The great impresario of the Ballet Russes, Serge Diaghilev, not only created a prominent art movement, but he also contributed to the downfall of its historic remembrance. By strictly controlling the viewing of Ballet Russes productions and prohibiting video recordings, many documents were not properly archived or were simply never recorded. This means that while the most famous performances have been continued into modern times, many popular performances of the day, which fell out of the repertoire, now exist only in fragments. ((Jack Anderson, The One and Only: The Ballet Russes de Monte Carlo (New York: Dance Horizons, 1981), 263)) Thus while the legacy continues to inspire new artists, their magic is dissipating, hampering future art enthusiasts from experiencing the full works, the complete gesamtkunstwerk of the Ballet Russes. ((Adrian George, “The Art of Dance”, Dance Theatre Journal 18, no. 2 (2002): 20.))
In many aspects of the Ballet Russes Diaghilev was forward thinking and cognizant of evolving media forms and platforms, however he ignored the largest growing media of video recordings almost completely. Diaghilev stated that he banned video recordings of his productions in order to “protect theatrical box office earnings”, however a single thirty-second clip rehearsal of Les Sylphides has evaded the redaction of Diaghilev. ((Diaghilev and the Ballet Russes, produced by the National Gallery of Art (2013), DVD.)) It is unclear how the illegal recording was produced; all that is gained from the short clip are women rehearsing outside in the Swiss resort of Montreux. ((Ibid)) While Diaghilev encouraged and surrounded himself with artists of diverse backgrounds and talents, the one neglected art form was video. Diaghilev was not usually obstinate when considering new technologies on the rise, even the relatively new practice of specific lighting of performances captured Diaghilev’s attention, as he personally choreographed the lighting for the majority of productions, it was the specific art form that seemed to bother him, however the lighting of performances remains to be incomplete because interpretations of documentation (when it exists) vary for every historian. ((Barry Jackson, “Diaghilev: Lighting Designer”, Dance Chronicle 14, no. 1 (1991): 3, 12))
Without film documentation, each aspect of the Ballet Russes can be reexamined separately, but in separating the components each contribution looses some of its significance. One of the long time choreographers of the Ballet Russes, Leonide Massine, actively archived his work for future use, but even these efforts are only partially recovered. ((Anderson, 263)) It is possible for diligent choreographers and dancers to collaborate in the modern day and piece together parts of formerly popular librettos, as when the three lone recoverable sections of Seventh Symphony were revived in 2004. ((Ibid)) Diaghilev was not against taking inspiration from film, as in Parade produced in 1917. ((Robert C. Hansen, Scenic and Costume Design for the Ballet Russes (Ann Arbor, Michigan: UMI Research Press, 1985), 59)) Abstract costumes in the cubist style of two managers along with a Chinese Conjurer dance along side an American girl inspired by Hollywood actresses of the day, while sounds of modernization blare in the background; typewriters, horns and contrasting sounds mimic an industrial city center. ((Ibid.; Lynn Garafola, “Dance, film, and the Ballet Russes”, Dance Research: The Journal Of The Society For Dance Research 16, no. 1 (Summer 1998): 15))
While Diaghilev attempted to protect he artistic creations produced by the Ballet Russes, he ultimately hindered the longevity of performances by excluding video or archival recording of productions. The most visually alluring aspect of the Ballet Russes was the costumes and their interplay of motion with the music, but this combination cannot be observed for all productions anymore because choreography has been lost and hinders recreations of the masterpieces. Due to the lack of many complete remaining works of the Ballet Russes, modern ballet companies have developed to carry on traditions of Diaghilev, and explore their own methods of art expression, including direct descendants The American Ballet Theatre, New York City Ballet, and the San Francisco Ballet Company are direct descendants of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. ((Diaghilev and the Ballet Russes, produced by the National Gallery of Art (2013), DVD.))
Given the result of eschewing new technology, would Diaghilev reconsider his decision if he could have seen into the future? It is likely he would not. Revolutionary artists understand that great art combines talent and vision, but is a product of its time and place, and that art is something vital which everyone has the potential to actualize. How we perceive the world affects everything we do; art is a way of seeing and being – impacting not only our senses but our conception of reality. Art as inspiration, not imitation – finding one’s voice –is an endeavor that Diaghilev would applaud. Everyone has their seed of creativity to discover and develop in their own way.
