The Ballet Russes: Not a Museum Piece

          The Ballet Russes is universally acknowledged as the most influential ballet company in history. Founded in Paris in 1909 by the Russian impresario Serge Diaghilev, the style of the company’s dancers forever changed ballet, and its choreography is still performed all over the world. Yet, often the Ballet Russes’ contributions in ballet seem secondary in comparison to its contributions in the visual arts. Through countless major museum exhibitions over the years—three were held in the past four years alone in London, Washington D.C., and Boston—the Ballet Russes has become known almost entirely through its association with famous artists who collaborated with the company, such as Picasso and Matisse. Juliet Bellow, author of Modernism on Stage, writes, “The complex connections between modernisms in dance and the plastic arts largely have been overlooked—perhaps, because, like decoration, dance traditionally has been considered a “minor” art form.”[1] Collectively these exhibitions generate the idea that the Ballet Russes is the only era of ballet worthy of such serious artistic consideration solely because of the company’s association with these well-known artists. 

          Although the collaborations between these artists and the company are significant, the Ballet Russes was first and foremost a ballet company. The organization did not, in fact, disappear in 1929 with Diaghilev’s death, but its dancers and choreographers continued to impact the world through its two succeeding companies, Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and Original Ballet Russe, while its choreography continues to captivate audiences today. The Ballet Russes was not a brief glitch in history that can only be resurrected when dragged out of mothballs and stuck in a museum display case. The Ballet Russes lives.

          The company was a product of its time. Diaghilev, along with all his dancers, was a Russian refugee living in Paris after the Russian Revolution in 1905. He had been part of an elite circle in Russia that wanted to restore ballet to a place of high culture in Europe. As historian Jennifer Homans writes, “The Ballet Russes seemed to fuse all of the underlying currents of Modernism into a single electrifying charge.”[2] Diaghilev brought in an incredible array of contemporary artists in addition to Picasso and Matisse, such as Stravinsky, Chanel, Rodin, Ravel, and Debussy, all collaborating with the company as designers and composers. The company fused modern art, music, and dance onstage to create new spectacles the world had never seen.

          This fusion can be seen in Anton Dolin’s Le Train bleu, first performed in 1924, with costumes by Chanel and set design by Picasso. The sets create a sense of an unnatural, fragmented space, while the costumes appear as contemporary athletic clothes. These elements are then animated  through the awkward, pedestrian movements of the dancers who move within this skewed view of the modern world.

          Diaghilev hired not only the best artists to collaborate with the company but also the most cutting-edge choreographers and dancers of the time. Bellow writes that the choreographers of the Ballet Russes “tested the limits of the body as an artistic medium—emphasizing its most extreme possibilities and abstract formations.”[3] So not only did the idea of Modernism exist in the company’s sets, but it also existed in the types of movements that the Ballet Russes brought to the stage. The company redefined the classical technique of the nineteenth century, which had been dominated by the Russian Imperial ballet master Marius Petipa. The traditional Petipa ballets such as Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, and Raymonda comprised steps derived solely from classical technique, which creates extremely precise and linear movements. These ballets were characterized by large numbers of corps de ballet dancers moving about in uniform patterns. The Ballet Russes, however, began to use a variety of unconventional movements: twisting torsos, abrupt shifts of weight, stamping feet and flexed wrists and ankles. The company combined elements of traditional Russian folk dancing with the classical training of the dancers to create something entirely new.

          Perhaps the most famous and notorious ballet that demonstrates this idea is Vaslav Nijinsky’s Rite of Spring, which nearly started a riot during its debut in 1913. Accounts vary, but most claim that blows were exchanged, objects were thrown onstage, and at least one person was challenged to a duel on account of the performance’s controversial style and content.[4] A Russian correspondent exclaimed, “A real Paris scandal!”[5] The ballet went against every established ballet tradition. Nijinsky’s choreography was jarring and rough, filled with harsh, awkward poses and movements that were matched by Igor Stravinsky’s energetic and complicated modern score. The steps were purposefully uncoordinated, forcing the upper and lower body extremities to move in opposing rhythms.

