The Ballets Russes Revolution: Diaghilev Brought Fire and Controversy to Ballet, but What Remains of His Legacy?

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You had to be here. You and almost every art-loving Parisian with money to spend absolutely had to be sitting in the miraculously renovated Theatre du Chatelet on May 19, 1909, for the opening night of Serge Diaghilev's Les Ballets Russes. You'd attended concerts of Russian music that this visionary impresario had presented in Paris in 1907, and been thrilled in 1908 by the great Russian bass Fyodor Chaliapin in Modest Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov at the Paris Opera--another step in Diaghilev's mission to acquaint western Europe with Russian culture. Now he's brought Russian ballet to your city.

The theater is packed. Composers, sculptors, writers, actors, singers, and members of the French aristocracy swell the crowd. You crane your neck to see the glamorous actresses and dancers that clever Diaghilev has seated in the front row of the dress circle, the outrageous American Isadora Duncan among them. You've read the many newspaper articles heralding a new sort of ballet, but you're about to realize that nothing could have fully prepared you for tonight.

In 2009, as ballet companies celebrate the centennial of the first legendary season of the Ballets Russes, we can still sense the excitement felt in Paris that night. The curtain rose on Le Pavilion d'Armide with Alexandre Benois' marvelous set. Nikolai Tcherpnine's music floated from the pit. There were murmurs of delight when the simulated Gobelin tapestry rose to show the dreamed-of world behind it, with living dancers replacing the painted ones. Mon Dieu, those dancers! Standards at the Paris Opera Ballet had declined over the last part of the 19th century, and spectators were stunned when Tamara Karsavina, Alexandra Baldina, and Vaslav Nijinsky burst into a veritable feast of leaping and spinning in a trio by the company's 28-year-old choreographer, Mikhail (later Michel) Fokine. Later that evening, they cheered even more vociferously for Adolph Bolm and a host of virile Russian men whipping through Fokine's Polovtsian Dances from Alexander Borodin's opera Prince Igor. And when Nijinsky and Karsavina performed the Blue Bird pas de deux from The Sleeping Beauty, an observer later said, you would have thought the spectators' seats were on fire.

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The Ballets Russes changed the way people viewed dance. Diaghilev also changed the way companies operated--venturing outside the state-supported system to seek funding and presenters. He introduced Paris and London to 19th-century Russian classics, premiering Swan Lake in Paris and staging a lavish production of The Sleeping Beauty (titled The Sleeping Princess) in London in 1921, but his fame resides in the one-act ballets created by Fokine, Vaslav Nijinsky, Leonide Massine, Bronislava Nijinska, and the very young George Balanchine. These were collaborations. Diaghilev brought Russian music to Paris but also presented ballets to commissioned scores by French composers, such as Francis Poulenc and Erik Satie, and by the transplanted Russian, Igor Stravinsky. Major artists--including Pablo Picasso and Georges Rouault--created sets and costumes.

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European audiences were enthralled by Fokine's sex-and-violence orientalist ballets like Cleopatre and Scheherazade (fashion designers copied Leon Bakst's exotic color combinations). They also loved his windblown Les Sylphides, his fragrant Spectre de la Rose, and his ballets based on Russian folklore, like Firebird and Petrouchka. Nijinsky's L'Apres-Midi d'un Faune (1912) caused a small scandal because of its sexual implications, and his Sacre du Printemps (1913) ignited an even bigger one because of its pounding, turned-in movement and Stravinsky's "barbaric" score. Parade (1917), with Massine's choreography, Jean Cocteau's scenario, Picasso's sets and costumes, and Satie's score (featuring, at one point, a typewriter) put Cubism on the stage.

And what remained of these riches after Diaghilev's death in 1929? …