Ballets Russes b. 1936
Igor Stravinsky and Les Ballets Russes, Firebird & Le Sacre du Printempts (2009)
Ballet Still Dazzles
By Alastair Macaulay
New York Times
Feb. 5, 2009

A HUNDRED years ago this May 18, in Paris, the Ballets Russes — a Russian company that never performed in Russia — gave its first performance and had an epoch-making triumph. “Le tout Paris” (government ministers, society hostesses, artists, star performers, couturiers) was present; eminent foreign figures too. After the second ballet, the Polovtsian Dances from Borodin’s opera “Prince Igor” (in a production having its world premiere), the audience charged backstage. The dancers warming up for the final ballet found themselves observed by the hungry eyes of Parisians aware that history had already been made.

Apart from the sheer sensation the French recognized that a revolution had begun in dance theater and even in aesthetics. Here was the peak of artistic ensemble. In each piece dancers, music and design were all top level, combined into a different but complete harmony. A few decades before, Wagner had proposed the total work of art (Gesamtkunstwerk) in which music, design and drama would join on equal terms. But now Serge Diaghilev, the impresario behind the Ballets Russes, was giving audiences three Gesamtkunstwerks an evening, and with a quality of movement that no Wagnerian opera had ever known. He went on doing it for 21 seasons, stopping only with his death in 1929, after which his company promptly folded.

This centenary of the Ballets Russes is being celebrated by exhibitions, symposiums and performances from Salt Lake City to Sydney. It’s possible that the year will do as much to honor Diaghilev’s company as the last big anniversary, the 50th of his death in 1979. In these last 30 years, however, our view of the Ballets Russes has changed.

In 1979, when a number of people who had worked with Diaghilev were still alive, you could point to a number of Ballets Russes works, either staged that year or in recent repertory, that made the famous formula of uniting first-rate design, music and dance look vivid in the theater. The two best ballets choreographed by Léonide Massine epitomized this: “La Boutique Fantasque” (a faintly surreal shopping comedy about dolls and humans, designed by André Derain and set to a patchwork score of irresistible Rossini items orchestrated by Ottorino Respighi) and “Le Tricorne” (an intensely Spanish work shaped by the greatest Spanish composer and painter of the day, Manuel de Falla and Picasso).

In the late 1970s and early ’80s I saw good performances of both in London (where Diaghilev had given their world premieres in 1919). Today they are unfamiliar anywhere, and most dancegoers will have seen neither. (Why is a mystery. It has something to do with the estate of Massine himself, who died in 1978.)

Massine became Diaghilev’s choreographer in 1915. His ballets — all of which depended on superb designs (three of them collaborations with Picasso) — built on and clinched the tremendous achievement of the Ballets Russes before World War I. From 1909 to 1913 Alexandre Benois, Léon Bakst, Nikolai Roerich and other brilliant Russian designers took the pictorial aspect of ballet to intense and unprecedented peaks. Stravinsky took music through a series of vivid revolutions in his scores for “The Firebird” (1910), “Petrouchka” (1911), and “Le Sacre du Printemps” (“The Rite of Spring,” 1913). Several of this period’s ballets presented their leading male dancers (usually, though not always, Vaslav Nijinsky) as a new kind of idol, embodying variously aspects of eroticism and romance. Ballet became innovatively sexy, astoundingly picturesque, dramatically challenging.

Today, however, few of those productions have more than mere keepsake status. Michel Fokine’s “Scheherazade” (1910) is now just a silent-movie bodice ripper accompanied by Rimsky-Korsakov’s thrilling score; nobody could take it seriously as drama. The celebrated clashes of bold colors in its Bakst designs still look amazing in books but have long since been badly coarsened in every stage revival. (Witness the Kirov Ballet’s production shown at City Center last spring.)

The intimate central scenes of Fokine’s “Petrouchka” — in which the ballet’s multilayered drama moves into psychological pain, and which once led Sarah Bernhardt to call Nijinsky “the world’s greatest actor” — now look quaint: an interesting idea that is never actually moving. Some, admittedly, still hail “Petrouchka” as the ultimate Diaghilev ballet, an unsurpassed synthesis of music, design and choreography. Certainly it’s still good to see Benois’s costumes in action against Stravinsky’s score. The crowd scenes can have a quick range of colorful character detail that ballet seldom achieves. But the weeping heart of the ballet’s drama hasn’t been seriously engrossing for decades.

In a good performance at the Royal Ballet in London, Fokine’s “Firebird” can still be absolutely captivating as moment-by-moment narrative; it makes you hang on Stravinsky’s score. In its finale nobody dances a step: the many supporting characters become the motionless audience to a royal coronation. This human tableau, the majesty of Stravinsky’s music and the colorful Russian cityscape of Natalia Gontcharova’s 1924 décor (commissioned by Diaghilev to replace the 1910 original) work together superbly, letting us feel how the adventure story of the ballet’s earlier scenes has suddenly turned into ceremonious history. (When the Royal Ballet first danced this scene in Moscow in 1961, the audience applauded through the music, sensing that the history was its own.)

