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On the evening of 19 May 1909, the legendary Vaslav Nijinsky leapt and turned his way into French ballet history. Glorified by Mikhail Fokine’s naturalistic choreography and glamorised by the impressionistic flavour of the mixed French rococco and baroque setting in the ballet Le Pavillon, the ever-charming Nijinsky took Paris by storm. The troupe responsible for bringing Nijinsky to the rest of Europe was none other than the Ballets Russes, headed by Diaghilev and boasting some of Russia’s finest artists. In celebration of the Ballets Russes’ centenary, Dance Informa pays tribute to the company, shining a spotlight on the troupe’s impact throughout the Western world and in Australasia.
Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes
The Ballets Russes’ first season ballets – Les Sylphides,
Le Festin, Cléopâtre and Le Pavillon – were neither completely original nor were they the sole attractions on the programme, alternating with operatic acts such as Prince Igor’s ‘Polovtsian Dances’. Despite this, they did push several boundaries of convention existing in France at the time.
Though middle-eastern, oriental and Spanish exotica had all enjoyed immense popularity, the signature exoticism of the Ballets Russes, as typified by the Egyptian-themed Cléopâtre, proved more daring in both choreography and attire. The high standard of the troupe’s male dancers lent an air of scandal to the productions, Nijinsky’s popularity arguably helping to soften discrimination in a Paris highly uncomfortable with homosexuality. Unapologetically progressive, the company would leave an indelible if controversial impression on Parisian society, demonstrating ballet’s potential as an artistic medium.
Capitalising on the foreign mystique that had captivated Paris in 1909, the Russian Ballet’s second season programme the following year included the mysterious Schéhérezade and the orientalist L’Oiseau de feu, or in English The Firebird. This season earmarked the beginning of the Ballets Russes’ commitment to collaboration between artists, musicians and choreographers, amongst them the then little-known composer, Igor Stravinsky. Stravinsky’s score for The Firebird would create a fresh sound-world for ballet and was received with a great deal of enthusiasm by critics. One of the most popular collaborative ballets involving Stravinsky was Petrushka, a ballet about a tragic love triangle involving three puppets. A creative child of the company’s third Paris season in 1912, Petrushka was also the first to feature the Ballets Russes as a permanent company.
The very next year, the company would reach the heights of controversy following the premiere of the infamous Le Sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring) in Paris on the 29th of May 1913. The troupe’s previous production, Debussy and Nijinsky’s creation Jeux,had already received a cool response from the French, and many were expecting the night’s performance to redeem the Russian Ballet’s season. Even before the rising of the curtains, however, hissing and whistling had broken out among the crowd. Anarchy was to break loose when the curtains lifted to reveal a mass of dancers dressed identically in primitive costumes. Their feet were blatantly turned inwards against ballet convention, and they repeatedly jumped up and down to Stravinsky’s bizarre score. A number of audience members left abruptly during the performance in an act of defiance. Le Sacre had simply proved too much for them.
Despite the storm of opinion that the Ballets Russes inevitably generated wherever it went within Europe and the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, Diaghilev’s company managed to survive right through until his death in 1929. Though personal dramas had seen Fokine and Nijinsky leave the company, and Léonide Massine and Serge Lifar join it, the company maintained its commitment to modernism and collaboration. Even when the original troupe disbanded, the name and spirit of Diaghilev’s company continued through both Massine’s and Colonel Wassily de Basil’s respective offshoots of the franchise. Colonel de Basil’s ‘Ballets Russes’ brought three tours to Australasia between the years 1936 and 1940, which would prove to have a immense impact on Australia’s artistic development.
The Ballets Russes in Australasia
The de Basil company’s visits to Australasia saw the blossoming of dance and music criticism, and an improvement of dance training standards. Even the history of the modern-day Australian Ballet can be traced back to the company, through the migration of a handful of influential de Basil company dancers to Australia in the wake of the Second World War.
The de Basil troupe was enthusiastically received by Australian audiences, the ‘cream of society’ appearing often at premieres decked out in their finest. The presence of internationally-acclaimed ballerinas such as Irina Baranova helped to greatly boost ticket sales and members of the public such as Dr. Ewan Murray-Will even managed to befriend the dancers. Numerous artists, among them Daryl Lindsay and Hugh Hall, photographed and sketched the dancers and some were also commissioned to design sets and costumes, including Sydney Nolan, who was involved in the creation of the ballet Icare. The company also visited New Zealand to great acclaim as part of their first two tours, travelling to Auckland, Hamilton, Wanganui, Palmerston North, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin. Unfortunately the outbreak of the Second World War meant that the company was forced to cancel its third tour to New Zealand. Many of the dancers chose to remain in Australia rather than return home, feeling that this was the safest option.
Not everyone had been pleased about the presence of the Russian company. One letter that appeared in the Melbourne newspaper The Argus, signed ‘Dancer’, read ‘it is time we gave work to our own girls and boys, and not a pack of foreigners. In other words, we don’t want the Russian Ballet now!’ By and large, however, such opinions were in the minority, and the de Basil dancers who migrated during the war would profoundly change the landscape of dance in Australia. The most well known of these was Eduoard Borovansky, whose company holds the esteemed position of being the predecessor to the Australian Ballet. Others, such as Kira Bousloff, Helène Kirsova and Raissa Kouznetsova also formed their own companies, generating audiences for ballet throughout the country.
Ballet-lovers throughout Australia can therefore be proud to be a part of the Ballets Russes awe-inspiring legacy, happy in the knowledge that the country’s vibrant ballet scene is rooted in the legendary troupe’s progressive, modern and collaborative ideals.
Buckle, Richard. Nijinsky. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1971.
Calvocoressi, Michel D. Music and Ballet: Recollections of M.D. Calvoressi. London: Faber, 1934.
Eksteins, Modris. Rites of Spring: the Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1989.
Garafola, Lynn, ed. The Ballets Russes and Its World. NJ: Yale University Press, 1999.
Potter, Michelle. ‘Mutual Fascination: the Ballets Russes in Australia 1936-1940’. Brolga. 11 (1999): 7-15.
Potter, Michelle. ‘De Basil in Australia: Publicity and Patronage.’Dance Research: The Journal for the Society for Dance Research. 11.2 (1993): 16-26.
Sorley Walker, Kathrine. ‘Australia.’ De Basil’s Ballets Russes. London: Hutchinson, 1982.
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