The French plural form of the name, “Ballets Russes,” specifically refers to the company founded by Sergei Diaghilev and active during his lifetime. (In some publicity the company was advertised as Les Ballets Russes de Serge Diaghileff.) In English, the company is now commonly referred to as "the Ballets Russes" (plural, without italics), although in the early part of the 20th century, it was sometimes referred to as “The Russian Ballet” or “Diaghilev’s Russian Ballet.” To add to the confusion, some publicity material spelt the name in the singular.
The names “Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo” and “The Original Ballet Russe” (using the singular) refer to companies that formed after Diaghilev's death in 1929.
Sergei Diaghilev (1872—1929), the company's impresario (or "artistic director" in modern terms), was chiefly responsible for its success. He was uniquely prepared for the role. Born into a wealthy Russian family of vodka distillers (though they went bankrupt when he was 18), he was accustomed to moving in the upper-class circles that provided the company's patrons and benefactors.
In 1890 he enrolled at the Faculty of Law, St. Petersburg, to prepare for a career in the civil service like many Russian young men of his class. There he was introduced (through his cousin Dmitry Filosofov) to a student clique of artists and intellectuals calling themselves The Nevsky Pickwickians whose most influential member was Alexandre Benois; others included Léon Bakst, Walter Nouvel, and Konstantin Somov.
From childhood, Diaghilev had been passionately interested in music. His ambition to become a composer was dashed when (in 1894) Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov told him he had no talent.
In 1898, several members of The Pickwickians founded the journal Mir iskusstva (World of Art) under the editorship of Diaghilev. As early as 1902, Mir iskusstva included reviews of concerts, operas, and ballets in Russia. The latter were chiefly written by Alexandre Benois, who exerted considerable influence on Diaghilev's thinking.
Mir iskusstva also sponsored exhibitions of Russian art in St. Petersburg, culminating in Diaghilev's important 1905 show of Russian portraiture at the Tauride Palace.
Frustrated by the extreme conservatism of the Russian art world, in 1906 Diaghilev organized the groundbreaking Paris Exhibition of Russian Art at the Pétit Palais, the first major showing of Russian art in the West. Its enormous success created a Parisian fascination with all things Russian. Diaghilev organized a 1907 season of Russian music at the Paris Opéra.
In 1908, Diaghilev returned to the Paris Opéra with six performances of Mussorgsky's opera Boris Godunov, starring basso Fyodor Chaliapin. This was Rimsky-Korsakov's 1908 version (with additional cuts and re-arrangement of the scenes). The performances were a sensation, though the costs of producing grand opera were crippling.
In 1909, Diaghilev presented his first Paris "Saison Russe" devoted exclusively to ballet (although the company did not use the name "Ballets Russes" until the following year). Most of this original company were resident performers at the Imperial Ballet of Saint Petersburg, hired by Diaghilev to perform in Paris during the Imperial Ballet's summer holidays. The first season's repertory featured a variety of works chiefly choreographed by Michel Fokine, including Le Pavillon d'Armide (music by Tcherepnin), the Polovtsian Dances from Prince Igor (music by Borodin), Les Sylphides (music by Chopin), and Cléopâtre (music by Arensky). The season also included Le Festin, a pastiche set by several choreographers (including Fokine) to music by several Russian composers.
The Ballets Russes was noted for the high standard of its dancers, most of whom had been classically trained at the great Imperial schools in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Their high technical standards contributed a great deal to the company's success in Paris, where dance technique had declined markedly since the 1830s.
Principal female dancers included: Anna Pavlova, Tamara Karsavina, Olga Spessivtseva, Mathilde Kschessinska, Ida Rubinstein, Bronislava Nijinska, Lydia Lopokova, Diana Gould and Alicia Markova, among others; many earned international renown with the company.
The Ballets Russes was even more remarkable for raising the status of the male dancer, largely ignored by choreographers and ballet audiences since the early 19th century. Among the male dancers were Michel Fokine, Serge Lifar, Léonide Massine, Anton Dolin, George Balanchine, Valentin Zeglovsky, Theodore Kosloff, Adolph Bolm, and the legendary Vaslav Nijinsky, considered the most popular and talented dancer in the company's history.
After the Russian Revolution of 1917, in later years, younger dancers were taken from those trained in Paris by former Imperial dancers, within the large community of Russian exiles.
