History of Ballet Series; Volume 5, Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes

Did you know that for one season of The Nutcracker, California Ballet Company goes through over 100 pointe shoes, 600 pounds of dry ice, and rehearses over 200 hours – and all to bring you the magic and wonder of Tchaikovsky’s classic ballet! We do it because we love it, and because we adore being able to enchant thousands of people each year with the beauty and splendor of America’s favorite Holiday ballet!


So be sure to join us for the thirty-ninth year of California Ballet’s The Nutcracker! 

Call 858-560-6741 for tickets or go online to www.californiaballet.org.

Now, without further ado, let’s talk about Diaghilev and how one man forever changed the world of ballet:

There are a few companies in the history of ballet that stand out in our minds: the Paris Opera Ballet, the Imperial Ballet, the Bolshoi Ballet, to name a few. Each had their place in history, and each contributed to the width, breadth, and depth of the art form we love so very much. Few, however, have had such a profound impact and  prolific career in an amazingly short amount of time as Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. The company functioned more as a traveling artists’ commune than a ballet company, employing the skills and talents of famous dancers, choreographers, composers, artists, and librettists. This unprecedented artistic collaboration led to groundbreaking changes in the world of dance.

But where to start the story of the Ballets Russes?

SergeiDiaghilev  Serge Diaghilev

The company’s story is truly the story of a man: Serge Diaghilev. The Ballets Russes was his company from beginning to end, and his vision is what made it possible.


Born to a wealthy Russian family, Diaghilev was privileged to have the finest education in Imperial Russia. Originally studying law, Diaghilev quickly discovered a love for music and art. Early on he was informed of his total lack of musicality and, instead of practicing art, pursued further education and enrichment abroad to enable him to become a critic and producer.


Diaghilev spent a number of years as part of a group called The Pickwickians. This group consisted of some of the greatest artistic minds of the time, and Diaghilev found himself in good company. The group, with some private backing, founded the journal Mir Iskusstva (World of Art) in 1899. This journal was pivotal in igniting an artistic revolution in early 20th century Russia, and it’s promotion of artistic individuality led almost directly to the founding of the Ballet Russes.

Pickwickians The Pickwickians

In 1907, Alexander Benois (a Pickwickian contemporary of Diaghilev) sought to bring the new face of Russian art to Western Europe by producing Russian nationalist opera in Paris. He did so with the help of Diaghilev. The performances were so well received that plans for the following year were developed right away, this time including ballet on the program, and once again received with critical acclaim. By the time the group returned to Paris for the summer of 1909, ballet was the only item on the menu, Diaghilev had seized the reigns entirely, and the Ballet Russes was officially founded.


Imagine a group consisting of these names: Anna Pavolva, Adolph Bolm, Vaslav Nijinsky, Tamara Karsavina, Vera Fokina, Michel Fokine, and Igor Stravinski. The dancers and choreographers were loaned out by the Imperial Ballet for the off season and, under Diaghilev’s direction, these greats were brought together. \

On May 19, 1909, the Ballet Russes debuted in their premiere performance!

Well, the first season was a complete triumph! The Paris Opera trumpeted every aspect of the Ballet Russes, leading Diaghilev to plan future seasons and future tours through Europe to the United States, and beyond. The face of ballet was forever changed. Why, you ask? The company’s performances did things that had never before been seen on the ballet stage, and changed the focus of the art form irrevocably.

Up until 1909, ballet had been centered around telling stories, creating divertissements,  showcasing the female dancers, placing emphasis on the corps de ballet. Diaghilev and his Ballet Russes were having none of it.

Instead, the male dancer was brought back to the forefront (remember, the legendary Nijinsky was the premiere danseur), the dance form’s expressiveness was showcased by freeing up the vocabulary from a previously prescribed dictionary of dance steps, and an emphasis was placed on individual dancers that hadn’t been previously seen. But these were all minor changes compared to two major.

 MichelFokine Michel Fokine

Two to three act ballets had previously dominated the ballet scene. Michel Fokine had long felt that this stifled ballet’s creativity, and instead, under the Ballet Russes, set one act pieces that presented a single, unified theme throughout the piece. Gone were the days of ballets that showcased the corporeal versus the mystic. No longer did we see a showcase of styles from across the world. The shorter pieces were allowed to focus on a single theme, and thereby create a fulfilling treatment of that theme (remember, Fokine is best known for creating such amazing one act ballets as Les Sylphides and  Petrushka.) Even better, a single evening would consist of two or three of these one act ballets, allowing the spectators to get more bang for their buck!

The second major change was the collaboration mentioned before. With Diaghilev’s broad education in the arts, he quickly realized there was a lot to be gleaned from the other art forms. Poets were brought on to write the librettos, famous painters (Picasso and Matisse are examples) were asked to design and paint the sets, incredible composers like Stravinsky and Debussy wrote the scores, costumes would be designed by fashion designers like Coco Chanel, world-renowned as well as up-and-coming choreographers created the movement (many choreographers worked for the company over its two decades, such as Fokine, Nijinsky, Massine, and a young Balanchine).

The end result of this amazing meeting of minds? Let’s begin by naming a list of ballets that came out of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes:

  • Petrushka
  • The Firebird
  • Petrushka
  • Les Sylphides
  • Scheherazade
  • Carnival
  • The Rite of Spring
  • Apollo


And that’s just a few. The entire repertoire for the company numbered fifty! That may not seem like an incredible amount, until you realized that Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes only existed for twenty years. The ballets listed above are considered classic and central parts of many companies’ repertoires today, but were they widely well-received for their debuts? Not always.

The Rite of Spring caused an audience riot during its debut. Petrushkas score was considered too dissonant by most theatre goers. Massine’s Parade was unenthusiastically received by an audience that wasn’t ready for Picasso’s cubism. This is bound to happen when pioneering the face of an art form. Yet, out of this tumultuous landscape came pieces that were automatically praised, such as Balanchine’s Apollo and Fokine’s Les Sylphides. Whatever the initial reaction, there can be no denial that each an every piece has come to be widely accepted as ballet masterpieces.

And they all started with Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes.

The body of the company changed many times over its lifetime. Anna Pavlova left almost immediately to pursue her own goals and her own company. In 1912, Fokine left the company out of jealousy over Diaghilev’s close association with Nijinsky. In 1919 Nijinsky was diagnosed with schizophrenia, which effectively ended his career. These are just a few examples of changes within the company’s body.

Over the years, however, the company’s face remained the same. That face was, of course, Serge Diaghilev. As mentioned before, the Ballets Russes was his company from beginning to end. On August 19, 1929, Serge Diaghilev died in Venice from complications caused by diabetes. With his death, so too died the Ballet Russes. The company scattered, the rights to ballets were sold by collectors to cover debts, and a short, albeit scintillating, era came to an end.

DiaghilevGravestone Diaghilev’s Grave in San Michele 

The company would be reformed under the name Ballet Russes di Montecarlo, and again as The Original Ballet Russes, but without Diaghilev’s guiding vision, neither would have the impact of the first.

For twenty years, the Ballet Russes led the world to a new appreciation of ballet, but it was Serge Diaghilev’s vision that redefined the centuries-old art form.


Next in the History of Ballet series: Ballet after Diaghilev!


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