Library of Congress > Collections > Ballets Russes

Overview

The world of ballet changed dramatically when the Ballets Russes de Serge Diaghilev took Paris by storm at the Théâtre du Châtelet in May of 1909. Armed with ground-breaking choreographic originality and an innovative use of collaborating artists, the Ballets Russes produced some of the most significant ballet masterpieces of the twentieth century, including Les Sylphides, Schéhérazade, Firebird, Petrouchka, L’Après-midi d’un Faune, Parade, Les Noces, Les Biches, and Apollon Musagète.

The man behind this accomplishment was Russian art critic, impresario, and producer Serge Diaghilev, who served as founder and artistic director of the Ballets Russes until his death in August of 1929 at the age of 57. Among Diaghilev’s revolutionary ideas was the aspiration to make ballet music equal in importance to dance. Consequently, he commissioned scores from composers such as Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel, Sergei Prokofiev, Francis Poulenc, Georges Auric, Darius Milhaud, Constant Lambert, Erik Satie, and Vittorio Rieti. The most prolific composer, however, was Igor Stravinsky, whose commissions for the Ballets Russes included Firebird,1910; Petrouchka, 1911; Le Sacre du Printemps, 1913; Pulcinella, 1920; Le Chant du Rossignol, adapted from his 1914 opera Le Rossignol in 1920; Le Renard, 1922, and Les Noces, 1923.

Diaghilev’s interest and expertise in art resulted in set and costume designs from a wide range of visual artists that included Alexandre Benois, Georges Braque, André Derain, Aleksandr Golovin, Natalia Goncharova, Juan Gris, Marie Laurencin, Mikhail Larinov, Henri Matisse, Joan Miró, Pablo Picasso, Nikolai Roerich, and Maurice Utrillo. The artist most directly associated with Diaghilev’s pioneering vision was Léon Bakst, who created costumes or set designs for fifteen ballets, dating from the establishment of the Ballets Russes in 1909 to 1914. These ballets include Cléopatre, 1909; Schéhérazade, 1910; L’Après-midi d’un Faune, 1912, Le Carnaval, 1910, and Le Spectre de la Rose, 1911.

Of critical importance to the success of the Ballets Russes was Diaghilev’s nurturing of dancers and choreographers. His roster of choreographers included Michel Fokine, Vaslav Nijinsky, Bronislava Nijinska, Léonide Massine, and George Balanchine. With the dissolution of the Ballets Russes in 1929, most of these choreographers went on to create works for the various incarnations of new Ballets Russes-inspired dance companies. In fact, Fokine, Nijinska, and Massine, along with Ballets Russes dancer Adolph Bolm provided repertory and original choreographies for a new American ballet company, the Ballet Theatre (later renamed American Ballet Theatre), which was founded in 1940. George Balanchine was instrumental in the creation of the New York City Ballet and remains today one of the most respected and influential choreographers of the 20th century.

Diaghilev cultivated most of the most respected dancers of the early twentieth century, including Tamara Karsavina, Adolph Bolm, Mikhail Mordkin, Anna Pavlova, Lydia Lopokova, Vera Fokina, Ludmilla Schollar, Lubov Tchernicheva, Lydia Sokolova, Leon Woizikovsky, Anton Dolin, Alexandra Danilova, Tamara Geva, Alicia Markova, and Serge Lifar. The Ballets Russes choreographers Fokine, Nijinsky, Nijinska, Massine, and Balanchine were also noted soloists.

Although the era of domination of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes ended in 1929, its dancers and choreographers scattered around the globe, forming other dance companies that helped shape a new era of modern ballet.

This web presentation includes a wide range of Ballets Russes objects, including photographs, scrapbooks, writings, costume and set designs, choreographic notes, music scores, diaries, and programs. Selections for this presentation were drawn from the rich collections of the Music Division of the Library of Congress, including the Adolph Bolm Collection; Alexandra Danilova Collection; Bronislava Nijinska Collection; Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Fund Collection; Serge Diaghilev/Serge Lifar Collection; Serge Grigoriev/Ballets Russes Collection; and the Spivacke Fund Collection.

Elizabeth Aldrich
Curator of Dance, Music Division
March 2012