A HUNDRED years ago this May 18, in Paris, the Ballets Russes — a Russian company that never performed in Russia — gave its first performance and had an epoch-making triumph. “Le tout Paris” (government ministers, society hostesses, artists, star performers, couturiers) was present; eminent foreign figures too. After the second ballet, the Polovtsian Dances from Borodin’s opera “Prince Igor” (in a production having its world premiere), the audience charged backstage.
The dancers warming up for the final ballet found themselves observed by the hungry eyes of Parisians aware that history had already been made. Apart from the sheer sensation the French recognized that a revolution had begun in dance theater and even in aesthetics. Here was the peak of artistic ensemble. In each piece dancers, music and design were all top level, combined into a different but complete harmony. A few decades before, Wagner had proposed the total work of art (Gesamtkunstwerk) in which music, design and drama would join on equal terms. But now Serge Diaghilev, the impresario behind the Ballets Russes, was giving audiences three Gesamtkunstwerks an evening, and with a quality of movement that no Wagnerian opera had ever known. He went on doing it for 21 seasons, stopping only with his death in 1929, after which his company promptly folded.
This centenary of the Ballets Russes is being celebrated by exhibitions, symposiums and performances from Salt Lake City to Sydney. It’s possible that the year will do as much to honor Diaghilev’s company as the last big anniversary, the 50th of his death in 1979. In these last 30 years, however, our view of the Ballets Russes has changed.
A performace of “Les Biches” by the Royal Ballet in 2005. A hundred years ago this May 18, in Paris, the Ballets Russes, led by Serge Diaghilev, gave its first performance and had an epoch-making triumph. Photo: Bill Cooper – www.nytimes.com
“The Afternoon of a Faun,” performed by the Joffrey Ballet. Diaghilev’s troupe performed for 21 seasons, stopping only with his death in 1929, after which his company promptly folded. Photo: Herbert Migdoll – www.nytimes.com
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