The Epoch Continues

By Siegel, Marcia B. | The Hudson Review, Summer 2009 | Go to article overview

The Epoch Continues


Siegel, Marcia B., The Hudson Review


A NEW WAVE OF BALLETS RUSSES MANIA SWEPT OVER the dance world last spring in recognition of the artistic dynasty that was launched in Paris a hundred years ago. Even at its inception, the Ballets Russes signified more than an ambitious troop of émigrés offering their art for the first time in Western Europe. To its authence, the company represented sophisticated entertainment, sensual appeal, an enclave of artists and intellectuals in passionate pursuit of the new. After the death of impresario Serge Diaghilev twenty years later, the company dissolved. The dancers, choreographers, and managers dispersed across four continents to perform the ballets and produce new work. Ballets Russes became not just a style or the remains of a repertory but a memory, an aura of stardom, and an idea about the possibilities of stage work in this most demanding of theater arts.

Centennial commemorations of the Ballets Russes have included performances of existing repertory, academic conferences, publications, exhibitions, and re-imagined productions of celebrated but submerged ballets. Around Boston we enjoyed a feast of spring events: a three-day symposium accompanied by performances and an exhibition of artifacts from the Harvard Theatre Collection; an academic conference surrounded by musical concerts at Boston University; a program of three revivals and a new work by Boston Ballet; and various film showings, talks and publications. For BU's "Spirit of Diaghilev" conference, the organizer and keynote speaker, dance historian Lynn Garafola, offered a new formulation of the commonly accepted narrative. Instead of picturing a "Ballets Russes" brand that glowed for two decades and then gradually exchanged its creative luster for a flickering retrospective celebrity, Garafola saw the initial energy renewing itself and evolving into the present time. Once the company no longer existed, its surviving players carried on with the ballets and the collaborative practices they had known, transforming what had been an experimental movement into a ballet mainstream. World War II constituted a cultural watershed as the arts rebuilt themselves in Europe. Spurred by the zeal of critics, collectors, and directors, the Ballets Russes repertory was revived through the filter of new institutions, new international influences. A fourth era stemmed out of the counterculture of the 1960s, when historicizing scholarship and reconstructed productions brought the works into new perspective.

As Garafola pointed out, the combination of severe economics and divergent public taste has curtailed the visibility of the Ballets Russes on our stages. Virtually all Diaghilev's participants are gone; there's only a slim chance now of discovering documents, films, or memoirs to supply firsthand information to historians and producers of revivals. The ballets are more apt to be re-imagined or parodied than given fresh revivals. But only by coming to life on the stage can the Ballets Russes be fully experienced.

The central paradox is that the ballets of legend no longer exist. No ballet does, from whatever period, but the Ballets Russes has been so influential and so mythologized that we take its products for granted. Peter Rand, executive director of Ballets Russes 2009 at Boston University, started two years ago to put together a citywide concentration of events that came to include concerts, exhibitions, and screenings, most of them including both original material and new work inspired by the Russes. Obviously Boston Ballet's participation was crucial. The company did arrange a suitable program, but the six performances took place the week before the BU conference. It would have been enlightening to have live ballets to look at while we were considering their repercussions.

After a renaissance in the 1970s and '80s, owing in large part to the exemplary efforts of Robert Jeffrey, historical works have receded as a presence in the active ballet repertory. …

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