Reinventing the Ballet Russes - Stunning Tributes to Diaghilev

By Tenaglia, Susan | The World and I, May 2003 | Go to article overview

Reinventing the Ballet Russes - Stunning Tributes to Diaghilev

Tenaglia, Susan, The World and I

French choreographer Thierry Malandain's company, Biarritz Ballet, honors the seminal Russian dance impressario Sergei Diaghilev with innovative versions of Ballets Russes classics.

Hold on to your theater seats--I'm about to give you a crash course on ballet impresario Serge Diaghilev. In 1910, the Russian-born visionary decided that Russian ballet was stagnating under the stuffy artificiality of the court and needed revitalizing. Diaghilev relocated to Paris, taking some of Russia's best dancers and choreographers with him. He then proceeded to establish the first independent private ballet company (an unheard-of idea at the time; all ballet companies were subsidized by the state) and mount some of the best-known ballets of the twentieth century. Firebird, Afternoon of the Fawn, The Rite of Spring, Pulcinella, Spectre de la rose, and Bolero are just a few that bear his signature.

Diaghilev collaborated with the most famous artists, composers, and dancers of the period. Artists such as Alexander Benois, Leon Bakst, Pablo Picasso, and Henri Matisse designed sets. Igor Stravinsky, Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel, and Sergei Prokofiev wrote new music for his ballets. Major choreographers of the twentieth century including George Balanchine, Leonide Massine, Bronislava Nijinska, and Michel Fokine offered their choreographic visions to his troupe, which performed from 1910 through 1929 throughout western Europe.

Diaghilev was extraordinarily effective at stimulating the creative gifts of the people he worked with while drawing together the avant- garde of his era. More important, his revolutionary ballets changed the way dance was perceived in the West. The ballet russes, as the company's works came to be called, broke away from the sterile techniques and artificial conventions that had dominated dance of that era, striving for a more natural and expressive choreographic style. Diaghilev chose bold costumes, dramatic sets, and modern music; he visualized ballet as an art form unifying dance, theater, painting, and drama. "Astonish me!" he told artists and dancers with whom he worked. With Diaghilev, command ballet was revived as a serious art form, and twentieth-century dance was born.

Classic Reinventions

So why the history lesson? Because French choreographer Thierry Malandain, who heads the Centre Choregraphique National, Ballet Biarritz, France, has paid tribute to the great Russian impresario by reinventing several of the ballet russes classics. Ballet Biarritz, a troupe of fourteen young, classically trained dancers, performs Un Hommage aux les Ballet Russes internationally. At its New York City debut last fall, the company wowed audiences.

Malandain takes original ballet russes works and radically transforms them. The result is new ballets inspired by the old but able to stand in their own right. He prefers to be called a renovator rather than an innovator. "I've reinvented the ballet russes because I'm fascinated by Diaghilev and what he accomplished for twentieth-century dance and because the ballets and the music are an inspiration to me," he says. "It's a pleasure to share a studio with Stravinsky, Ravel, and Debussy and to struggle in my own work surrounded by these ghosts. My own culture stems from classical ballet, and I am unabashedly attached to it. I think that this legacy, reaching down four centuries of history, gives the dancer unique resources. So I play with it, becoming classical for some, contemporary for others, simply in search of the dance I like."

Malandain treats the past with a witty combination of reverence and irreverence. His Pulcinella (1991) has become one the company's signature pieces. The 1920 ballet originated from a manuscript that Diaghilev found in Naples. The unpublished comedy portrays Pulcinella, the famous commedia dell'arte character, as the hero. Diaghilev asked Stravinsky to orchestrate the pages. Massine choreographed the work while Picasso designed the sets. …

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