Les Ballets Russes
by Anja Weinberger
Les Ballets Russes or “the crazy russian years” in Paris
Actually, this year (2020) was planned again a big round trip through northern France. For some time now, we have been doing this every August with enthusiasm. Seven hotels were pre-booked, known and unknown, and all day trips more or less well thought out. Then the great uncertainty came over the country, the virus spread. And so with a heavy heart we cancelled our trip. The many different hotels, the long way back from the Atlantic, in case it would have to go fast – all this finally contributed to the decision to stay at home. Then, in July, there was suddenly mail in the mailbox from Italian friends who had to postpone their new hotel opening on one of the upper Italian lakes from spring to summer. Would we like to be their first “trial guests”? The invitation was garnished with photos: a lake, blue as never before – streets empty as never before, and with a hygiene concept that even sounded like a vacation in Italian.
We packed our bags for a few days and off we went – of course not at 6 a.m., as we had thought the night before, but sometime around 9 a.m. But no matter, vacation in Italy.
What can I say? It was wonderful. We spent equal parts of our time in the stylishly renovated hotel on the terrace directly on the lake, where cool drinks were always replenished by the girls at the bar, and the large balcony in front of our room, which in turn is equipped with a deck chair, armchair, table and the most magnificent lake view you can imagine. Stacks of books were ready on the table, the camera next to it and the way to the bar was not far – what more do you need? On the last evening, my friend Albina asked, “Now you’re already here. Why don’t you just go to Venice for two more days? It’s supposed to be wonderful there right now, nothing going on. I’d like to go too, but you know, I can’t, with the hotel – so newly opened.”
Hm, in the pile of books mentioned above there is also a Venice guidebook, or even two?
And we did it. The next day we drove to Venice via Verona and Treviso. With the ferry we crossed to the Lido without waiting, moved into the hotel room and were – IN VENICE.
The vacation ideas of my husband and I are not particularly congruent. Therefore, it often happens that we separate for a few hours. Mostly you can find me in churches or museums and him on the bike or motorcycle or surfboard. To be honest, I have to say that in this case he had pulled the wool over my eyes. Everything flat, no mountains with curves, the water in lagoon form. But he took it in his stride and in such a case my beloved usually explores where to go for a good dinner in the evening. On the way, he usually finds a motorcycle workshop where the latest screw for something is tried out or a store that sells everything that the Italian DIY enthusiast dreams of, or at the kiosk across the street a magazine that compares e-bikes in a completely different way. In short – he really never gets bored.
I, on the other hand, got on the first of the passing vaporetti right in front of our hotel. And that went, of all places, to the cemetery island of San Michele. I always wanted to go there, but somehow it never worked out during my previous stays in Venice. Either there was a very special exhibition to visit after all, or a church that is just always closed was suddenly open, or, or, or. And now this. I was there, completely unprepared. This is really unusual for me and a correspondingly strange feeling. Normally I read stacks of books before our vacations (afterwards, too, by the way), have the street map in my head or the city map and look forward weeks in advance to what is to come.
And now San Michele, just like that – an enchanted world, very quiet, the sun is high in the brilliant blue sky patterned by cypress trees, hardly a handful of people on the road, in the air this maritime breeze. I stroll haphazardly through the cloister of the church, which itself – of course – was closed, try to catch as many shadowy paths as possible and suddenly and completely unexpectedly stand in front of Diaghilev’s tomb monument, covered with old ballet shoes and flowers. A few steps further I already see the white, flat grave slabs of Igor Stravinsky and his wife Vera shimmering. Immediately everything was there again: Nijinsky, Fokine, Debussy, Bakst, Cocteau, Braque, Satie, Picasso and the wonderful Misia Sert.
My French Culture Stories – the new book by Anja Weinberger!
With chapters on “French composers of the classical period”, Ravel’s Boléro or the Marseillaise. Stories about “Reims and the Rosettes of the Cathedral”, Mont Saint Michel or Brittany.
Learn more about Coco Chanel, Marcel Proust, Vincent van Gogh and much more!
The time in Paris of the 1870s to 1930s fascinated me already as a student and my professor could only with great difficulty establish a connection between the topic of the diploma thesis “Les Ballets Russes” and my course of studies in orchestral music flute. Fortunately, however, it amused him more than it astonished him, and so he let me have my way.
