Fokine, Serge Lifar, Léonide Massine, George Balanchine, Adolphe Bolm, and the legendary Vaslav Nijinsky who was, by far and away, the most popular and talented dancer in the company's history.

The three most significant choreographers of the company were (in chronological order) Fokine, Nijinsky, and Massine. Fokine caused the rebirth of classical dramatic dance (though his works often included Expressionist elements). Many regard his greatest work to be Petrushka; others consider it to be Les Sylphides. Nijinsky is sometimes thought of as the father of Expressionist Dance. His most influential works were the innovative L'Apres-midi d'un Faune and The Rite of Spring. Massine was a less inventive choreographer; his works are sometimes called Neo-Classical. His finest work was perhaps Le Tricorne.

Other choreographers of note included Serge Lifar and Nijinsky's sister, Bronislava, who created at least one masterpiece in the form of Les Noces. Balanchine choreographed Apollon musagète and Le fils prodigue for the company.


Diaghilev secured the employment of many great music composers for his ballets. This served to distinguish his ballets from many nineteenth-century ballets, for which the music had usually been provided by less inspired composers such as Drigo, Minkus, and Pugni. The superior achievements of Peter Tchaikovsky and Léo Delibes had been very exceptional.

The most notable of Diaghilev's composers was Igor Stravinsky, who is now recognised as the premier composer of the early twentieth century. Diaghilev had hired the young Stravinsky at a time when he was virtually unknown to compose the music for The Firebird, after the composer Anatoly Lyadov proved unreliable. Diaghilev was thus instrumental in launching Stravinsky's career in Europe and the United States of America.

Stravinsky's early ballet scores were the subject of much discussion. The Firebird (1910) was seen as an astonishingly accomplished work for such a young artist (Debussy is said to have remarked drily: "Well, you've got to start somewhere!"). Many contemporary audiences found Petrushka (1911) to be almost unbearably dissonant and confused. "The Rite of Spring" caused a near-riot by the audience, stunned because of its willful rhythms and aggressive dynamics. The Rite of Spring had to be pulled after just a few performances. The audience's negative reaction to it is now regarded as a theatrical scandal as notorious as the failed runs of Richard Wagner's Tannhäuser at Paris in 1861 and Jean-Georges Noverre's and David Garrick's Chinese Ballet at London on the eve of the Seven Years' War. However, Stravinsky's early ballet scores are now widely considered masterpieces of the genre. Even his later ballet scores (such as Apollo), while not as startling, were still superior to most ballet music of the previous century.

Diaghilev commissioned many other original scores, as well as borrowing freely from the existing musical canon. His ballets variously included music by Debussy, Milhaud, Poulenc, Prokofiev, Ravel, Satie, Respighi, and Richard Strauss.

Art and design

The company invited the collaboration of rising contemporary fine artists in the design of sets and costumes. These included Benois himself, Bakst, Braque, Gontcharova, Larionov, Picasso, Chanel, Matisse, Derain, Miró, de Chirico, Dalí, Bilibin, Tchelitchev, Utrillo, Nicholas Roerich, and Rouault. Their designs contributed to the groundbreaking excitement of the company's productions.

Although the Ballets Russes firmly established the twentieth-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 Korovin and Golovin, who went on to work for the Ballets Russes.

Principal productions

Year Title Composer Choreographer Set and costume
1909 Le Pavillon d'Armide Nikolai Tcherepnin Michel Fokine Alexandre Benois
1909 Les Sylphides
Michel Fokine Igor Stravinsky
1909 Prince Igor Alexander Borodin Michel Fokine Nicholas Roerich
1909 Cléopatre Anton Arensky Michel Fokine Léon Bakst
1910 The Firebird Igor Stravinsky Michel Fokine Alexandre Golovine
Léon Bakst
1910 Schéhérazade Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov Michel Fokine Léon Bakst
1910 Carnaval Robert Schumann Michel Fokine Léon Bakst
1911 Petrushka Igor Stravinsky Michel Fokine Alexandre Benois
1911 Le Spectre de la Rose Carl Maria von Weber Michel Fokine Léon Bakst
1912 L'après-midi d'un faune Claude Debussy Michel Fokine Léon Bakst
Vaslav Nijinsky Odilon Redon
1912 Daphnis et Chloé Maurice Ravel Michel Fokine Léon Bakst
1912 Le Dieu Bleu Reynaldo Hahn Michel Fokine Léon Bakst
1912 Thamar Mily Balakirev Michel Fokine Léon Bakst
1913 Jeux Claude Debussy Vaslav Nijinsky Léon Bakst
1913 Le sacre du printemps Igor Stravinsky Vaslav Nijinsky Nicholas Roerich
1913 Tragédie de Salomè Florent Schmitt Boris Romanov Sergey Sudeykin
1914 La légende de Joseph Richard Strauss Michel Fokine Léon Bakst
1914 Le Coq d'Or Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov Michel Fokine Natalia Goncharova
1915 Soleil de Nuit Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov Léonide Massine Mikhail Larionov
1917 Parade Erik Satie Léonide Massine Pablo Picasso
1919 La Boutique fantasque Gioachino Rossini Léonide Massine André Derain
Ottorino Respighi
1919 El Sombrero de Tres Picos Manuel de Falla Léonide Massine Pablo Picasso
aka Le Tricorne
1920 Le chant du rossignol Igor Stravinsky Léonide Massine Henri Matisse
1920 Pulcinella Igor Stravinsky Léonide Massine Pablo Picasso
1921 Chout Sergei Prokofiev Léonide Massine Mikhail Larionov
1921 Sleeping Princess Pyotr Tchaikovsky Marius Petipa Léon Bakst
1922 Renard Igor Stravinsky Bronislava Nijinska Mikhail Larionov
1923 Les Noces Igor Stravinsky Bronislava Nijinska Natalia Goncharova
1924 Les Biches Francis Poulenc Bronislava Nijinska Marie Laurencin
1924 Les Fâcheux Georges Auric Bronislava Nijinska Georges Braque
1924 Le train bleu Darius Milhaud Bronislava Nijinska Laurens (scene)
Coco Chanel (costumi)
Pablo Picasso (fondali)
1925 Les matelots Georges Auric Léonide Massine Prunamarker
1926 Jack-in-the-box Erik Satie George Balanchine André Derain
1927 La chatte Henri Sauguet George Balanchine Naum Gabo
1927 Mercure Erik Satie Léonide Massine Pablo Picasso
1927 Pas d'acier Sergei Prokofiev Léonide Massine George Jaculov
1928 Apollon musagète Igor Stravinsky George Balanchine Bauschant (scene)
Coco Chanel (costumi)
1929 Le fils prodigue Sergei Prokofiev George Balanchine Georges Rouault


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