Fokine’s all-dance “Les Sylphides” (1909) and his all-story “Firebird” are probably now the only two pre-1913 Ballets Russes productions that, at least in some performances, still carry theatrical conviction throughout their duration. Maybe in the right performance Fokine’s “Polovtsian Dances” might be added to that number; I have yet to see the right performance. Some certainly add Nijinsky’s “Après-Midi d’un Faune” — radically minimalist in movement terms, once shocking in its depiction of sexual fetishism and implied masturbation — to that short list. But individual performances vary so much in their phrasing that it’s unclear just how the actual choreography should go.

Diaghilev was, among other things, a snob; and part of the mystique that still surrounds his Ballets Russes has much to do with name dropping. You’d like to have seen the Picasso-Stravinsky collaboration (“Pulcinella,” 1920) in the same way you’d like to have been part of that 1909 first-night audience (which included Isadora Duncan, Chaliapin, Rodin and Ravel).

Yet there are ways in which Diaghilev’s achievement now looks more impressive than ever. An aesthete from his adolescence but never a creative artist, he revolutionized both art and aesthetics. While he was in charge you went to the ballet to see and hear the new, to rethink the old and above all to experience new marriages of style and content. Style, so evidently different for each ballet, became content. Certain subjects — the femme fatale and the male athlete (sex symbols both), dancing dolls and the characters of the commedia dell’arte, aspects of the Russian primitive past and of Western sophisticated culture — came round again and again in Ballets Russes repertory. Yet nobody complained of repetition: they were treated so differently each time. And some of the later versions of these subjects are still standing the test of time.

It used to be the norm to say that Diaghilev’s post-1914 ballets, and especially his post-1921 ballets, were inferior to the works that had preceded them. The British composer and critic Constant Lambert wrote of Diaghilev, “Before the war he created a vogue for the Russian ballet, but after the war he merely created a vogue for vogue.”

That isn’t, however, how Ballets Russes history looks in performance today. Four Diaghilev ballets now survive from the 1920s: “Les Noces” (1923) and “Les Biches” (1924) by Nijinska, “Apollo” (1928) and “The Prodigal Son” (1929) by Balanchine. All four will be performed in America this year.

Among other things, they challenge the received idea that the best Diaghilev ballets were equal conjunctions of design, music and dance. Whereas Massine’s ballets are unthinkable without their original designs, Balanchine’s “Apollo” — the most influential ballet of the 20th century — has become almost unthinkable with them. He began presenting it in new designs in the 1930s and long ago made us used to seeing it with minimal décor. Admirers of Gontcharova’s paintings don’t need to spend much time looking at her muted designs for “Les Noces” (“The Wedding”); she wanted the ballet in bright colors, but Nijinska overruled her. The ballet — which, crushingly, shows society as the hammering machine that processes the passive bride and groom — is one of the greatest achievements of all dance theater, and the designs’ stark austerity helps by not getting in the way.

Marie Laurencin’s pastel colors and 1920s costumes certainly help the chic of “Les Biches,” but they aren’t very substantial. What makes this study of frivolity and sexual ambiguity hang in the mind is its very tight marriage of dance to Poulenc’s music. Prokofiev complained bitterly about Balanchine’s choreography to his music for “The Prodigal Son”; he had envisaged something far more realistic (like Fokine’s “Petrouchka”). Posterity has contradicted him: Balanchine’s choreography still brings out the detail in the score.

Both “Les Biches” and “The Prodigal Son” include those figures from earlier Ballets Russes productions: the athletic young stud and the worldly seductress. In these two ballets, though, those clichés become engrossing. The tone of “Les Biches” is satirical, modern; the Hostess, wielding a long cigarette holder, wears pearl-ropes that clatter as she dances, and the sporty beach boys are none too bright. Nijinska gives them tightly made dances — as I write, I can see again, even hear, how their feet crisscross in the air — that make them as vital as characters in an early Evelyn Waugh novel. “The Prodigal Son” is the only Diaghilev ballet whose sex scene still mesmerizes; the Siren, more athletic even than the Prodigal, coils herself around him like a snake. Unlike all the earlier sexy Ballets Russes productions, however, it leaves sex behind; its final scene moves on to father-son matters that prove yet more moving.

During his life Diaghilev transformed his fellow Russians’ sense of their own cultural past, introduced Russia to what was going on abroad, introduced the West to what was going on in Russia, and finally introduced the West to its own latest manifestations. And on many occasions he spoke with a statesmanlike grasp of how the tectonic plates of world culture were shifting. In St. Petersburg, in 1905, he said, “We are witnesses of the greatest moment of summing up in history, in the name of a new and unknown culture, which will be created by us, and which will also sweep us away.” In the 1920s he said, “Classicism, like everything else, evolves,” adding, “Skyscrapers have a classicism of their own, they are the palaces of our time. Classicism is a means — but not an end.”

When Balanchine staged Stravinsky’s “Apollo” for the Ballets Russes in 1928, Diaghilev watched rehearsals, saw how this new modernist ballet picked up on the tradition of Petipa’s 19th-century ballet and at once remarked: “What he is doing is magnificent. It is pure classicism, such as we have not seen since Petipa’s.” Petipa’s “Sleeping Beauty” had been new when the 18-year-old Diaghilev first moved to St. Petersburg in 1890. Now he was near his life’s end, but he could see that thanks to his own labors, though he did not say so classicism had indeed evolved.