The company featured and premiered now-famous (and sometimes notorious) works by the great choreographers Marius Petipa and Michel Fokine, as well as new works by Vaslav Nijinsky, Bronislava Nijinska, Léonide Massine, and the young George Balanchine at the start of his career.
The most significant choreographers of the original company were (in chronological order) Fokine, Nijinsky, Massine, and Nijinska.
The choreography of Michel Fokine (1880–1942) was of paramount importance in the initial success of the Ballets Russes. Fokine had graduated from the Imperial Ballet School in Saint Petersburg in 1898, and eventually become First Soloist at the Mariinsky Theater. In 1907, Fokine choreographed his first work for the Imperial Russian Ballet, entitled Le Pavillon d'Armide (music by Nikolai Tcherepnin). In the same year he created Chopiniana to piano music by the composer Frédéric Chopin as orchestrated by Alexander Glazunov. This was an early example of creating choreography to an existing score rather than to music specifically written for the ballet (a departure in practice at the time).
Fokine established an international reputation with his works choreographed during the first four seasons (1909-1912) of the Ballets Russes. These included the Polovtsian Dances from Prince Igor (1909, music by Borodin), Le Pavillon d'Armide (1909, a revival of his 1907 production for the Imperial Russian Ballet, music by Tcherepnin), Les Sylphides (a 1909 reworking of his earlier Chopiniana), The Firebird (1910, music by Stravinsky), Le Spectre de la Rose (1911, music by Weber), Petrushka (1911, music by Stravinsky), and Daphnis and Chloé (1912, music by Ravel).
After a longstanding tumultuous relationship with Diaghilev, Fokine left the Ballets Russes at the end of the 1912 season.
Vaslav Nijinsky (1889 or 1890–1950) had attended the Imperial Ballet School, St. Petersburg since the age of 8. He graduated in 1907 and joined the Imperial Ballet where he immediately began to take starring roles. Diaghilev invited him to join the Ballets Russes for its first (1909) Paris season.
In 1912, Diaghilev gave Nijinsky his first opportunity as a choreographer: L'Après-midi d'un faune (The Afternoon of a Faun) to music composed by Claude Debussy in 1894: Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune. Featuring Nijinsky himself as the Faun, the ballet's frankly erotic nature caused a sensation. The following year (1913), Nijinsky choreographed a new work by Debussy composed expressly for the Ballets Russes: Jeux (Games). Indifferently received by the public, Jeux was eclipsed two weeks later by the premiere of Igor Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring (Le Sacre du printemps), also choreographed by Nijinsky.
Because of mental illness, Nijinsky eventually retired from dance; he was diagnosed with schizophrenia.
Léonide Massine (1896-1979) was born in Moscow, where he studied both acting and dancing at the Imperial School. On the verge of becoming an actor, Massine was invited by Sergei Diaghilev to join the Ballets Russes, as he was seeking a replacement for Vaslav Nijinsky. Diaghilev encouraged Massine's creativity and his entry into choreography.
Massine's most famous creations for the Ballets Russes were Parade (1917, music by Erik Satie); El sombrero de tres picos (The Three-Cornered Hat) (1919, music by Manuel de Falla); and Pulcinella (1920, music by Igor Stravinsky). In all three of these works, he collaborated with Pablo Picasso, who designed the sets and costumes.
Massine extended Fokine's choreographic innovations, especially those relating to narrative and character. His ballets incorporated both folk dance and demi-charactère dance, a style using classical technique to perform character dance. Massine created contrasts in his choreography, such as synchronized yet individual movement, or small-group dance patterns within the corps de ballet.
Bronislava Nijinska (1891-1972) was the younger sister of Vaslav Nijinsky. She trained at the Imperial Ballet School in St. Petersburg, joining the Imperial Ballet company in 1908. From 1909, she (like her brother) was a member of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes.
In 1915, Nijinska and her husband fled to Kiev to escape World War I. There, she founded the École de movement where she trained Ukrainian artists in modern dance. Her most prominent pupil was Serge Lifar (who later joined the Ballets Russes in 1923).
Following the Russian Revolution, Nijinska fled again to Poland, and then, in 1921, re-joined the Ballets Russes in Paris. In 1923, Diaghilev assigned her the choreography of Stravinsky's Les Noces. The result combines elements of her brother's choreography for The Rite of Spring with more traditional aspects of ballet, such as dancing en pointe.
The following year (1924), she choreographed three new works for the company: Les Biches (Francis Poulenc), Les Fâcheux (Georges Auric), and Le Train bleu (Darius Milhaud).
