Introduction

The Ballets Russes of Serge Diaghilev claims a special position, even a unique one, in the history of the performing arts, in terms of a reawakening of interest in ballet in Europe and America, in bringing Russian culture to the attention of the rest of the Western world, and in presenting ballet as an equal partnership of movement, music, and visual design, in which all of the creative participants—composers, designers, and choreographers, as well as the inventors of plots and authors of scenarios—exerted an influence upon other aspects of their collaborative works.  While this was an enterprise that appealed especially to privileged and cultured populations in the largest cities, it exerted an influence on the future of ballet that extended far beyond those cities and endured beyond the impressive immediate accom­plish­ment of having presented some seventy individual ballets that were created and performed through the collab­ora­tion of many of the significant artists of the early years of the twentieth century.

Serge Diaghilev was responsible for bringing together and providing important opportunities to such emerging creative artists of that time as Igor Stravinsky, Francis Poulenc, Serge Prokofiev, Jean Cocteau, Pablo Picasso, Giorgio de Chirico, and Joan Miró, as well as to a number of leading Russian painters, including Léon Bakst, Alexandre Benois, Nicholas Roerich, Alexander Golovine, Natalia Gon­charova, and Mikhail Larionov.  Many of the greatest Russian dancers, among them Vaslav Nijinsky, Michel Fokine, Adolph Bolm, Tamara Kar­savina, and Anna Pavlova, danced for Diaghilev; and he fostered the careers of many more dancers who were nurtured under the auspices of the Ballets Russes. It was Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, perhaps more than any other company, who was responsible for bringing back the prominence of the male dancer and for seizing upon the sensual possibilities of ballet.  In him, management and admini­stration were elevated to a creative art.

Especially in its earlier years, the Ballets Russes was grounded in Russian culture: amid a number of modernist, advanced works, Diaghilev brought out ballets based on traditional Russian themes, created by Russian-born artists, com­posers, and choreographers, and performed by dancers trained in Russia. Diaghilev also revived a number of representative ballets and operas from the nineteenth-century Russian tradition. The Ballets Russes began on a small scale: the first season consisted only of a few weeks in Paris, with no immediate expectation of permanency; and the second season, limited to Paris and brief appearances in two other cities, was nearly as brief. It was the third season, in 1911, that brought the Ballets Russes to London, where it truly caught fire; from that time, performing now under Diaghilev’s own name, the company was eagerly followed and enthusiast­ically reported, as it grew in size, in repertory, in prestige, and in fashion.

It could be said that in Diaghilev the role of the producer or impresario had become much like that of a curator. The Ballets Russes represented Diaghilev’s own aesthetic convictions and realized his own artistic intentions. Those personal con­victions and predilections were not permanent and un­changing, and they reflect­ed to some extent political and societal realities over those twenty turbulent and eventful years. But there was perhaps never quite a parallel circumstance in the history of the arts in which the tastes and personal influence of one person had such an effect on the future of the world of art.

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