Thursday, April 1, 2010
The Ballets Russes
I was having a swanky lunch recently on the seventh floor at Bergdorf Goodman with a friend from college, and afterwards I discovered in the cozy book department there a big, new, glossy book out about the Ballets Russes.
We love the Ballets Russes.
I first learned about the Ballets Russes (that's French for the Russian Ballets) from Diana Vreeland because when you read about her, she talks a lot about the dance company, and in fact mounted a show about it in 1978 when she was the consultant to the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute. Boy, I would love to have seen that.
The Russian impresario Sergei Diaghilev formed the Ballets Russes, which performed mainly in Paris from 1909 until his premature death in 1929. Many of the company's dancers came from the Imperial Ballet of St. Petersburg, and arrived in Paris as exiles from the Russian Revolution.
Here is a portrait of Diaghilev with his nanny by Leon Bakst from 1906 (all images courtesy The Monacelli Press).
But, the Ballets Russes was a radical departure from classical dance. Diaghilev invited all kinds of artists to contribute, and incorporated into the company all aspects of art, costume design, set design, music and dance. It was really an artistic revolution which announced the dawn of the modern age. Sets were created by Picasso, Braque, Miro and de Chirico. Costumes were designed by Chanel and Matisse.
This robe, based on a design by Henri Matisse for the ballet Le Chant du Rossignol, 1920, is made of silk satin painted with flowers and edged with velvet.
Robe based on a design by Leon Bakst for the ballet Le Dieu Bleu, 1912, of wool with gilt metal, satin appliques and gilt buttons.
The aesthetics, the music and dance were all part of the final creation. Igor Stravinsky, the premier composer of the earlier twentieth century, was hired by Diaghilev when he was a young man, and went on to create for the company his great works The Firebird, Petrushka, The Rite of Spring. Diaghilev promoted to ballet master the young George Ballanchine who went on to co-found the New York City Ballet and create modern ballet in the twentieth century. Diaghilev moved male dancers who had previously been overshadowed by prima ballerinas to the forefront. Here is Mikhail Fokin in the ballet Le Spectre de la Rose from 1914.
Diaghilev's greatest star (and lover) was Nijinsky, the dancer and choreographer who created ballets which reached far beyond tradition and experimented with the new, futuristic direction of modern dance. Some of his work in fact caused riots and scandal.
Costume design by Leon Bakst for Nijinsky as the Faun in L'Apres Midi d'un Faun.
Diana Vreeland said, in 1978 to the Palm Beach Daily News, that when the Ballets Russes opened, "it was a turning point for all the arts. The brilliant colors and bold rhythms put an end to the paleness and primness of the early part of the century. Nothing has ever been the same since." What a fantastic time to live in Paris, at the dawn of modern art. This deluxe book from The Monacelli Press is beautifully illustrated and includes a number of varied essays which offer a thorough and lively exploration of the many accomplishments of this extraordinary dance company.
A few years ago, TD and I went on New Year's Eve to see the documentary Ballets Russes (2005). There was practically no one else in the small, darkened theater. After Diaghilev died, the company continued on in various forms, and some of the dancers were still alive to talk about it. Many of the old dance clips are of course in black and white, and my memory of that movie is that it simply sparkled in the dark with radiance and delight.