It is impossible to underestimate the influence of Sergei Diaghilev (1872-1929) on twentieth-century ballet history. But it may be easy at times to underestimate his uncanny ability as an impresario to bring together artists from diverse backgrounds and aesthetic and unite them with a common goal of artistic excellence. Established in 1909, the Ballets Russes made an extraordinary impact on Parisian life and monopolized the audiences' attention for almost two decades. More than simply being a ballet company, it promoted and facilitated the interaction of some of the most avant-garde artists of the time. During their twenty-year run (the company disbanded in 1929 after Diaghilev's death), the Ballets Russes collaborated closely with dancers, choreographers and visual artists that included George Balanchine (1904-1983), Vaslav Nijinsky (1890-1950), Tamara Karsavina (1885-1978), Mikhail Fokine (1880-1942), Leonide Massine (1896-1979), Leon Bakst (1866-1944), Georges Braque (1882-1963), and Pablo Picasso (1881-1973). Some of the musicians who either lent their scores to be choreographed or created music particularly for the Ballets Russes included Maurice Ravel (Daphnis & Chloe), Claude Debussy (Jeux), Richard Strauss (Josephslegende), Erik Satie (Parade), Manuel de Falla, Sergei Prokofiev, Francis Poulenc, Darius Milhaud, and, of course, Igor Stravinsky. The latter's groundbreaking collaboration with Diaghilev led to three landmark works, all inspired by the composer's native Russia: Firebird, Petrushka, and the notorious Rite of Spring.
THE WORLD OF ART
By the time Diaghilev realized his interest in the arts at the dawn of the twentieth century, the world of the romantic ballet had virtually been dead for years. At its zenith, it was represented by works such as La Sylphide and Giselle, made popular in Europe in the 1830s and 1840s mainly thanks to the superhuman accomplishments by ballerinas like Marie Taglioni (the "first Sylphide"), whose graceful ballons and ethereal dancing on pointe (a novelty at the time) ideally embodied the concepts of the otherworldly and the supernatural. The geography of European ballet history in the later part of the nineteenth century makes for a fascinating read. In spite of the immense popularity that it enjoyed in France until the middle of the nineteenth century, the formulaic and predictable aspects of ballet that once made it popular, now failed to sustain the public's taste for the exotic and the extravagant (which, interestingly enough, both ballet and opera shared). Around that time, Marius Petipa (1818-1910), the greatest choreographer of the time, had moved to Russia, where he established the standard for classical ballet with a series of legendary creations that included Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty. In 1869, he was appointed chief ballet master in St. Petersburg and was single-handedly responsible for defining classical ballet, as well as for putting the Russian Imperial ballet at the forefront of European ballet in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Ironically, France would regain its former ballet glory through the opposite trajectory, this time via Russia with the help of the Ballets Russes. (1)
Diaghilev was neither a dancer, nor a choreographer, nor a composer, nor did he aspire to become the great impresario of a Russian ballet company that would take the Parisian audiences by storm and that would have a tremendous impact on twentieth-century ballet history. It was rather through Mir iskusstva (The World of Art), the group and art journal he founded in 1898, that his artistic aspirations became manifest. With the help of artists who shared his symbolist aesthetic, such as Alexandre Benois (1870-1960) and Leon Bakst, he put on art exhibitions in St. Petersburg and Paris, and soon it became apparent that his goals would be better served with him as the intellectual force behind the talent and aspirations of young artists he would help promote. …