The opening seasons of the Ballet Russes in Paris was a unique explosion and intermingling of culture, merging east and west into an entirely new modern style. At the head of this movement was Leon Bakst, who was the chief designer for the Ballet Russes from 1909 to 1913. Bakst became synonymous with the Ballet Russes in these opening seasons, as he introduced Europe to the mysterious Russian culture and color palette. Through Bakst’s artistic vision, the Ballet Russes ushered in a new modern era of design by infusing ‘oriental’ aspects into then drab and bland fashions of the day in Paris, which have held lasting influences permeating multiple spheres of society, chiefly every day and high fashion.
In designing for the Ballet Russes Leon Bakst kept in mind Serge Diaghilev’s goal of the German term gesamtkunstwerk, or the total work of art in order to display Russians ability to be refined and cultured and dispel the stereotype of Russians as uncultured barbarians. ((Adrian George, “The Art of Dance”, Dance Theatre Journal 18, no. 2 (2002): 20.; Christine Ruane, The Empire’s New Clothes: A History of the Russian Fashion Industry, 1700-1917 (New Haven, London: Yale University Press, 2009), 180.)) In order to achieve this total work of art Bakst was heavily involved through the entire creative process of the ballets which he was involved with, from the conception of costume movement through choreography to the coordination between the costumes movement against scene backdrops. In the opening seasons of the Ballet Russes in Paris, Diaghilev was under immense pressure to succeed and prove his place among Parisian society, and he put much of his faith in Bakst. A few years before Bakst began designing for the Ballet Russes, his 1908 work ‘Acacia Branch Above the Sea’ astonished viewers with it unexpected composition and color scheme, deftly combining vibrant blues, greens, yellows and pinks. ((Leon Bakst, Léon Bakst: Set and Costume Designs, Book Illustrations, Paintings and Graphic Works, Comp. Irina Nikolaevna Pruzhan, (Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Viking, 1987), 14)) When designing ballets Bakst was able to retain this spontaneity and allowed these ideas form years prior to influence the color theory for his Oriental ballet designs. Of the three oriental themed ballets Bakst produced, Cleopatre, Scheherazade and Narcisse, by far the most notable was Scheherazade.
A box office sensation of the ballet’s second Paris season, Scheherazade brought life to the artistically stagnant Paris art scene. When the curtain first rose on the set for Scheherazade in 1910, audiences were so enthralled with the color contrasts that the theater burst into applause, anticipating the spectacle to come. ((Robert C. Hansen, Scenic and Costume Design for the Ballet Russes (Ann Arbor, Michigan: UMI Research Press, 1985), 25.; Suzanne Massie, Land of the Firebird (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1980), 437.)) Prior to the travels of the Ballet Russes, Russian culture was stereotyped as barbaric and backwards, nonetheless the public changed their opinion once they set eyes on Diaghilev’s total work of art. ((George, 20.)) One critic called this performance “Bakst’s debauch of color”, and Scheherazade truly was the Parisians first foray into Eastern art and color theories because Parisians had become accustomed to muted colors on the stage and in fashion houses. ((Massie, 437, Bakst, 176))
Europe had been infatuated with the mysterious East, and the Parisian audience at long last got a taste of the ‘exotic’, readily embracing the colors, designs and attitudes of the Orient. Parisian couturier House of Worth exemplifies trends before the influences of the Ballet Russes were materialized in the corseted dress below, creating an hourglass figure, constructed with muted and pale colors of beige, pink and grey. This dress is reminiscent of imperial court clothing, and the backlash to the extreme structure came in the form of reinterpretations of Bakst’s costumes in clothing. The slim silhouette rose in popularity along with brighter colors, usually as embroidery, and comfort in less restrictive materials. ((Bakst, 178)) As the predominance of Bakst inspired clothing rose, popularity of Scheherazade parties among women became fashionable, where they would wear harem pants, turbans and other loosely fitting clothing, creating a new and modern social scene ((Diaghilev and the Ballet Russes, produced by the National Gallery of Art (2013), DVD.))
