Looking at Red Letter Days for Ballet; the Ballets Russes and Its World. Edited by Lynn Garafola and Nancy Van Norman Baer (Yale, Pounds 30). Reviewed by Richard Edmonds
Some years ago during an interview with Dame Ninette de Valois, I asked her to define Diaghilev's Ballets Russes in which company she had once been a dancer.
She thought for a moment and then said: "It was the greatest travelling art exhibition Europe had ever seen. You had the art of the composer, the dancer and the costume and set designer along with astonishing choreography invented for the company.
"When the curtain went up, you might well have seen costumes by Bakst, music by Stravinsky with Nijinsky and Karsavina dancing. Nothing quite like that has ever happened since and it changed overnight, according to the programme, so you had a constant procession of subtle and beautiful effects."
The Ballets Russes and Its World is the perfect book for those who wish to explore in depth the subtleties of this astonishing company which has left its mark on virtually every aspect of the fine and performing arts in the West.
Beautifully illustrated, using both rare and well known pictures, this series of well-written essays surveys the dance, the art, music and cultural worlds of the Ballets Russes with detailed information on Stravinsky, Picasso, Leger, Matisse, Nijinsky and the dancer Karsavina, his partner, Prokofiev and so on.
But at the company's epicentre was Diaghilev, who controlled everything from the costumes to the weekly wages paid to the highest and the lowest. Lynn Garafola questions quite correctly whether, in fact, there would have been a Ballets Russes if he had not been there.
"Without Diaghilev would Stravinsky have composed Le Sacre du Printemps or Ravel Daphnis and Chloe? Would Balanchine have found his true path with Apollo (revived a couple of years ago by Birmingham Royal Ballet very successfully) and were it not for Diaghilev would dance, during the 20 years his company flourished from 1909-1929 ever have become what it is today - a sophisticated meeting ground for artists and composers?"
The answer is probably no.
In the immediate pre First World War era, dance was perceived as essentially French or Italian. It was a diversion between the acts of an opera or something performed on the music hall. When Diaghilev arrived, things changed and the Russian style left its mark.
Edris Stannus, an intelligent Irish girl from Dublin, metamorphosed into Ninette de Valois via her mother's manoeuvrings with her name. By 1924, all that would have changed and this remarkable woman would probably have become Edris Stannuski, since Russia had set its heel on the dance and the arts.
Diaghilev has been called an amateur simply because he was said to create nothing at all. He didn't write music, he didn't paint pictures, he had given up writing art criticism in Russia and he was not a choreographer. But this is a nonsense.
In his native Russia, Diaghilev had organised some highly significant avant garde art exhibitions, but above all else his greatest creation was his Ballets Russes which brimmed over with Slavic fire and white-hot creativity, which hooked any artist of note who saw it at work.
Stravinsky would have remained in Russian obscurity had it not been for Diaghilev. After meeting him, Stravinsky gave the world Petrushka , Firebird , Pulcinella, Lesnoces, Appollon Musageppe and more.
And even though the Ballets Russes repertoire is now extinct, memories remain through books written about the company, the costumes in private and public collections, related designs by Bakst, Picasso, Polunin, Gontcharova and others and music, of course, receives concert performances on a daily basis worldwide. …