Fusing Dance, Music, and Design:
Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes
Russian composer Igor Stravinsky described his countryman Serge Diaghilev (1872-1929) as “generous, strong, and capricious…with intense will, a rich sense of contrasts, and deep ancestral roots.” He credited this blend of traits as the source of Diaghilev’s “amazing activity as the inspirer, promoter, and organizer of a long series of artistic events.” Chief among them was the Ballets Russes, the dance company that infused modernism with an explosion of creativity.
From the first performances in May 1909, audiences were dazzled by the dancing and designs of the Ballets Russes. “As far as dance was concerned, the early twentieth century was an ideal moment for change,” notes Jane Pritchard, curator of dance for the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and co-curator of the 2010 exhibition Diaghilev and the Golden Age of the Ballets Russes, 1909–1929, pointing to the introduction of new elements of movement by the likes of Isadora Duncan and the simultaneous decline of ballet in Russia and Europe. “Growing audiences were looking for new material, and Diaghilev’s new company filled a real vacuum.”
The Ballets Russes first brought Russian ballet to Paris in productions designed by Leon Bakst, who layered jewel tones and Art Nouveau elements to exotic ends. The artist was just one member of Diaghilev’s inner circle—an evolving cadre of advisors, friends, colleagues, and sponsors that generated ideas and served as sounding board. This group included designer Alexandre Benois, choreographer Mikhail Fokine, fashion designer Coco Chanel, artists such as Robert and Sonia Delaunay and, from 1916, Pablo Picasso.
“It was obvious to audiences that the quality of Diaghilev’s productions was superior to that of any rival,” explains Pritchard. “Others could attract the dancers but they did not have the original settings in which to show off their talents, and the his ballets won hands down when it came to music, sets, costumes, choreography, and overall production.” Diaghilev supervised the look of each production, integrating the story, music, choreography, and design with such skill that each Ballets Russes spectacle exceeded the sum of its parts.
As revealed in the sumptuously illustrated pages of Ballets Russes, published by Assouline, the innovative showpieces of the relatively short-lived company had a significant and enduring influence on art, theater, ballet, and fashion. Diaghilev’s ballets also made it respectable for artists to collaborate. Through the life of the company, he employed nearly forty artists to design the sets, costumes, props, and promotional materials. These painters, sculptors, and designers added rich layers of complexity to groundbreaking choreography and more traditional productions, interpreting movements such as Cubism, Primitivism, Futurism, and Surrealism for the stage.
“Diaghilev was responsible for the creation of ballets in which the elements of dance, music, and design fused together, establishing the standards to which subsequent companies throughout the world would aspire,” notes Pritchard. More than a century later, in theaters around the world, audiences are still thrilled by the ballets that he created.
“Diaghilev had the cunning...to combine the excellent with the chic, and revolutionary art with the atmosphere of the old regime.”Ballerina Lydia Lopokova
“There was very little that he did not try, from productions without dancers to multimedia works. Diaghilev could be distant or he could charm, but above all he could radiate extraordinary authority and power, which enabled him to bring together a group of such innovative individuals to create original works of art.”Jane Pritchard