Born Giorgi Melitonovitch Balanchivadze in Saint Petersburg, George Balanchine (1904-1983) was trained at the Imperial School of Ballet. His education there was interrupted by the Russian Revolution of 1917. Balanchine graduated in 1921, after the school reopened. He subsequently studied music theory, composition, and advanced piano at the Petrograd Conservatory, graduating in 1923. During this time, he worked with the corps de ballet of the Mariinsky Theater. In 1924, Balanchine (and his first wife, ballerina Tamara Geva) fled to Paris while on tour of Germany with the Soviet State Dancers. He was invited by Sergei Diaghilev to join the Ballets Russes as a choreographer.
Diaghilev invited the collaboration of contemporary fine artists in the design of sets and costumes. These included Alexandre Benois, Léon Bakst, Nicholas Roerich, Georges Braque, Natalia Goncharova, Mikhail Larionov, Pablo Picasso, Coco Chanel, Henri Matisse, André Derain, Joan Miró, Giorgio de Chirico, Salvador Dalí, Ivan Bilibin, Pavel Tchelitchev, Maurice Utrillo, and Georges Rouault.
Their designs contributed to the groundbreaking excitement of the company's productions. The scandal caused by the premiere performance in Paris of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring has been partly attributed to the provocative aesthetic of the costumes of the Ballets Russes.
Alexandre Benois (1870-1960) had been the most influential member of The Nevsky Pickwickians and was one of the original founders (with Bakst and Diaghilev) of Mir iskusstva. His particular interest in ballet as an art form strongly influenced Diaghilev and was seminal in the formation of the Ballets Russes. In addition, Benois contributed scenic and costume designs to several of the company's earlier productions: Le Pavillon d'Armide (1909, music by Tcherepnin), portions of Le Festin (1909, music by several composers), and Giselle (1910, music by Adolphe Adam). Benois also participated with Stravinsky and Fokine in the creation of Petrushka (1911), to which he contributed much of the scenario as well as the stage sets and costumes.
Léon Bakst (1866-1924) was also an original member of both The Nevsky Pickwickians and Mir iskusstva. He participated as designer in productions of the Ballets Russes from its beginning in 1909 until 1921, creating sets and costumes for Scheherazade (1910, music by Rimsky-Korsakov), The Firebird (1910, music by Stravinsky), "Les Orientales" (1911, Music by Anton Arensky, Aleksandr Borodin, Aleksandr Glazunov, Christian Sinding, and Edvard Grieg, with orchestration by Igor Stravinsky), Le Spectre de la rose (1910, music by Weber), L'Après-midi d'une faune (1912, music by Debussy), and Daphnis et Chloé (1912, music by Ravel), among other productions.
In 1917, Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) designed sets and costumes in the Cubist style for three Diaghilev ballets, all with choreography by Léonide Massine: Parade (1917, music by Erik Satie), El sombrero de tres picos (The Three-Cornered Hat) (1919, music by Manuel de Falla), and Pulcinella (1920, music by Igor Stravinsky).
Natalia Goncharova was born in 1881 near Tula, Russia. Her art was inspired by Russian folk art, Fauvism, and cubism. She began designing for the Ballets Russes in 1921.
Although the Ballets Russes firmly established the 20th-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.Composers
For his new productions, Diaghilev commissioned the foremost composers of the 20th century, including: Debussy, Milhaud, Poulenc, Prokofiev, Ravel, Satie, Respighi, Stravinsky, de Falla, and Strauss.Conductors
The impresario also engaged conductors who were or became eminent in their field during the 20th century, including Pierre Monteux (1911–16 and 1924), Ernest Ansermet (1915–23), Edward Clark (1919-20) and Roger Désormière (1925–29).
Diaghilev 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 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 nearly caused an audience riot. It stunned people because of its willful rhythms and aggressive dynamics. 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 Les Fêtes Chinoises 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.
- The male dancer returns.
- Expressiveness: work was not just solely about technique or divertissements as found in classical ballet
- Movement vocabulary freed
- Individuals were important rather than a corps de ballet of classical form
- Unified theme: pieces were often one act, and always sought to express a single theme throughout the piece
- Collaboration: Choreographers and dancers collaborated with set designers and musicians in order to create pieces
- Reflection of Russian taste, themes (idea of developing Russian art, rather than importing western art and influence)
Diaghilev always maintained that no camera could ever do justice to the artistry of his dancers, and it was long believed there was no film legacy of the Ballets Russes. However, in 2011 a 30-second newsreel film of a performance in Montreux, Switzerland, in June 1928 came to light. The ballet was Les Sylphides and the lead dancer was identified as Serge Lifar.
