You had to be here. You and almost every art-loving Parisian with money to spend absolutely had to be sitting in the miraculously renovated Théâtre du Chatelet on May 19, 1909, for the opening night of Serge Diaghilev’s Les Ballets Russes. You’d attended concerts of Russian music that this visionary impresario had presented in Paris in 1907, and been thrilled in 1908 by the great Russian bass Fyodor Chaliapin in Modest Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov at the Paris Opera—another step in Diaghilev’s mission to acquaint western Europe with Russian culture. Now he’s brought Russian ballet to your city.
The theater is packed. Composers, sculptors, writers, actors, singers, and members of the French aristocracy swell the crowd. You crane your neck to see the glamorous actresses and dancers that clever Diaghilev has seated in the front row of the dress circle, the outrageous American Isadora Duncan among them. You’ve read the many newspaper articles heralding a new sort of ballet, but you’re about to realize that nothing could have fully prepared you for tonight.
In 2009, as ballet companies celebrate the centennial of the first legendary season of the Ballets Russes, we can still sense the excitement felt in Paris that night. The curtain rose on Le Pavillon d’Armide with Alexandre Benois’ marvelous set. Nikolai Tcherpnine’s music floated from the pit. There were murmurs of delight when the simulated Gobelin tapestry rose to show the dreamed-of world behind it, with living dancers replacing the painted ones. Mon Dieu, those dancers! Standards at the Paris Opera Ballet had declined over the last part of the 19th century, and spectators were stunned when Tamara Karsavina, Alexandra Baldina, and Vaslav Nijinsky burst into a veritable feast of leaping and spinning in a trio by the company’s 28-year-old choreographer, Mikhail (later Michel) Fokine. Later that evening, they cheered even more vociferously for Adolph Bolm and a host of virile Russian men whipping through Fokine’s Polovtsian Dances from Alexander Borodin’s opera Prince Igor. And when Nijinsky and Karsavina performed the Blue Bird pas de deux from The Sleeping Beauty, an observer later said, you would have thought the spectators’ seats were on fire.
The Ballets Russes changed the way people viewed dance. Diaghilev also changed the way companies operated—venturing outside the state-supported system to seek funding and presenters. He introduced Paris and London to 19th-century Russian classics, premiering Swan Lake in Paris and staging a lavish production of The Sleeping Beauty (titled The Sleeping Princess) in London in 1921, but his fame resides in the one-act ballets created by Fokine, Vaslav Nijinsky, Léonide Massine, Bronislava Nijinska, and the very young George Balanchine. These were collaborations. Diaghilev brought Russian music to Paris but also presented ballets to commissioned scores by French composers, such as Francis Poulenc and Erik Satie, and by the transplanted Russian, Igor Stravinsky. Major artists—including Pablo Picasso and Georges Rouault—created sets and costumes.
European audiences were enthralled by Fokine’s sex-and-violence orientalist ballets like Cléopâtre and Schéhérazade (fashion designers copied Léon Bakst’s exotic color combinations). They also loved his windblown Les Sylphides, his fragrant Spectre de la Rose, and his ballets based on Russian folklore, like Firebird and Petrouchka. Nijinsky’s L’Après-Midi d’un Faune (1912) caused a small scandal because of its sexual implications, and his Sacre du Printemps (1913) ignited an even bigger one because of its pounding, turned-in movement and Stravinsky’s “barbaric” score. Parade (1917), with Massine’s choreography, Jean Cocteau’s scenario, Picasso’s sets and costumes, and Satie’s score (featuring, at one point, a typewriter) put Cubism on the stage.
And what remained of these riches after Diaghilev’s death in 1929? Balanchine brought two of his best works, Apollo (1928) and The Prodigal Son (1929), to the U.S. Bronislava Nijinska remounted her great 1924 Les Noces, to Stravinsky’s powerful score, for Britain’s Royal Ballet in 1966, and her daughter staged it for several American companies. Massine and Fokine supervised productions of their earlier ballets for the two rival touring companies spawned by Les Ballets Russes—the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and Original Ballet Russe—and both men worked with the company founded here in 1940 as Ballet Theatre. Fokine died in 1941, but Massine lived long enough to revive Parade and Three-Cornered Hat for the Joffrey Ballet in the 1970s and coach Fokine’s Petrouchka.
