Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes Astounds Paris Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

From its inception, Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes revitalized the art of ballet through revolutionary innovations in choreography, set design, and musical scores.

Summary of Event

On May 19, 1909, in the newly refurbished Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris, the curtain rose on the premiere performance of the Ballets Russes. The audience, made up of the city’s dignitaries, artists, and social elite, was astounded by the spectacular decor and costumes, the passionate bravura dancing, and the atmosphere of exoticism that enveloped the performance. The “wild Asiatic horde” electrified Parisian audiences and began a twenty-year assault on every artistic convention associated with theatrical dance presentation. The guiding force and creative center of this artistic phenomenon was Sergei Diaghilev. Dance;ballet Ballet companies;Ballets Russes Ballets Russes Music;ballet Ballet Choreography;ballet [kw]Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes Astounds Paris (May 19, 1909)[Diaghilevs Ballets Russes Astounds Paris (May 19, 1909)] [kw]Ballets Russes Astounds Paris, Diaghilev’s (May 19, 1909) [kw]Paris, Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes Astounds (May 19, 1909) Dance;ballet Ballet companies;Ballets Russes Ballets Russes Music;ballet Ballet Choreography;ballet [g]France;May 19, 1909: Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes Astounds Paris[02420] [c]Dance;May 19, 1909: Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes Astounds Paris[02420] [c]Music;May 19, 1909: Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes Astounds Paris[02420] Diaghilev, Sergei Fokine, Michel Bakst, Léon Benois, Alexandre Nijinsky, Vaslav Roerich, Nikolay Konstantinovich Karsavina, Tamara Platonovna

Diaghilev’s early education provided him with an appreciation of the arts, and, although he enrolled in the law school of St. Petersburg University, his ambition was to become a singer or composer. Through his association with his cousin Dmitry Filosov, Diaghilev was accepted into a group of young men who shared similar viewpoints about art and the world. First called the Nevsky Pickwickians, the group formed the nucleus of what would become the artistic society Mir Iskusstva Mir Iskusstva (world of art).

A strong voice in Russian art criticism, Mir Iskusstva produced a journal of the same name, which Diaghilev edited. In an essay titled “Complicated Questions,” Diaghilev stated the group’s views: Art should be expressive, synthetic, and individual. It should communicate “higher truths” and express the elusive ideal of beauty. Mir Iskusstva was critical of the narrow, canon-based art of the academies and of the prevalent “social realism” style of painting. Through the collaborative efforts of Diaghilev, Michel Fokine, Léon Bakst, and Alexandre Benois, the aesthetics championed by Mir Iskusstva were soon applied to the presentation of ballet.

The 1909 premiere season of the Ballets Russes marked the fourth time Diaghilev had presented Russian art to Parisian audiences. In 1906, he had organized an exhibition of Russian art that toured Paris, Berlin, and Venice. In 1907, he had brought Russian music to Paris in the form of five historical concerts that included the music of Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov, Sergei Rachmaninoff, and Aleksandr Scriabin. His next venture was a 1908 production of Modest Mussorgsky’s opera Boris Godunov (1874) at the Paris Opera, featuring the famous Fyodor Chaliapin. Each presentation was a triumphant success, whetting the European taste for Russian spectacle. Diaghilev cultivated his audiences, creating an obsession for things “à la Russe.”

Ever a perfectionist, Diaghilev insisted that the Théâtre du Châtelet be completely overhauled prior to the Ballets Russes opening night. His concern for perfection in even the smallest production details was at once a measure of his genius and a major contributing factor to the economic peril that constantly threatened the company. New crimson carpet was laid, the foyers and auditorium were cleaned and repainted—all without regard to cost. Even the audience on opening night was not left to chance; fifty-two of the most beautiful actresses in Paris were invited to sit in the dress circle in the first balcony. Blonds were alternated with brunettes. Theater manager Gabriel Astruc later claimed that on seeing these women, “the whole house burst into applause.”