And now, after an admittedly very long introduction, we have arrived at the actual content of this article. Paris in the “Belle Époche” and the following “Années Folles” – the crazy years. What an unusual time that must have been. Rarely was so much new life created, and life pulsated in so many different ways in such a small space. In painting, artists broke away from the academic view. Composers, too, were moving away from Romanticism, towards Impressionism (as always, they were a little later than the painters). In arts and crafts, the reform movement swept over from England and liberated the interiors. Ladies shed their corsets once and for all, the first film screenings took place, and a more advanced color lithography made it possible to print posters more cheaply. How fitting that Ernst Litfass had invented his column a few years earlier, on which Toulouse-Lautrec’s wonderful posters could now be mounted. Literature, philosophy, architecture, all were infected by this desire, this forward drive. And with the photographer Eugène Atget, Paris had an artist who depicted the new life in many photographs, some of which are world-famous today.
But above all, the ballet experienced something unprecedented with that wondrous triumvirate Diaghilev-Nijinsky-Stravinsky.
Why was all this possible?
The Franco-Prussian War of 1870/71 was followed by an unusually long period of peace. National decline was replaced by the beginning of the Belle Époque – a time of upheaval. A significant upswing in the economy could be observed, the second wave of the Industrial Revolution rolled over Europe, medicine and hygiene made progress – in short, the people of the time felt more materially secure and optimistic about the future. However, it is fair to point out that all this was mainly true for the middle and upper middle classes, who benefited the most from the aforementioned progress. The large number of agricultural workers and peasants, industrial workers and the little people had virtually no share in this upswing. The Belle Époque occurred essentially on the boulevards, in the cafés, salons and studios, the galleries, cabarets and theaters. But there, in just a few decades, a highly dynamic cultural development could be observed.
And in the midst of this euphoria-soaked atmosphere, the unique revolution of ballet, ballet music, and even stage art itself took place.
Coincidence, serendipity, zeitgeist? Difficult to answer – or actually impossible to answer. Because so many “individual perpetrators” have to be taken into account, so many different art forms involved, it is hardly possible to take an objective view from a distance in time. Of course, there are fixed dates, contemporary reports and a wealth of other information. But in spite of all this, it is hardly possible to say from whom the spark was passed on to whom. So much has to do with personal relationships, friendships, patronage, love affairs, and personal tragedies. One word in the right place, or a glance at the color of a passing woman’s dress – say yellow – and Leon Bakst, for example, had the flash of inspiration that could lead to a new costume for a new ballet. At least that’s how I imagine it. As musicians, we are often victims of our moods. How you feel is how you play. On a day that began with a fallen water glass and continued with the realization that you forgot to buy coffee or detergent – on such a day, it is very difficult or even impossible to display total composure and light-heartedness in rehearsal at 10am. But of course it also works the other way round: a good night’s sleep, the sun is shining, the husband is in a good mood, the children get up by themselves, the desk and music stand are tidy, all the batteries are charged – on such a day the good energies are multiplied. And so or so it will have been… the right amount of everything arrived at the right place at the right time from the right direction. All that was missing was someone like Sergei Diaghilev and the miracle could take place.
He, Sergei Diaghilev was born in 1872 in the Russian Empire. At the age of 18, he moved to St. Petersburg, where a law degree was actually waiting for him. However, he simply could not resist the richly flourishing art, music and theater scene. And so the young man even tried himself as a painter and musician, but soon had to realize that he lacked talent and diligence for both.
But where his priceless talent lay was soon to become apparent. Diaghilev possessed the rare ability to recognize young artistic talent, to explore possibilities and to bring people together. Today we would say: a true networker. He collected paintings and handicrafts, sought out supporters for new art and literature, and subsequently founded Mir Iskusstva, a progressive art magazine with Léon Bakst and Alexander Benois that would have a profound impact on life in St. Petersburg. Diaghilev was artistic advisor to the Moscow Theater and staged numerous operas and ballets there, naturally working right on the pulse of the times and being able to observe and get to know all the dancers well. There, only half a century earlier, Marius Petipa had laid the foundation for an excellent corps de ballet and staged Tchaikovsky’s great ballets. For Diaghilev, this meant that he was working with the best that was currently available in the world of dance.
