A Legendary Collaboration of the Arts: The History of the Ballets Russes

The effects of the Ballets Russes can still be found in today’s dance theater. Let's look into the bustling world of the 20th century’s most celebrated dance company.

Apr 25, 2022By Sebrena Williamson, BFA in Dance

ballets russes performance poster jean cocteau


For a few centuries, ballet was French-led and defined by the Paris Opera Ballet. However, in 20th-century Paris, ballet became uniquely Russian. As Russia began to march towards revolution, Sergei Diaghilev looked towards Paris. In 1909, he founded The Ballets Russes, a ballet that would come to dominate the early 20th-century world.


Although most of the performers, composers, and choreographers were Russian, the company would never perform in revolutionary Russia; instead, they toured internationally, claiming worldwide attention. The Ballets Russes forever redefined ballet, artistic collaboration, modern performance, and dance theater through spectacular performances and infamous collaborations.


Most importantly, the Ballets Russes forever changed the course of ballet by making it widely popular, diversified, and more expressive. In remembering the brief, blazing life of The Ballets Russes, we can look into one of the most pivotal eras in dance history.


The Beginnings of the Ballets Russes: Sergei Diaghilev

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Photographs by Maurice Seymour, via The University of Oklahoma School of Dance, Norman, Oklahoma


The Ballets Russes quite literally began and ended with Sergei Diaghilev, the impresario, Artistic Director, and founder of the Ballets Russes. Although Diaghilev was not a choreographer or dancer himself, he commissioned many foundational dance works. In today’s scholarship, Diaghilev is widely credited for his ability to spot talent and facilitate collaboration. Even so, Diaghilev was complex; at times, a dictator and manipulator, at others, a genius. His notable romantic relationship with choreographer Vaslav Nijinksy, for example, was the center of much controversy. Regardless, his work would forever shift the culture of dance and performance.

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Diaghilev was born into a wealthy family, and his stepmother encouraged a relationship with the arts. His family would host musical shows on Thursdays during his adolescence, with the notable Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky occasionally in attendance. Art was a part of  Diaghilev’s life from a young age, although he was reportedly not a talented artist himself.


After completing his schooling in Perm, Russia, Diaghilev began studying visual art in Europe. In 1906, Diagheliv organized a Russian Exhibition and returned in 1908 to present a musical concert. As the Russian Revolution took hold in Russia, Diaghilev immigrated to Paris, later founding the Ballets Russes in 1909.


As the Ballets Russes gained popularity, it became a hub for arts and culture. Diagehliv was a champion of modern art, championing avant-garde artists, compositions by Stravinsky, groundbreaking choreography, and more. Diaghilev kept experimentation as the company’s central value, favoring shocking new works.


As Diaghilev steered the ship at the Ballets Russes, he connected prolific choreographers with prolific composers and designers. Although he never created any art, he set the scene for artistic exploration and created a platform for many artists. Most importantly, Diaghilev’s choreographers at the Ballets Russes would forever redefine dance as an art form.


Legendary Choreographers

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Photograph of Tamara Karsavina as the Queen and Adoph Bolm as the stranger in the ballet ‘Thamar,’ by Stanisław Julian Ignacy, 1912, via the Victoria & Albert Museum, London


As the Artistic Director of the Ballets Russes, Diaghilev commissioned some of the most well-known choreographers in dance history. Over time, the company produced prominent choreographers like Michel Fokine, Vaslav Nijinsky, Léonide Massine, Bronislava Nijinska, and George Balanchine. Although the choreographers premiered in Paris with the Ballets Russes, they were all formally trained in Russia.


Diaghilev had notoriously tumultuous relationships with many of his choreographers, so each choreographer’s career with the Ballets Russes was relatively short-lived. Nonetheless, many of their works are still referenced, performed, and reimagined today.