When Sergei Diaghilev died of diabetes in Venice on 19 August 1929, the Ballets Russes was left with substantial debts. As the Great Depression began its property was claimed by its creditors and the company of dancers dispersed.
In 1931, Colonel Wassily de Basil (a Russian émigré entrepreneur from Paris) and René Blum (ballet director at the Monte Carlo Opera) founded the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, giving its first performances there in 1932. Diaghilev alumni Léonide Massine and George Balanchine worked as choreographers with the company and Tamara Toumanova was a principal dancer.
Artistic differences led to a split between Blum and de Basil, after which de Basil renamed his company initially Ballets Russes de Colonel W. de Basil. Blum retained the name Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and de Basil created a new company. In 1938 he called it The Covent Garden Russian Ballet, then renamed it The Original Ballet Russe in 1939.
After World War II began, the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo left Europe and toured extensively in the United States and South America. As dancers retired and left the company, they often founded dance studios in the United States or South America, or taught at other former company dancers' studios. With Balanchine's founding of the School of American Ballet, and later the New York City Ballet, many outstanding former Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo dancers went to New York to teach in his school.
The Original Ballet Russe toured mostly in Europe. Its alumni were influential in teaching classical Russian ballet technique in European schools.
The three companies were the subject of the 2005 documentary film Ballets Russes.
Paris, 2008: In September 2008, on the eve of the 100th anniversary of the creation of the Ballets Russes, Sotheby's announced the staging of an exceptional exhibition of works lent mainly by French, British and Russian private collectors, museums and foundations. Some 150 paintings, designs, costumes, theatre decors, drawings, sculptures, photographs, manuscripts, and programs were exhibited in Paris, retracing the key moments in the history of the Ballets Russes. On display were costumes designed by André Derain (La Boutique Fantasque, 1919) and Henri Matisse (Le Chant du Rossignol, 1920), and Léon Bakst. Posters recalling the surge of creativity that surrounded the Ballets Russes included Pablo Picasso's iconic image of the Chinese Conjuror for the audacious production of Parade (1917), and Jean Cocteau's poster for Le Spectre de La Rose (1911). Costumes and stage designs presented included works by Alexander Benois, for Le Pavillon d'Armide (1909) and Petrushka (1911); Léon Bakst, for La Péri (1912) and Le Dieu Bleu (1912); Mikhail Larionov, for Le Soleil à Minuit (1915); and Natalia Goncharova, for The Firebird (1925 version). The exhibition also included important contemporary artists, whose works reflected the visual heritage of the Ballets Russes - notably an installation made of colorfully painted paper by the renowned Belgian artist Isabelle de Borchgrave, and items from the Imperial Porcelain Factory in St. Petersburg.
Monte-Carlo, 2009: In month May, 2009 in Monaco two postage stamps « Centenary of Ballets Russians of Diaghilev » went out, created by Georgy Shishkin.
London, 2010-11: London's Victoria and Albert Museum presented a special exhibition entitled Diaghilev and the Golden Age of the Ballets Russes, 1909-1929 at the V&A South Kensington between 5 September 2010 and 9 January 2011.
Canberra, 2010-11: An exhibition of the company's costumes held by the National Gallery of Australia was held from 10 December 2010 - 1 May 2011 at the Gallery in Canberra. Entitled Ballets Russes: the art of costume, it included 150 costumes and accessories from 34 productions from 1909 to 1939; one third of the costumes had not been seen since they were last worn on stage. Along with costumes by Natalia Goncharova, Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, André Derain, Georges Braque, André Masson and Giorgio de Chirico, the exhibition also featured photographs, film, music and artists’ drawings.
Washington, DC: 2013 Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes, 1909–1929: When Art Danced with Music. National Gallery of Art, East Building Mezzanine. 12 May— 2 September 2013. Organized by the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, in collaboration with the National Gallery of Art, Washington. 
Stockholm, Sweden: 2014-2015 "Sleeping Beauties - Dreams and Costumes" The Dance Museum. The Dance Museum in Stockholm owns about 250 original costumes from the Ballets Russes, in this exhibition about fifty of them are shown. [www.dansmuseet.se]