The ballets performed that first season were Le Pavillon d’Armide, the “Polovtsian Dances” (from the opera Prince Igor), Le Festin, Les Sylphides, and Cléopâtre. Choreographed by Fokine, the ballets featured music by Russian composers: Nikolay Tcherepnin, Aleksandr Borodin, Mikhail Glinka, Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, and Mussorgsky. Costume designs and set decor were created by Diaghilev’s Mir Iskusstva companions Alexandre Benois, Léon Bakst, Konstantin Korovin, and Nikolay Konstantinovich Roerich.





Accustomed to the banal and effete lethargy of European ballet, Parisian audiences went wild over the virtuosic, athletic vigor of dancer Vaslav Nijinsky, the delicate beauty of dancers Tamara Platonovna Karsavina, Anna Pavlova, and Ida Rubinstein, and the innovative choreography of Fokine. They were equally stunned by the vibrantly passionate, hauntingly pagan, and radically new set decor and costume designs for the ballets. Two ballets in particular captivated audiences: the “Polovtsian Dances” and Cléopâtre. Cléopâtre (ballet)

The “Polovtsian Dances” represented a true novelty for the jaded Parisian audiences. Fokine’s innovative use of the corps de ballets as a living ensemble of individuals replaced the conventional static posing, and Roerich’s lyric, brooding decor and costumes evoked an aura of pagan mystery. Audiences were swept up in the frenzied finale; one historian has written that “at the end, when Sophia Fedorova led the dance like one possessed, her companions, too, [were] utterly in the grip of the music’s frenetic rhythm . . . while the audience jumped and shouted for joy.”

Cléopâtre introduced the exotic Ida Rubinstein Rubinstein, Ida and the artfully authentic decor and costumes of Bakst and created a passion in Paris for everything Egyptian. With Cléopâtre, Fokine created a concise choreographic drama in one act, integrating pantomime with the dancing. In combination with Bakst’s carefully researched design, Fokine achieved a “scenic realism” that stunned the audience.

The total effect of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes presentations on Parisian audiences was overwhelming. The combination of innovations in choreography, set decor and costume design, brilliant dancing, and exotic music took Paris by storm and began two decades of artistic innovation that revolutionized theatrical dance presentations worldwide.


When Diaghilev presented his “saison Russes” in Paris in 1909, he not only created an appetite for Russian ballet, but he also began a revolution in choreography, scene design, musical composition, and ballet technique. More important, that first season changed forever the way audiences perceived dance and dancers, established a completely new process of and standard for artistic collaboration, and thrust dance into a vanguard position among the arts. That first season had both immediate and long-lasting effects on a variety of artistic, social, and cultural spheres.

In much the same way that Diaghilev and Mir Iskusstva condemned Russian art for being overly academic and parochial, Fokine’s choreographic reforms were aimed at liberating ballet from its academic straitjacket. Fokine jettisoned the formulaic conventions of his predecessor, Marius Petipa, Petipa, Marius and created ballets that were concise, with costuming, design, and movement appropriate to their setting, and forged a new ensemble to replace the static and merely decorative corps de ballet of Petipa. Fokine’s interest in individual expression can be seen in his transformation of the corps de ballet into a moving, liberated group of individuals with their own personalities, gestures, and emotions.

While not abandoning classical technique as did his contemporary Isadora Duncan, Fokine revitalized and expanded the classical vocabulary, freeing the dancers’ arms from static conventional poses and their spines from rigid adherence to the vertical. Many of his innovations, although present in the season of 1909, were not fully realized until such ballets as Schéhérazade (1910), The Firebird(L’ Oiseau de feu; 1910), Petrushka (1911), and Le Dieu bleu (1912). Fokine’s choreographic reforms substantially influenced Nijinsky, Diaghilev’s next choreographic protégé.