          Like a Cubist painting, Rite of Spring was a deconstruction of classical ballet. It was not traditional in any sense: there was no easy narrative, the choreography left no room for individual interpretation or self-expression, and there were no conventional visual cues for the audience to discern the action. As Homans points out, “It was a defining moment in ballet history.”[6] The ballet completely disregarded the long-held tradition in classical ballet that revolved around the ideas of aristocratic nobility, visual clarity, and morality. Instead, Rite of Spring took its inspiration from a variety of Slavic and Russian folklore traditions. Its vague storyline centered on a primitive tribe performing a human sacrifice to a pagan god. Nothing like this had ever been performed in a modern-day European theater.

         Perhaps these ideas of experimentation, revolution, and controversy are what keep such a remarkable level of intrigue around Rite of Spring and make it one of the most re-choreographed ballets in history; it has been re-choreographed at least 200 times by different established choreographers.[7] One of the most recent versions was created by the artistic director of Houston Ballet, Stanton Welch. His interpretation, like many others, is directly influenced by Nijinsky’s original choreography. It is heavy and explosive, incorporating many of the same turned-in and awkward gestures of the original ballet. Furthermore, if one wishes to see Nijinsky’s Rite of Spring, the Joffrey Ballet in Chicago has been performing the original choreography ever since 1989, brought back to life after years of research.[8]

          Another landmark ballet that was created at the Ballet Russes was George Balanchine’s Apollo, first performed in 1928. Also composed by Stravinsky, the score is magnificent and grand, providing the perfect backdrop to Balanchine’s meticulous choreography. Both the score and the choreography are unmistakably classical, yet profoundly modern at the same time. Balanchine’s movements are classical steps that also include occasional jutting hip lines, flexed feet and hands, and contraction of the upper body to produce a slouched, concave back. During his solo, Apollo begins with his legs pressed firmly together in a fifth position, one of the foundation positions of classical technique. He then pulls his arms up over his head. Instead of using his arms in elegant, classical positions to match his leg placement, however, his arms are flexed tightly around his head, creating a distortion to the classical pose he had just created. He then leaps up to beat his legs together three times to perform an entrechat six, a step used in classical technique, but then lands on the floor on one knee, his body hunched over with his back concaved and his arms flexed behind him. Here, Balanchine is creating dynamism through interesting distortions of traditional steps rather than relying solely on bravura tricks as would exist in a Petipa ballet.

          If Rite of Spring is similar to Picasso’s Demoiselle D’Avignon (1907) in its visceral, angular, and harshly physical movements, then Apollo is more like Matisse’s Dance (1909): an abstraction of the classical with limited colors containing a sense of freedom bound by restriction. The ballet is not divided into strict sections, as a full-length traditional Russian ballet would contain, where pauses in the music signal the beginning of a new section in the dance. Instead, Balanchine’s dancers lunge and extend from one part into another, eliminating the sense of pause, and creating a greater sense of the Gesamthkunstwerk, or total work of art. These ideas had never before been realized so successfully in ballet.

          Almost all of contemporary ballet today can be traced back to Apollo, which is still performed throughout the world. Even when compared with current standards, the technical difficulty of the steps is extraordinary, which speaks volumes not only to the technical ability of the Ballet Russes dancers, but also to their courageous and experimental spirit. To perform the role of Apollo is considered today to be one of the hallmark achievements of a male classical dancer. In the 1979 article “The Life and Times of Balanchine’s Apollo,” New York Times dance critic Allen Hughes wrote, “Fifty-one years have passed since Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes gave their first performance of [Apollo]… but time has done nothing to diminish the allure and appeal of the ballet.”[9] And in a 2012 ballet review for The Daily of the University of Washington, critic Alisa Reznick called the choreography “fresh,”[10] a remarkable statement for a ballet that is almost one hundred years old. Almost a century later, Apollo is still having a profound impact on audiences.

          Many other Ballet Russes works are still performed around the world today and have become ballet archetypes. Despite a progression in ballet technique over the past one hundred years, these ballets continue to provide profound challenges to today’s dancers, both technically and artistically. Therefore, it was the Ballet Russes dancers themselves who made these great innovations in choreography possible.