On a trip to Europe, he was surprised to discover that Russian art was virtually unknown in the West. He was determined to change that, and the Diaghilev machinery was set in motion.
It began in 1904 with an exhibition of Russian icons at the Grand Palais in Paris and continued in 1907 with a concert series full of music by Glinka, Borodin, Tchaikovsky and other Russian composers. Then in 1908 he was able to place “Boris Godunov,” with Shalyapin in the title role, at the Grand Opéra. The audience was enraptured and more than willing to consume Russian bell sounds and lavishly staged masses on stage like a precious colonial commodity. Shalyapin terrified audiences with his frighteningly realistic portrayal of the fickle ruler, strong on the outside, weak on the inside.
From 1906 Diaghilev lived in Paris and made further plans. These finally culminated in the founding of the legendary Ballets Russes. On May 18, 1909, he and this ensemble presented various ballets by and with the stars of St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theater at the Théȃtre du Chȃtelet. This date marked the birth of modern ballet. It was an important moment, because it gave the genre of ballet in the West back its artistic respectability, which it had lost in the decades before. And: for this enterprise, of course, outstanding dancers were needed, of whom Diaghilev had conjured up a large number from the hat. One name was to develop particular charisma after only a short time.
Vaslav Nijinsky enchanted his contemporaries, men and women alike. All who saw him dance were impressed by his versatility, his virtuosity, his bounce and his almost animal grace. Especially his ability to seemingly stop a jump in mid-air is described as perfect. In combination with almost silent, even soft landings, the immense effort required for this was not visible to the spectator. To this day, the name Nijinsky is synonymous with perfect, unrivaled dance art.
Vaslav, like his sister Bronislava, was born in Warsaw in 1889 on a tour of their parents, who were also dancers. Soon Nijinsky entered the Saint Petersburg Ballet School, and as early as 1905, at the age of six, he danced his first solo. Year after year, then also with Anna Pavlova, he danced his way to one triumph after another. There, backstage, he also met Sergei Diaghilev, who immediately recognized the unusual talent in the young man. For the rest of their lives, the two would be bound by a close relationship, which in the early years was also homosexual in nature.
It was not easy to release the dancers from their Russian contracts, but together with Nijinsky, Ida Rubinstein, Tamara Karsawina and Anna Pavlova came to Paris. For the first season, choreographies were chosen that appealed to the French audience’s desire for the oriental and exotic. And there it was, Diaghilev’s great hour as impresario. From the beginning, he provided unusual costumes beyond the usual tutus and found the ideal choreographer in the Russian Michel Fokine. He also came from the Mariinsky Theater and had already choreographed there in an impressive and “modern” way. An expressive and technically accomplished dancer himself, he made his contribution to the history of ballet, however, clearly as a choreographer. In his constant drive for dramatic verisimilitude and formation of a “great whole,” he has become a unique reformer of the art of dance. By the way, the unique, famous solo “The Dying Swan”, first danced by Anna Pavlova, also came from him.
And now, among others, “Le Pavillon d’Armide” by Cherepnin, “Cleopatra” with music by various Russian composers and the “Polovtsian Dances” from Borodin’s “Prince Igor” came on stage in May 1909. The audience experienced dancers who no longer saw their salvation in as many pirouettes as possible and at least one jump turned twice in the air. No, now it was a matter of expression and emphasis, no longer merely a danced, albeit highly virtuosic sequence of numbers between the main plot points. The insane technique of the Russian dancers was combined with a new freedom and desire for expression.
In “Cleopatra,” Paris audiences saw Ida Rubinstein for the first time, and she had a very special reputation ahead of her. Born in Russia in 1883 into a wealthy Jewish family, it seemed impossible for her to make the theater her profession. However, she secretly took both acting and ballet lessons and seems to have been an exceptional talent in an exceptional body. Tall, slender, endowed with enormous stage presence and exaggeratedly limber, but also highly gifted and extremely eloquent in 8 languages, she left the romantic-imperial era of Tchaikovsky behind once and for all with her dance style. Long before Josephine Baker, she danced almost naked, minimalistically enveloped by Leon Bakst’s costumes (see below). In her unforgettable performance as Cleopatra, she was carried onstage as a mummy by four dark-skinned slaves, wrapped in 12 layers of elaborate fabric. Each layer was a Bakstian masterpiece of decorative art. She loosened the last dark blue veil herself and began her dance. In later years she would commission numerous composers to write ballet music for her own company. This is also how the “Boléro” and “La Valse” by Maurice Ravel came into being.
