May 13, 2009

Celebrating the Centennial of the Ballets Russes

Dance enthusiasts have a very special reason to celebrate this month - May 19th marks the 100th anniversary of the debut performance of Sergei Diaghilev's cutting-edge company, the Ballets Russes. Although breathlessly anticipated by Le tout Paris, no one could have foreseen the enormous impact this revolutionary ballet troupe would have not only on dance but the art world overall. Meteoric in rise and burn-out, this new troupe was the brainchild of impresario Sergei Diaghilev who mined the greatest talents in composition, choreography, costume and set design and of course dancers, to stun critics and audiences around Europe and the United States. Although it lasted only 20 years, until Diaghilev's death in Venice in 1929, the Ballets Russes are synonymous with avant garde performance art that influences music and dance to this day.

What was so special about this ballet company and its celebrated director that its centennial is being honored from Salt Lake City to Monte Carlo? Let's take a look back at the beginning of the 20th Century and we'll see.

At the turn of the century, Paris was a cultural capital in all areas except dance which had been in decline since the 1830's. Staid in choreography and technique, the ballet attracted only mediocre talent and consequently was not the first choice for an evening's entertainment. Enter Sergei Pavlovich Diaghilev (left, with Jean Cocteau), a Russian sponsor of art and ballet whose aristocratic connections and passion for the stage had catapulted him to the spotlight in the Imperial Theaters in Saint Petersburg by 1900. But Diaghilev's flamboyant personality, both professionally and in his homosexual lifestyle, soon resulted in his dismissal from the theaters. He continued to work in the arts however, as a curator of an exhibition of Russian portrait painting that traveled throughout Russia and finally to Paris, and as a concert producer who presented 5 evenings of Russian music, also in Paris. The love affair with France had begun.

Diaghilev realized that the time was right to set Parisian high society on fire and May 19th, 1909 was the night of the explosion! The not-so-posh Théâtre du Châtelet was the scene and a group of Russian avant-garde dancers, including Anna Pavlova, Vaslav Nijinsky and Tamara Karsavina, were the incendiary devices. The well-heeled audience was left astounded and the rest, as they say, is history.

More than just a troupe of well trained classical dancers, this company was electric. The choice of music was revolutionary and rocketed such composers as Ravel, Rimsky-Korsakov, Debussy, Satie and especially Igor Stravinsky to world wide recognition. The artistic director was fellow Russian Léon Bakst (left, Bakst's design for Narcisse, 1919) but later contributors included such contemporary fine artists as Braque, Picasso, Gontcharova, Matisse, Dalí and even Coco Chanel! The Ballets Russes featured such choreographers as Fokine, Nijinsky, Massine and later, George Balanchine, who challenged dancers to move in new and innovative ways, often in bare feet. The ballerinas were magnificent and interestingly, this company was the first to raise the stature of the male dancer who had been virtually ignored for the past hundred years.

The success of the Ballets Russes was very much tied to its founder, Sergei Diaghilev, and his fortunes ebbed and flowed. Being the darling of the elite was precarious and did not guarantee steady funding. His work ethic was non-compromising and he was reputed to be a demanding, even frightening, taskmaster. He required absolute loyalty and his personal passions dictated many of his actions. On the other hand, he could also be extremely kind and selfless to his dancers, many of whom adored him in a fatherly way. Diaghilev lived for his company and his company depended on him. With his untimely death the dancers were scattered and the company's property was claimed by creditors. Although various attempts were made to revive the brand, it was always a shadow of its former self, lost along with its founder.

While the actual Ballets Russes may no longer exist, the influence is very much with us even now in the 21st Century. Without Diaghilev's prescient vision and commitment to this pursuit, the world of visual and performance art would be very different. This year we honor the man and his mission and celebrate 100 years of his gift to humankind.

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