          The Ballet Russes launched the careers of a whole new generation of dancers, including Tamara Karsavina, Alexandra Danilova, Mikhail Fokine, Alicia Markova and Vaslav Nijinsky. Homans writes, “The ballerinas in particular were physically distinctive: long an lithe, with smooth lines, evenly developed muscles, and a soft sensuality.”[11] When comparing the physical attributes and technical abilities of the older Russian prima ballerinas such as Anna Pavlova with the new Ballet Russes dancers such as Alicia Markova, it becomes clear that the Ballet Russes had started a shift towards increased flexibility and longer, leaner muscles. This was in part due to Enrico Cecchetti, the company’s ballet master and one of its principal teachers. Cecchetti’s teaching style focused on repetition during training as well as the development of technical tricks, particularly multiple pirouettes. This training gave the dancers the physical capabilities to redefine ballet. While capable of bravura stunts, the dancers were able to develop flowing, sinuous movements that emphasized flexibility.[12] This quality of movement was then exploited and developed by the company choreographers, like Balanchine in his Apollo.

          Following in the Italian tradition of the virtuoso male dancer as the hero, the Ballet Russes dancers like Vaslav Nijinsky pushed the limits of male dancing. To the their Parisian audiences, Nijinsky was a revelation, and his persona onstage constantly changed. At times he was animalistic and powerful, while at other times he was androgynous, sensual, and nymph-like. Through photographs and descriptions, it can be said that the quality of Nijinsky’s movement was remarkable, balancing speed and elasticity with tension and power. He was less concerned with static posses and trained hard to perform at an accelerated pace with high energy. His influence can be seen not only in the qualities of other male dancers of the time period, but also decades later with premier dancers like Rudolf Nureyev.

          From choreography to dancing, and from scenery to costume design, Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes was a place where innovation reigned supreme. In 1929, however, Serge Diaghilev died, and with his death, the Ballet Russes disbanded. Although this era of the company ended, it was not—as most museum exhibitions forget to mention—the end of the Ballet Russes’ spirit. Two years later, in 1931, two affluent men in Monte Carlo, Wasily de Basil and Rene Blum, decided to resurrect Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes. They hired Diaghilev’s dancers as well as some new ones, hired George Balanchine as ballet master, and gathered all of Diaghilev’s incredible sets and costumes. They called the new company The Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. It was this company that carried on the tradition of innovation in dance and art pioneered by Diaghilev and would also expose millions of Americans to ballet.

          The company’s opening seasons contained all ballets choreographed by Diaghilev choreographers: Balanchine, Leonide Massine, Bronislava Nijinska, and Michel Fokine, who had been the main resident choreographer with the Ballet Russes. These artists pushed and trained the new organization in the same fashion as had been done in Diaghilev’s company. Nathalia Krassovska reminisces in the documentary film Ballet Russes about her experience working with Michel Fokine during the staging of his Les Sylphide, “He was very demanding… All that work and tears. I cried.”[13] The older generation of Diaghilev’s dancers was now training and molding an entirely new generation of Ballet Russes dancers. The critics heralded the new company and the new dancers.[14]

          In 1932, Leonide Massine, a former dancer with Diaghilev, was considered the greatest choreographer in the world[15] and was hired as the new artistic director of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. Massine choreographed three new ballets for the company in only a few short months and brought in artists like Henri Matisse and Salvador Dali to design the sets. It was as if Diaghilev had never died. Furthermore, Massine hired two prima ballerinas from Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes, Alexandra Danilova and Alicia Markova. These ballerinas set the example for the younger dancers, teaching them specific ballet techniques and offering motherly guidance.

          A year later, the company embarked on a long and successful American tour, traveling to hundreds of cities and exposing people to the art of ballet. During this tour, the company would inspire hundreds of young Americans. Among them was Maria Tallchief, who was just a young girl when she first saw the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. Tallchief’s experience inspired her to pursue ballet. She would eventually join the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, then New York City Ballet, marry George Balanchine, and become one of the most celebrated American ballerinas in history. By 1935, the company had performed for more than three million people.[16]

          After power disputes between Massine and de Basil over the company, they parted ways and dissolved the company, with Massine keeping the title of The Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and with de Basil countering with calling his own company The Original Ballet Russe. The former would last until 1963, whereas the latter dissolved in 1948. The Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo embarked on several more North American tours, exposing millions of people to the spirit of Diaghilev and his company. The Original Ballet Russe toured South America and Australia, and in turn helped to establish cities like Santiago, Rio, Melbourne, and Sydney as the powerhouse dance centers that they are today.