So they had settled in for the long haul, and Diaghilev now brought the famous dance pedagogue Enrico Cecchetti to the company as ballet master. From now on, every premiere would cause excitement – and sometimes scandal.
In 1910 followed the “Firebird” (see below), “Le Carnaval” and “Scheherazade” with the music of Rimsky – Korsakov.
The latter was again a roaring success. The French, whose penchant for the exotic had already been nourished by Gautier or Flaubert, were literally taken breathless at the sight of the flowing, swirling, twitching and jumping bodies of the young Russians. Such an explosion of emotions had never been seen before; here Nijinsky’s feline, androgynous dance style was shown to its best advantage. And in “Scheherazade” the epoch-making stage productions and costume designs by Leon Bakst were also particularly striking.
The latter, Leon Bakst, born in Russia in 1866, had already gone into exile in Paris in 1893, at that time as a painter and graphic artist. He was born as Leib-Chaim Israilewitsch Rosenberg into an Orthodox Jewish family. That this name would be difficult to transport in the art scene was probably already clear to him on the occasion of his first exhibition and so he gave himself a pseudonym easily pronounceable in all languages. Bakst traveled a lot and liked to teach. One of his students was the young Marc Chagall. Early in his career, in addition to painting, he had enjoyed furnishing productions, both in Russia and in France. And in the course of time this was to become his main occupation and make him world famous. For the Ballets Russes he took inspiration from the Orient, Ancient Greece, Biedermeier, Art Nouveau and used an extremely colorful palette to create unusual costume designs and stage decorations. His eye perceived everything that happened around him and processed it into amazing combinations. Strong colors, lush patterns and ornaments that could work well at a distance, striking symbolism and a good eye for figurines and spaces – this is what made Bakst’s art and decisively shaped the style of the troupe. One almost got the impression that the stage design was an active player, and anyway, the dancers’ garments married with the décor. Leon Bakst had just invented the modern stage design.
His creations also caused a sensation outside the theater, and suddenly turbans, harem pants, but also amazingly charming-erotic clothing could be seen on the boulevards of Paris. Bakst delivered his creations as far away as America and planned to open his own fashion house. There, in addition to clothes, he wanted to offer shoes, hats, jewelry, furniture, wallpaper and fabrics. His sudden death in 1924 caused this plan to fail and the Ballets Russes lost their revolutionary stage designer.
After the first great successes with already existing works in 1909, Sergei Diaghilev now had new ballet music written especially for the Ballets Russes.
It was here that Igor Stravinsky entered the scene. He would go on to create several great ballets, which, along with Tchaikovsky’s ballets, remain among the highlights of the ballet world’s repertoire to this day. Stravinsky, born in 1882 near Saint Petersburg, was still largely unknown at the time. His music for “The Firebird” (premiere 1910), composed in a few months, was dazzling, rhythmic, and tied to the late Romantic-Impressionist tradition. Fokine’s libretto combined elements from Russian folk tales with effective stage performances. Parisian audiences were overwhelmed and Stravinsky advanced to fame overnight. Thus the next commission was given immediately and “Petrushka” was created for 1911.
Its action takes place at a St. Petersburg fair, the main characters are three puppets of a juggler who come to life. The idea of the wildly gesticulating mannequin came from Stravinsky himself, the final libretto and decoration from Alexander Benois. Fokine wrote an ideal choreography for it. And now appears a very different Stravinsky. A refined piece, set in the uncertainty between reality and puppetry. But the orchestral sound also changes – strangely high woodwinds, a peculiarly mechanical waltz, individual motifs rise above carpets of sound, much chromaticism in the winds, muted strings, snare drums accompany a trumpet solo, much percussion in the orchestra. Actually, an unemotional sound impression is created, as if the viewer and listener would take a step back to better observe what is happening. Stravinsky had just developed his “stencil technique”. We will hear more of this in the future.
The Ballets Russes went on tour in Germany during the winter months, performing in all the major cities. Then they traveled on to Vienna and Budapest, finally arriving in Monte Carlo for intensive rehearsal weeks.