Scheherazade truly was a seminal production of the Ballet Russes, marking a defining moment in the creation and development of modernity. ((Bakst, 177)) As one British photographer recorded, seemingly overnight Parisians shed the restraining corsets, lace, feathers, and pastel shades in favor of vivid colors, harem skirts, beads, fringe, and voluptuousness silhouettes. ((Ibid., 178)) In his costume designs Bakst intended for his costumes to be “inseparable from the dance”, this interdependence and emphasis on motion and comfort for the dancers also served to free modern women from the constraints of heavy and drab clothing. ((Michelle Potter, “Designed for Dance: The Costumes of Léon Bakst and the Art of Isadora Duncan,” Dance Chronicle, 1990, 168)) Though to a lesser degree men also experienced liberation from former dress constraints and greater allowances in expression through clothing. ((Ruane, 178))
The unintended fashion revolution initiated by Bakst’s costumes gave way to an altered body image through the fusion of the East brought to the West by Diaghlev. The “modernist body” image created space for the Parisian couturiers to expand upon the ballet costumes to daily attire. ((Ibid., 179)) Bakst had suddenly become the authority on modern fashion, with the top couturiers of the day drawing inspiration from Bakst’s designs along with inter design following suit with oriental furniture, textiles, and designs coming into fashion. ((Bakst, 25)) Historically, ballet costumes restricted dancers’ movements with tight tutus, slippers and fabrics with exotic motifs, but displaced on similarly constructed garments. ((Roger Leong, From Russia With Love: Costumes for the Ballet Russes 1909-1933 (Australia: National Gallery of Australia, 1998), 40)) In his desire to bring greater historical accuracy in costume design, Bakst also provide dancers with more natural body motions and freedom of expression of sexuality and androgyny. ((Ibid.))
Vaslav Nijinski and Isadora Duncan challenged androgyny and sexuality of stage fashion in Europe, eliciting emotional expression in their audiences. Nijinski was an exceptional dancer who gracefully explored the boundaries of masculinity in his dance roles, displaying Bakst’s creations to wide audiences. The inspiration of Isadora Duncan led Bakst to develop the famous costumes for Nijinski as his muse. ((Potter, 158)) As an advocate for freedom of motion to increase choreographic integrity, Isadora performed in sheer and un-constricted costumes to allow form and rhythm to correspond. ((Ibid., 166)) In designing stage wear, Bakst often put music as a later consideration, but through the inspiration of Duncan Bakst gained an awareness of movement in relation to the libretto ((Leong, 36)) The new freedom of women’s clothing brought on through Duncan’s guidance was a welcome change because it gave women greater opportunities to directly participate in the artistic movement while challenging social norms. ((Ibid., 158)) Parisian society at the time was receptive to radical ballets like Scheherazade because society was anxious for a catalyst of change. At the time the nouveaux riches and déclassé aristocrats were challenging the cultural hegemony of the ruling elites in France, as the Ballet Russes simultaneously challenged decades of prescribed dance form and theater. ((Ruane, 177)) As described by Ruane, the “emotional content of the ballet converged with the emotional needs of the audiences”; this connection intertwined the Ballet Russes and France from that point forward in the journey to modernization. ((Ibid.))
Although one of the original factors that brought the Ballet Ruses to Paris was the goal of strengthening Russian and French relationships in the hopes of gaining financial aid, the company also carried other aspirations. In the early 1900s France was one of the leading powers of the world, while Russia was in economic turmoil. The Ballet Russes personified the Russian peoples’ desire to become a successful Asian colonial power and eventually compete with Britain and France. ((Ibid.)) By modernizing and absorbing France’s way of life and presenting the Eastern Russian culture as legitimate interpreters of the western traditions, French culture also became imbued with new perspectives on culture. ((Ibid.)). Fashion was one sphere in which the Russians had the upper hand of influence in the early 1900s, as the Scheherazade design became a fashion craze. The larger implications of this impression spread Russian culture as a modern authority on expression of sensuality of music through color and design choices throughout Europe, allowing Russian designers to be accepted into high couturier circles of fashion. ((Ibid., 180, Bakst, 24)) the new definition of modern fashion sensibilities developed from a synthesis of East and West; firmly rooting and defining modernity in the growing global economy and flow of fashion and ideas.
Emerging from Tsarist Russia and the turbulent early years of the twentieth century, the Ballet Russes was a hugely influential and revolutionary era in the arts that altered the interactions of art, music and dance for generations to follow. The ballet troupe lasted from 1909 to 1929 when the impresario Serge Diaghilev unexpectedly died. In order to fully grasp the movement created by Diaghilev it is essential to have a clear understanding of its origins and the motivations behind what became such a diverse array of talents. This combination gave rise to the colorful and impactful first modern ballet company of the twentieth century: the Ballet Russes. ((Robert C. Hansen, Scenic and Costume Design for the Ballet Russes (Ann Arbor, Michigan: UMI Research Press, 1985), 1-2.))