          Despite their tumultuous history, both the succeeding Ballet Russes companies had a tremendous impact on the world of ballet by spreading the inspiration and innovation of Diaghilev’s original company. Not only did they perform many of the same ballets as Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes, but they also used many of the same sets. They created new ballets and accompanying sets in the same modernist style Diaghilev had pioneered. Ballet would never be the same. In 2013 alone, one can travel to Salt Lake City, Houston, London, and The Hague to see reinterpretations of Nijinsky’s Rite of Spring. This is but one small example of how the Ballet Russes trail blazed the path of ballet more than one hundred years ago. The Ballet Russes is not dead, and it did not exist solely as a place where great artists stopped by to design beautiful sets and costumes. The Ballet Russes is alive, and one need only go attend the ballet to find proof.                                                                                                             




Anderson, Jack. The one and only: The Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. London: Dance Books LTD, 1981.

Bale, Theodore. “A well-deserved standing O: Houston Ballet’s Rite of Spring is a fresh, unforgettable spectacle.” Culturemap, March 8, 2013.

Ballet Russes. Directed by Dayna Goldfine and Dan Geller. 2005; Zeitgeist Films, 2006. DVD.

Bellow, Juliet. Modernism on Stage: The Ballets Russes and the Parisian Avant-Garde. Surrey, England: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2013.

Homans, Jennifer.  Apollo’s Angels: A History of Ballet. New York: Random House, Inc., 2010.

Hughes, Allen. “The Life and Times of Balanchine’s Apollo.” New York Times, April 29, 1979, sec. D.

The Joffrey Ballet.

Macaulay, Alastair. “Changing the World, Step by Step.” New York Times, May 23, 2013.

“Parisians Hiss New Ballet: Russian Dancer’s Latest Offering: “The Consecration of Spring.” New York Times, June 8, 1913.

Pritchard, Jane, ed. Diaghilev and The Ballet Russes, 1909-1929: When Art Danced with Music. Victoria and Albert Museum, London, in association with National Gallery of Art, Washington, 2010.

Reznick, Alisa. “Ballet Review: Apollo/Carmina.” The Daily of the University of Washington, April 16, 2012.

Taruskin, Richard. “Shocker Cools Into a ‘Rite’ of Passage.” New York Times, September 14, 2012.

{C}[1]{C} Juliet Bellow, Modernism on Stage: The Ballets Russes and the Parisian Avant-Garde (Surrey, England: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2013), 5.

{C}[2]{C} Jennifer Homans, Apollo’s Angels: A History of Ballet (New York: Random House, Inc., 2010), 316.

[3]{C} Juliet Bellow, Modernism on Stage: The Ballets Russes and the Parisian Avant-Garde (Surrey, England:                  Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2013), 7.

{C}[4]{C} Richard Taruskin, “Shocker Cools Into a ‘Rite’ of Passage,” New York Times, September 14, 2012.

[5]{C} Richard Taruskin, “Shocker Cools Into a ‘Rite’ of Passage,” New York Times, September 14, 2012.

{C}[6]{C} Jennifer Homans, Apollo’s Angels: A History of Ballet (New York: Random House, Inc., 2010), 312.

[7]{C} Theodore Bale, “A well-deserved standing O: Houston Ballet’s Rite of Spring is a fresh, unforgettable spectacle.” Culturemap, March 8, 2013,

[8]{C} The Joffrey Ballet.

[9]{C} Allen Hughes, “The Life and Times of Balanchine’s Apollo,” New York Times, April 29, 1979, sec. D.

[10]{C} Alisa Reznick, “Ballet Review: Apollo/Carmina,” The Daily of the University of Washington, April 16, 2012,

{C}[11]{C} Jennifer Homans, Apollo’s Angels: A History of Ballet  (New York: Random House, Inc., 2010), 291.

{C}[12]{C} Jennifer Homans, Apollo’s Angels: A History of Ballet (New York: Random House, Inc., 2010), 292.

{C}[13]{C} Ballet Russes, directed by Dayna Goldfine and Dan Geller (2005; Zeitgeist Films, 2006), DVD.

[14]{C} Ballet Russes, directed by Dayna Goldfine and Dan Geller (2005; Zeitgeist Films, 2006), DVD.

{C}[15]{C} Ballet Russes, directed by Dayna Goldfine and Dan Geller (2005; Zeitgeist Films, 2006), DVD.

{C}[16]{C} Ballet Russes, directed by Dayna Goldfine and Dan Geller (2005; Zeitgeist Films, 2006), DVD.