And then came 1913 and Stravinsky’s “Le Sacre du Printemps” (The Sacrifice of Spring-Pictures from Pagan Russia) was ready for the stage. Earlier, during a trip to Russia in 1911, Stravinsky had visited the artists’ colony of Talashkino, where he met the philosopher, painter, writer and stage designer Nicholas Roerich, who made a lasting impression on him. Together with him, he sketched out a vision of a grand, pagan celebration in which a young girl would dance herself to death as a sacrifice to make the god of spring favorable – the worship of nature in its most primitive, violent, and powerful form.
This was to be Nijinsky’s second choreography, having worked on Debussy’s “L’Après-midi d’un faune” the year before and also danced it himself. The accompanying poem by Stéphane Mallarmés is about a young faun who chases several nymphs in vain. A dropped nymph’s veil serves as a sight-seeking object and substitute dance partner. Nijinsky’s movements resembled images on antique vases he had previously seen with Bakst during a visit to the Louvre. This led to a complete departure from the usual classical poses and towards a kind of two-dimensionality on stage. Rehearsals were correspondingly difficult, as the ensemble had to acquire a completely new movement vocabulary. 90(!) rehearsals were necessary for a piece of just a quarter of an hour. The strongly sexually connotated poses and the tight-fitting costume of the leading actor Nijinsky also divided the audience and the press and caused a “succès de scandale” at the premiere on May 29, 1912. The new word “scandalous success” was thus born. It should also be noted here that both Mallarmé’s poetry and Debussy’s music play a central role in their respective genres and in the development of artistic modernism. Auguste Rodin, fascinated after seeing the premiere, made a statue of Nijinsky and the Faun was the number one topic of conversation in all European feuilletons.
And now Stravinsky’s Sacre. For the relatively inexperienced choreographer Nijinsky, this work was an incredible challenge. The audience was still used to beauty and elegance, to the movements of classical ballet and melodious music from the orchestra pit.
And hardly anything is as expected. Frequently broken rhythms, short interjections of wind instruments, hammering chords, fluttering transitions, irregular timpani beats – all this led to a relative untantability. Rhythmic excesses and a concentrated load of dissonance – Nijinsky had to find completely new structures for his troupe and then somehow bring them into harmony with the music. In keeping with the story, the ballet ensemble was to be quite large, and right from the first piano rehearsals it turned out that it was particularly advantageous if someone counted loudly over the music to provide the ensemble with orientation. Up to now, ballet has almost always taken place in units of 4, 6 or 8 within the music. Not so with the Sacre. Stravinsky constantly shifts back and forth between rather unusual, odd time signatures, and accordingly the music offers little stability. But Nijinsky created a most amazing choreography. Every rhythm was danced, the counterpoints choreographically built up in the groups. Every trill, every small motif is assigned to a figure – every tutti or crescendo travels through the entire corps de ballet.
The premiere finally took place in the newly built Théȃtre des Champs-Élysées on May 29, 1913. Already on the occasion of the dress rehearsal, at which some critics are always present, the suspicion was voiced that this new work with its geometric-abstract dance figures would probably be too much for the audience. At the premiere itself, there was indeed laughter from the very first note of the very high bassoon solo during the opening music. This increased to pandemonium when, shortly thereafter, the first dancers appeared with stomping movements and in relatively shapeless costumes. It was so loud in the auditorium that the dancers on stage could no longer hear the music. Nijinsky stood quivering with anger in one of the scenery aisles and shouted to the dancers “One, two, three, four ….”. This was the only way to keep the choreography going. A brief lull occurred during the dance of the chosen virgin, which was of such beauty, of such indescribable power, that this riveting expression of sacrifice disarmed the chaotic audience for a few, few minutes. It was thanks to the stoic composure of Pierre Monteux at the conductor’s podium that the performance could be brought to a close at all. And this is how Jean Cocteau described this evening: “The hall played the role it had to play: it revolted on the spot. People laughed, jeered, whistled, imitated animal voices, and perhaps they would have grown tired of it, if the crowd of aesthetes and some musicians, carried away by their ardent zeal, had not offended the box audience. … The spectacle degenerated into a scuffle. …”
The scandal finally made Stravinsky a celebrity, and the work was a very great success in a concert performance shortly thereafter, probably because the audience was already prepared. And “Le Sacre du Printemps” has become a milestone of ballet literature, all major companies already had it in their programs. Several attempts to revive Nijinsky’s original choreography have been made, even up to our days, which proved to be extremely difficult.