Michel Fokine


Choreographing from 1909-1912, Michel Fokine was the first choreographer to take the stage with the Ballets Russes. Fundamental to the company’s first era, 1909-1914 is considered the “Fokine Era” of the Ballets Russes. As a dancer and choreographer, Fokine felt that ballet had been stifled by tradition and was no longer progressing. A true pioneer, he renovated the dance style by adding fluid, expressive movements to ballet repertoire; additionally, he experimented with the corps de ballet, creating stunning group formations. Most importantly, he positioned the male dancer as the center focus.


Throughout his career, Fokine choreographed over 68 prolific works such as Les Sylphides, Scheherezade, Firebird, Petrushka, and Spectre de la Rose. After his career with the Ballets Russes, he moved to America and co-founded The American Ballet Company.


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Photograph of Nijinsky in the title role of the ballet Petrouchka, 1911, via The Library of Congress, Washington DC


Vaslav Nijinsky


Vaslav Nijinsky was Fokine’s choreographic heir and often the center of Fokine’s work. Before he was a choreographer, Nijinsky was considered an incredible performer and was often crowned the best male dancer of his time. From 1912 to 1913, Nijinsky choreographed for the Ballets Russes. Expanding upon Fokine’s work, Nijinksky is credited for adding unique sculptural movements to ballet’s vernacular.


More than anything, Nijinsky is remembered for centering on pagan themes. More so than the other choreographers at the Ballets Russes, his works were considered to be illicit and shocking by contemporary audiences. Nijinsky choreographed the infamous Rite of Spring which incited a riot upon premiere. Although it was poorly received during his time, the Rite of Spring has been reperformed and reimagined by several infamous choreographers over the years, including by the legendary Pina Bausch.


After Nijinsky married in 1913, Diagheliv fired him from the company; the two had been romantically involved, and Diaghilev was reportedly furious to see him married. Some time afterward, Nijinsky was diagnosed with schizophrenia and spent the rest of his life in mental institutions.


Léonide Massine


Ushering in the next era of the Ballets Russes, Léonide Massine brought a new choreographic style to the ballet. Inspired by Russian folklore, Spanish dance, Cubism, and symphonic music, Massine brought yet another new perspective to the ever-evolving world of ballet. More so than his predecessors, he expanded upon narrative themes involving folk dance in many of his productions.


During his time at the Ballets Russes, Massine choreographed over 16 ballets, including Le Soleil de Nuit, Les Femmes de bonne humeur, Parade (with Satie and Pablo Picasso), Le Tricorne, and Pulcinella (with Stravinsky and Pablo Picasso). In later years, he choreographed for films.


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Photograph of Bronislava Nijinska and V. Karnetzky in Polovtsian Dances from Prince Igor, via Library of Congress, Washington DC


Bronislava Nijinska


Choreographing from 1921 to 1924, Bronislava Nijinska was the only female choreographer in the history of the Ballets Russes. Nijinska was the sister of Vaslav Nijinsky, and her career as a choreographer with the Ballets Russes was also relatively short-lived. However, she is credited for creating new roles in Fokine’s and Nijinsky’s ballets before she began formally choreographing.


Nijinska’s choreography was neoclassical and focused on changes in culture. Centering on modern culture, her works like Les Noces and Le Train Bleu explored changing gender roles, leisure, and fashion. After the war began in 1939, Nijinska fled to America, founding her own dance school in Los Angeles.


George Balanchine


After fleeing Russia, George Balanchine choreographed with the Ballets Russes from 1924 to 1929. He would be the last choreographer with the Ballets Russes, which closed with Diaghilev’s death in 1929. Balanchine choreographed eleven ballets during this final era, including Apollo and The Prodigal Son. Afterward, he moved to America to found the famous New York City Ballet.


Balanchine’s style was neoclassical and emphasized lightness, quickness, and musicality. In addition, Balanchine once again made women the star of ballet, essentially shifting ballet away from Fokine’s emphasis on the male dancer.


While the Ballets Russes is typically remembered for these choreographers, it has also been recognized for its historic collaborations. Celebrated artists, fashion designers, and musicians filtered in and out of the Ballets Russes throughout these choreographic eras, threading dance history with other contemporary art movements.


