The Ballets Russes and Modern Dance: Who Influenced Whom?

September 7, 2009

Go feast on “Diaghilev’s Theater of Marvels: The Ballets Russes and Its Aftermath,” before it closes Sept. 12. This exhibit, at the NY Public Library of Performing Arts, is organized by dance historian (and Dance Magazine senior advising editor) Lynn Garafola, using the Library’s archives of this revolutionary period.

    You’ll take in the rich colors of the costumes, the grandeur of the designs—like the cubist skyscrapers that Picasso made for the “managers” in Massine’s Parade. You’ll see outrageiously bold costume sketches by Bakst and Pavlova’s delicate pink satin pointe shoes.

And you’ll see rare film footage shown on six video monitors. There’s an amazing film of Pavlova from 1915, taking wing in a forest. Boy, those were the days of serious sylphs. Her dainty leaps are so light that she floats up to the upper level of the trees. Of course she is rigged in some way, but you can’t see the rigging because it’s so dark.

    More down-to-earth is a BBC clip of Karsavina speaking about Fokine’s Les Sylphides in 1953. As she demonstrates, her arms are so soft she could be moving through heavy cream.

There are many other film treasures: Nadia Nerina fluttering her hands in Fokine’s Firebird, The Royal Ballet in Nijinska’s monumental Les Noces, and also The Royal Ballet’s Petrouchka in the heart-breaking scene when the forlorn puppet (Alexander Grant) knocks his head against the trap door because the ballerina doll has left him.

    But what I found intriguing is the cross-pollination between ballet and modern dance of that just-past century that most of us were part of. The sharp elbows and fierce, magician-like hand gestures in the 1970s video of Gary Chryst dancing the Chinese Conjurer in Parade (1917) remind me of the sorcery of Mary Wigmans’s Hexentanz (aka Witch Dance, made in 1914). It makes me wonder if Massine had seen Wigman’s work, or if she had seen his. Or if this type of hard-edged gesture was just in the air.

    As Deborah Jowitt pointed out in her story on the Ballets Russes in our February issue (click here), Isadora Duncan was in the audience the first night of the Ballets Russes in Paris in 1909. Was she an invited guest? Did Diaghilev feel that her presence helped to make the debut an occasion? Or did Fokine invite her, since he was very taken with the sense of freedom and connection to nature in her work? Or did she show up on her own, having a hunch that this would be a night to remember—she, who often lambasted ballet as artificial? In any case, I think her sense of freedom and lustiness was right at home in the Ballets Russes.

Go to this link to find out more about the exhibit. If you see it, send me an email at [email protected] to tell me what questions Diaghilev’s marvels brought up for you.



Drawing by Bakst of Fokine’s Schéhérazade for the 1916-17 tour.


Courtesy Jerome Robbins Dance Division, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.