Ballets Russes: History, Costumes & Characteristics

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

What makes Russian ballet so...Russian? Does it even have to be in Russia? In this lesson, we'll examine the traits and legacies of the Ballets Russes and see what impact it's had on the world of dance.

Ballets Russes

When you think of Russia, three things might to come to mind: Bolsheviks, Bond villains, and ballet. There are reasons for each of these, but let's focus on the last one. Ballet has a long tradition in Russia, encouraged historically as one of the art forms that proved Russia's European status.

That's largely how ballet became so popular in Russia. But why does the rest of the world associate Russia with this performance art?

A large part of it has to do with the performance of Russian ballets outside of Russia, particularly by the famous company known as the Ballets Russes. Active from 1909 to 1929, the Ballets Russes toured Europe with ballet that was simultaneously traditional, avant-garde, Russian, international, folkloric, and modernist. It was reviled, adored, and unquestionably influential on the history of dance.

A Brief History of the Ballets Russes

The story of the Ballets Russes begins with a Russian businessman named Serge Pavlovich Diaghilev. Partly financed by the tsar of Russia, Diaghilev started bringing Russian opera and concerts to Paris (part of a long history of Russian attempts to gain recognition among European nations).

Eventually, however, the tsar stopped funding these cultural expos and Diaghilev developed a new idea, one he could sell to investors: bring the greatest Russian talents to Paris and have a ballet (which was cheaper to produce).

Serge Diaghilev
Serge Diaghilev

In 1909, Diaghilev presented the first season of Russian ballet in Paris. It was focused on Russian dancers, composers, and ballets, and it was very successful. The people of France enjoyed it, and in 1911 Diaghilev was able to turn the company into a year-round, touring troupe.

Changing Styles

From there, the Ballets Russes really started moving beyond tradition, melding traditional Russian ballet with the new, modernist, and avant-garde. The company defined its place in the emerging world of modern dance in 1913 when in premiered its now-famous production of The Rite of Spring. The music was composed by Igor Stravinsky, one of the most influential figures in modern music who used Russian folk music to help break from the conventions of composition.

The choreography was developed by Vaslav Nijinsky, one of the greatest dancers of the era, who shocked audiences by presenting a ballet with stomping and heavy rhythmic movements. The Rite of Spring was revolutionary, and in fact nearly caused a riot, but is considered one of the most influential ballets of the 20th century.

However, not everything was as smooth as it seemed for the Ballets Russes. In 1914, World War I began and thrust Europe into chaos. In 1917, Russia broke into revolution and Tsar Nicholas was forced to abdicate (before later being executed along with the rest of the Romanov royal family).

Diaghilev, once a favored figure in the imperial courts, was no longer welcome in Russia as the Bolsheviks took control. Ballet, seen as an art of the proletariat, was equally unwelcome.

Banned from Russia, the Ballets Russes continued to tour in Europe, and even made a trip to the United States in 1916. They continued performing, pushing the boundaries of dance while simultaneously honoring the traditions of Russian performance. This lasted until Diaghilev died in 1929, and the company was dismantled.

A Collection of Arts

Tamara Karsavina playing the Firebird in 1910
Tamara Karsavina

The Ballets Russes was famed for its avant-garde approach to ballet, but dance wasn't the only art form it dabbled in. One of the things that distinguished Diaghilev's vision was the focus on ballet as total art, one in which all of the arts could be unified.

To achieve this, Diaghilev quickly proved to be extremely talented at attracting talent. Beyond the incredible talent of Nijinsky and Stravinsky, Diaghilev brought in other famous Russian dancers, choreographers, and composers.

In the production of sets, stage curtains, and especially costumes, Diaghilev brought Art Nouveau, cubism, futurism, and surrealism into ballet, unifying other avant-garde arts with modern dance. Artists to contribute to the Ballets Russes included Léon Baskt, Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, and Joan Miró.

Two dancers of the Ballet Russes. Costume design by Coco Chanel
ballet russes

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