Legendary Collaborators

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Costume for The Chinese Conjurer in Massine’s ballet ‘Parade,’ designed by Pablo Picasso, 1917, via the Victoria & Albert Museum, London


Before the Ballets Russes, ballet had a history of collaboration with other artistic disciplines. Edgar Degas, for example, painted Paris Opera ballerinas, and Tchaikovsky enjoyed an exceptional professional relationship with Marius Petipa. Under the Ballets Russes, however, productions were cohesive artistic explosions, pulling from several different forms and disciplines.


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Backcloth for ‘The Firebird,’ designed by Natalia Goncharova, 1926, via The Victoria & Albert Museum, London


The Ballet collaborated with famed composers, including Igor Stravinsky, Sergei Prokofiev, and Eric Satie. The working relationship between the Ballets Russes and Igor Stravinsky, in particular, is one of the most notable exchanges in dance history. Their second collaboration, Pertoucska, was a wild success and ushered in a new era of art. Like the Ballets Russes’ choreography, Stravinsky’s music favored experimentation, resulting in explosive melodies and unique syncopation. Over the years, Stravinsky composed a multitude of pieces with the Ballets Russes, including some of his most famous works like The Firebird and The Rite of Spring.


ballets russes poster jean cocteau
Ballets Russes poster by Jean Cocteau, 1913, via the Victoria & Albert Museum, London


In addition to working with composers, The Ballets Russes also worked with visual artists, writers, and designers such as Coco Chanel, Pablo Picasso, and Jean Cocteau. For Nijinska’s Le Train Bleu, Coco Chanel designed costumes that mirrored the luxury-leisure style of the French Riviera. For Massine’s Parade, Pablo Picasso designed the Cubist set, Eric Satie composed the music, and Jean Cocteau created the plot.


Because the ballet was a crossroads for the arts to meet, the productions were enriched, cutting edge displays of top international talent. Yet, these productions were much more than that. As contemporary audiences sat watching these groundbreaking ballets, important groundwork was laid. Without the Ballets Russes, dance–and art–might look completely different.


The Ballets Russes: A Pivotal Point In Dance History

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Serge Lifar and Alice Nikitina in ‘Apollon Musagète,’ photograph by Sasha, 1928, via the Victoria & Albert Museum, London


While the company only performed for 20 years, the Ballets Russes was fundamental to dance as a whole. The company was so influential that it has been dubbed “the most innovative dance company of the 20th century.”


Rather than repeat what was done before, Diaghilev preferred to continuously push boundaries. The Ballets Russes created new thematic material for the entire dance genre by combining Russian and Western European traditions, straying away from the tired historical romance plot. The Rite of Spring, for example, brought thematic inspiration from Russian rituals like Khorovod. Also displaying art movements like Cubism, Surrealism, and Futurism in real, moving time, the Ballets Russes brought abstraction to the theater. With these new thematic materials came a breath of fresh air for ballet.


In addition, the choreographers brought immense amounts of new movement vocabulary to dance. Choreographers at the Ballets Russes redefined dance, creating new techniques that emphasized all parts of the body, not just the hands and feet. Male virtuosity also exploded; under the Ballets Russes, new, incredible feats of the male body were added to a once female-centered form.


Most importantly, the Ballets Russes made dance a theater spectacle. With so many artists creating one revolutionary show, performance art advanced greatly. When people came to see the Ballets Russes, they came to see incredible creative accomplishments. As Diaghilev once said, “There is no interest in achieving the possible… but it is exceedingly interesting to perform the impossible.”

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By Sebrena WilliamsonBFA in DanceSebrena Williamson is a choreographer and writer with a passion for dance research, dance history, and artistic collaboration. She holds a BFA in Dance, a minor in English, and a minor in Appalachian Studies from Radford University. In her work, Williamson has mainly focused on how dance has historically affected and represented cultures at large, and how the artform can now be used to address societal issues and global phenomena. Her choreographic works, research, and dance films have been presented both nationally and internationally. She loves to work in many narrative genres, and has published films, theatre pieces, and poetry.