Stravinsky will compose several more ballets in the following years, e.g. “Pulcinella”, which then belong to his neoclassical phase. Only supposedly eclipsed in retrospect by these major events, other great ballets were danced in 1910s.
One of them is “Les Sylphides” by Fokine with Chopin’s music orchestrated by Glazunov – an indulgent dance in the moonlight, so artfully arranged that the romantic reverie seemed more real than reality. It is one of the last and most beautiful “ballets blancs” and at the same time the first abstract ballet without a plot. This is also groundbreaking and will lead to George Balanchine and the New York City Ballet.
And “Le Spectre de la Rose” (The Spirit of the Rose) was the stage work in which Nijinsky stunned audiences in 1911 with a high, wide leap through an open window. His grace and elegance were highlighted many times by critics here and are still considered unrivaled. The particularly beautiful poster for these performances was created by Jean Cocteau.
“Le Martyre de Saint-Sébastien”, choreographed by Fokine for Rubinstein, was the second ballet with music by Claude Debussy, which was to be followed in a few years by “Jeux” as the third. The impressionistic music of Debussy and his colleagues had, as it were, an enzymatic influence on the cultural development that was taking place at the time. The shimmering chromaticism, the cascades of tones and towering waves probably acted as an inspiring sound backdrop. On the one hand, there were the magnificent orchestral works such as Ravel’s “Daphnis and Chloé” and, on the other, the chamber music that was enthusiastically made in the salons of the time. Debussy wrote for it with his Sonata for Flute, String Trio and Harp, a work that is still considered a milestone of literature and had influenced a whole generation of young composers.
From 1914 Fokine again choreographed for the Ballets Russes and a new dancer emerged, the young Léonide Massine. He too would provide immortal creations in the years to come. His greatest success after the 1st World War was probably “The Tricorn” with music by de Falla, set, curtain and costumes by Picasso and Ansermet on the podium. Before that, in the “Josephslegende”, big names were once again brought together with Richard Strauss, Harry Graf Kessler, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Leon Bakst and Josep Maria Sert. The whole production was based on a painting by Veronese and demanded great commitment. And “Parade” was then the world’s first ballet with cubist features and a key work of the avant-garde. This time the set and costumes were by Pablo Picasso, Eric Satie wrote the music and Jean Cocteau the libretto.
This Jean Cocteau was also a culmination of the times. Known as a universal artist, he wrote poetry, novels and screenplays, e.g. also for Edit Piaf, painted, drew and was always in exchange with artists and filmmakers. With Jean Marais he discovered the actor of the years to come, and the two were first lovers – then friends – throughout their lives. Cocteau wrote many of his famous roles for Marais.
A little later, meanwhile Serge Lifar was also dancing for the Ballets Russes, Coco Chanel will design costumes for “Le train bleu”. She met Diaghilev through Misia Sert, with whom she was friends for over 30 years.
And Misia Sert was also one of those dazzling personalities without whom the Paris of those years would not have come about. She had been passed on musicality through her grandfather Adrien-François Servais, and through her grandmother she was no stranger to running an open house. Her circle of friends included not only Coco Chanel but also Zola, Proust, Gide, Cocteau, Caruso, Debussy, Ravel, Poulenc and the whole Groupe des Six, Renoir, Bonnard and, of course, Diaghilev. She was really close friends with him and also liked to get involved in all creative aspects of his work. Bakst’s fashion designs were first and foremost seen on her strolling down the Champs-Elysées. Through her husbands’ money, she was able to generously support the dance company, which was often in a poor financial position, and ensured a steady flow of money through her wide-ranging connections. She was immortalized on posters by Toulouse-Lautrec and in paintings by Renoir, Vallotton and Vuilard. Maurice Ravel dedicated “La Valse” to her. Her luxurious salon in the Rue de Rivoli was the unofficial headquarters of the Russian ballet. It was at Misia Sert’s that Diaghilev met Cocteau, and it was there that Marcel Proust desperately tried to join the iridescent troupe. In Proust’s novel of the century, In Search of Lost Time, many characters will now seem familiar to us.