Some of the works handed down after their choreographers’ deaths deteriorated to varying degrees over years of touring. Long before Fokine died, he was deploring what ballerinas had done to his The Dying Swan (his granddaughter Isabelle currently stages what she feels to be correct versions of his work). Seeing Schéhérazade on a Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo program in 1944, critic Edwin Denby called it “an illustrious warhorse foundering in dishonor.”
But much of the Ballets Russes repertory simply vanished. Then in 1987, the Joffrey Ballet stunned its public by resurrecting Nijinsky and Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps (aka Rite of Spring), the masterwork that at its premiere had spectators standing on their seats and screaming their differing opinions. Millicent Hodson, a choreographer, and art historian Kenneth Archer re-created the epochal work through intensive research and educated guesses—a process that has since enabled them to stage Nijinsky’s Jeux and Till Eulenspiegel; Massine’s Le Chant du Rossignol; and Balanchine’s Cotillon, La Chatte, and Le Bal for companies in the U.S., Europe, and Canada. From photos, sketches, reviews, dancers’ memories, choreographers’ notes, even existing costumes, they pieced together a version that’s as close as they could come to the original. For Sacre, they were able to interview Marie Rambert, a pioneer in British ballet who had danced in the premiere and had helped Nijinsky count the difficult music, and a bassoon player in the orchestra (although, as Hodson noted in a telephone interview, he had his back to the stage).
The Ballets Russes dancers of 1913 detested working on Sacre. They had trouble counting the music. They didn’t like taking orders from a 24-year-old colleague many of them had been in school with. Plus the temperamental Vaslav Fomich Nijinsky was asking them to turn in when they’d spent years turning out and to hunch over and pound their steps into the floor. In the Chosen Virgin’s solo, Lydia Sokolova had to manage close to a hundred jumps—almost literally dancing herself to death.
The atmosphere at the Joffrey Ballet in the 1980s was very different. Ashley Wheater, now the artistic director of the Chicago-based company, danced in Sacre in 1987. He remembers that Joffrey “talked to us about how excited he was; also, when you were in the Joffrey Ballet, you accepted that the company was so diverse, so eclectic, that many risks were taken. Most of us were very open-minded about just embodying work that came our way, I don’t think we ever made a judgment on it.”
The company is reviving Sacre this year, along with the “Hand of Fate” pas de deux from Balanchine’s Cotillon and Nijinska’s Les Noces. Hodson and Archer will supervise the staging. Wheater acknowledges that the choreography is “brutal,” and company member Valerie Robin, who was in an earlier cast, confirms that rehearsals are hard on the body, even though the onstage experience can be transcendent. Today’s dancers, of course, are used to counting irregular meters, and they know more about their bodies than dancers of 100 years ago did. It’s hard to imagine a Ballets Russes member articulating the movement’s effect on her lower back as knowledgeably as Robin does. “We are trained to be externally rotated, which lengthens your lower back. When you internally rotate, it makes your pelvis tilt forward, so you’re using muscles that you’re not normally used to holding, let alone having to dance in that position, or walk, or do all these different movements.” Nor would Nijinsky’s cast members have been likely to use the word “supination” to describe how unpleasant it felt to stand on the outer edges of pigeon-toed feet.
One of the centennial events is the commercial release in January of a film of the Kirov Ballet performing Hodson and Archer’s staging of Sacre. And Hodson and Archer note that although these Russian dancers fought it at the outset and needed pep talks, they became far more open to the choreography than their artistic forebears—even “passionate about it,” especially the men. “The biggest thing about it for them,” says Hodson, “was that they loved being able to work as an ensemble.… And we never spent as much time on the solos at the end of Act 1 as we did at the Maryinsky. The dancers would watch each other at lunch hour.”
Would the ghosts of spectators, choreographers, and dancers involved with the Ballets Russes works at their premieres recognize today’s Sacre, or, for that matter, Petrouchka, which has an almost continuous history of performances? They might have a few complaints; they might marvel at today’s performers’ technical accomplishments. But they’d surely be amazed and moved that ballets created between 79 and 100 years ago would survive to excite audiences and challenge dancers all over the world.
Deborah Jowitt writes for the Village Voice. Her latest book is Jerome Robbins: His Life, His Theater, His Dance.