Colors that move: The Ballet Russes

Published in September 2013 by The Hillsdale Collegian

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In September 1919, a Russian exile named Serge Diaghilev and his friend, Igor Stravinsky, dropped by Henri Matisse’s home to make the painter an offer he couldn’t refuse: the opportunity to create something extraordinary, “like a painting, but with colors that move.”

Within the year, Matisse was in London, personally producing the sets and costumes for the latest ballet of Diagilev’s Ballet Russes, “The Song of the Nightingale,” scored by Stravinsky.

Diagilev had little artistic talent of his own, but possessed a remarkable ability to bring together the most brilliant artists of turn-of-the-century Europe – including Picasso and Coco Chanel – to create magnificent spectacles that merged dance, design, and music in a way that revolutionized ballet and shepherded it into the 20th century.

Faced with financial strain and domestic unrest, Czar Nicholas II turned to the French government for a massive loan in 1906. To improve relations with his foreign creditors, the czar funded a series of Russian culture exhibitions in Paris, arranged by an ambitious young member of St. Petersburg’s cultural elite – Diaghilev.
Although imperial support stopped in 1909, Diaghilev didn’t.

Instead, he started his own ballet company, The Ballet Russes, enticing dancers from Russia’s Imperial Ballet to join him in Paris.

The list of these dancers read’s like a list of “who’s who” in the history of ballet: Mikhail Fokine, Anna Pavlova, Vaslav Nijinsky, and more (George Balanchine and Léonide Massine were children at the time, but joined later).

After a series of short, generally plotless, but shamelessly opulent ballets in 1909, Diaghilev launched into the decadent spectacles that became his trademark.

“Scheherazade” (1910) began with the music, composed by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. Drawing from the sweeping and soaring score along with it’s exotic theme and erotic subject matter (including a harem, an orgy, betrayal, love, mass-execution, and suicide), Fokine choreographed evocative and sensual dances that prominently featured male dancers and the corps de ballet ––uncommon at the time.

Léon Bakst designed a set smothered in printed jade draperies, oriental carpets, and floor cushions that sparked a trend in interior design. His costumes inspired the brief Edwardian craze for harem pants seen in Season 1 of Masterpiece Theater’s “Downton Abbey.” Bakst rejected the net tutus and fitted bodices of traditional ballet, instead opting for flowing harem pants, turbans, loops of pearls, and bodystockings (to suggest nudity).

Diaghilev and his collaborators fervently believed that the style of ballet should be adapted to the subject matter. It’s a common notion now, but in the 1800s ballet choreography was largely limited to established steps that emphasized footwork over all other movement, and considered stylized pantomime the only appropriate way to communicate emotion.

“The Afternoon of a Faun” (1912) featured rigid gestures and emphasized the profile in order to mimic ancient Greek art and contrast with the flowing score by Claude Debussy. The ballet was denounced as “obscene” for overtly sexual choreography that somehow managed to overshadow the orgy scene of “Sheherazade.”

“The Rite of Spring” (1913) – with a score written specifically for the Ballet Russes by Stravinsky – almost caused a riot on opening night. And that was before the audience registered that the plot revolved around the sacrifice of a young woman to ensure the arrival of spring.  Drawing from Slavic folk music, dance, and costume, the spectacle on stage was something that the Parisian audience could not reconcile with their concept of “ballet.”

“The dancer’s body is simply the luminous manifestation of the soul,” said American dancer Isadora Duncan, one of the earliest promoters of free, interpretative movement and a source of inspiration to Fokine.

The Ballet Russes extended that thought to every single production element and fused them together in a way that permanently changed ballet, leaving a legacy behind that continued even after Diaghilev’s death and the company’s dissolution in 1929.