Many factors lead to the rise of the Ballet Russes and Russian society at the time to allow its acceptance of an artistic movement. The abolition of serfdom in the 1860’s led to the rise of the bourgeoisie, and the so-called “silver age” in Russia when nationalism and internationalism sentiments were cultivated through the arts. ((Ibid., 1.)) The two historical capitols of Russia, Moscow and Saint Petersburg, developed and influenced separately because of their geography. While the historical Russian capitol, Moscow, was then viewed as antiquated, its distance from the controlling influence of the tsar’s imperial courts of Saint Petersburg allowed for greater freedom in the development of nationalism and the avant-garde movement. ((Ibid)) Petersburg was known in Russia at the time as the window to the west and a European city because it was modeled after Versailles, and thus became a center for international arts and ideas. ((Ibid., 2.)) As the imperial courts and the tsar resided in Petersburg, the imperial artists directly monitored the development of arts and artistic movements with little variation.
Originally in Petersburg to pursue a law degree, Serge Diaghilev began integrating himself into the artistic community. Diaghilev would singlehandedly become the most influential artistic director in Russia through his eventual orchestrate the direction of the Ballet Russes. At school, Diaghilev joined a band of art lovers comprised of Alexandre Benois, Walter Nouvel, Dima Filosofov, Constantine Somov and Leon Bakst. ((Anna Winestein, “Quiet Revolutionaries: The ‘Mir Iskusstva’ Movement and Russian Design,” Journal of Design History 21, no. 4 (2008): 315.)) Calling themselves the Nevsky Pickwickians, their mission was to discuss the arts and “ideas for an artistic society” which they strove to synthesize. ((Ibid., 316.)) The Pickwickians were one among multiple social artistic circles; another of the time was the Mamontov art circle. ((Lynn Garafola, Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), 151.))
Although Diaghilev is often credited with the creation of diverse artistic groups in Russia, Savva Ivanovich Mamontov, one of Russia’s original premiere patrons of the arts in the late 1800s played a hugely influential role. Mamontov was able to support artistic endeavors through his wealth accumulated in investment in the Russian railroads. ((Lynn Garafola, Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes,150; Hansen, 4.)) Centered in his estate at Abramtzevo, Mamontov’s Art circle created the first private opera company. ((Hansen, 4.)) The synthesis of artists, costume designers and performers was the first such merger of art forms never before achieved in Russia or in the Western world. ((Garafola, Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes, 151)) Although the creation of the Mamontov Art circle was revolutionary, the results achieved were scattered and criticized because they suffered from a lack of cohesion among the disparate elements, and eventually this was the downfall of the private opera company. ((Ibid))
Diaghilev was aware of Mamontov’s artistic experiments at Abramtzevo, and first became acquainted with Mamontov at an art exhibition which he had organized in Saint Petersburg. Diaghilev and the Pickwickians were so taken by the unique combinations of Mamontov, that the group quickly thereafter formalized their admiration of art in the formation of Mir Iskusstva (World of Art), an arts magazine evaluating everything from music, art, and performances. Hence, the magazine transitioned their social society into a “semi-professional, public enterprise” with the financial support of Mamontov and other art enthusiasts. ((Ibid)) Under Diaghilev’s leadership and direction Mir Iskusstva flourished, due to the aversion of sectarian causes, and rediscovery of Russia’s artistic heritage. ((Hansen, 9-10.))
Among Diaghilev’s innovations was to promote the finest associations of artists, choreographers and composers. Cut off from Russia after the war and Soviet revolution, he orchestrated ground-breaking artistic collaborations among young choreographers, composers, designers, and dancers, all at the forefront of their several fields. ((Garafola, Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes, 199)) This included Paris-based artists Pablo Picasso, André Derain, Henri Matisse, Georges Rouault, Georges Braque, Giorgio de Chirico and Chanel to design for his productions. ((Hansen, 1-15)) Although most of his original company were resident performers at the Imperial Ballet of Saint Petersburg, Diaghilev hired them to perform in Paris during the Imperial Ballet’s summer holidays. ((Diaghilev and the Ballet Russes, produced by the National Gallery of Art (2013), DVD.)) The Ballets Russes was based in Paris and performed throughout Europe and on tours to North and South America. ((Hansen, 333)) The company never performed in Russia, where the Revolution disrupted society. After its initial Paris season, the company had no formal ties there. Noteworthy to Diaghilev’s artistic achievements in revolutionizing the then 400-year old art of ballet is the political backdrop of the times: Russian revolutions of 1905 and 1917 and World War I. Despite the dangers of travel and bitter European rivalries, art not only prevailed but flourished.