In the realm of art, Diaghilev’s influence spread from his immediate circle of Mir Iskusstva friends to the major painters of the twentieth century. Natalya Goncharova, Mikhail Larionov, Robert Edmond Jones, Giacomo Balla, Pablo Picasso, André Derain, Henri Matisse, Juan Gris, Maurice Utrillo, and Joan Miró all created set and costume designs for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. Picasso’s designs for The Three-Cornered Hat (Le Tricorne; 1919), Pulcinella (1920), and especially Parade(1917) are considered masterpieces. In the program notes for Parade, Guillaume Apollinaire wrote, “Until now, scenery and costumes on the one hand, and choreography, on the other, have had only an artificial connection, but their fresh alliance in Parade has produced a kind of Surrealism [that] promises utterly to transform arts and customs alike.”

Before Diaghilev, scene painting and costume design were left primarily in the hands of professional craftsmen who worked according to conventional formulas. With the artistic collaboration of easel painters, the productions of the Ballets Russes catapulted reforms in stage decor into the public eye, making design an integral and unified part of any production and transforming into reality the aesthetics of Mir Iskusstva and Richard Wagner’s concept of Gesamtkunstwerk, or total work of art.

Diaghilev’s dedication to novelty guaranteed that the Ballets Russes would be in the forefront of artistic expression. Nowhere was that more visible than in the roster of composers Diaghilev invited to create scores for his new ballets. Diaghilev had a genius for recognizing fresh currents in artistic expression and an instinct for selecting artistic pioneers. From its inception, the Ballets Russes embodied the modern spirit and bold confidence of its founder.

The popularity of the Ballets Russes transformed public opinion about Russian music and rescued ballet scores from the antipathy of composers. Diaghilev’s commitment to a unified and balanced production, with each component of equal artistic caliber, led him to commission music that could match the spectacular dancing, choreography, and decor of his ballets. Occurring simultaneously with a rising neonationalist sentiment among Russian composers, Diaghilev’s desire for novelty, unity, and artistic collaboration connected him irrevocably and providentially to the young Igor Stravinsky. Stravinsky, Igor In collaboration with Diaghilev, under the auspices of the Ballets Russes, Stravinsky went on to create masterpieces of musical composition. The Firebird, Petrushka, and The Rite of Spring (Le Sacre du printemps; 1913) attest to the brilliant outcome of this partnership.

As radical and uncompromisingly original as Stravinsky’s scores were, the nature of Diaghilev’s collaboration with Stravinsky led to an even more important transformation: the upgrading of the role of the ballet composer. This influenced the genre to such a degree that, as one historian has noted, it led to a “miraculous and altogether unexpected resurgence” and the genre’s “dramatic upgrading in the twentieth-century scale of values.” In addition to Stravinsky, Diaghilev commissioned scores from a multitude of history’s most celebrated composers, including Maurice Ravel, Erik Satie, Claude Debussy, Richard Strauss, Manuel de Falla, Sergei Prokofiev, and Darius Milhaud.

The 1909 season of the Ballets Russes fundamentally changed the way audiences perceived ballet and ballet dancers. Instead of an endless display of stilted positions and static groupings, the ballet ensemble of Diaghilev’s company pulsed, swirled, and leapt. Gone were the symmetrical groupings of identically clad women who did nothing more than frame the stage. Absent, too, were the listless young men who appeared as occasional supports for their balancing partners. Nijinsky, Adolph Blom, Léonide Massine, and Mikhail Mordkin reestablished the primacy and splendor of the male dancer at a time when men were all but extinct on the ballet stage. The overall effect produced a completely different kind of dance drama, one that left the audience demanding more.

As influential as the Ballets Russes was on the individual careers of the artists, dancers, choreographers, and composers who were directly associated with it, its legacy can be seen in other areas as well. Diaghilev’s insistence on the highest standards for all the artistic components of production elevated ballet and theatrical dance presentation to the equal of theater, visual arts, and music. No longer the inferior stepchild of opera, dance became recognized as legitimate artistic expression.

Additionally, Diaghilev’s process of collaboration (carried forth from the early Mir Iskusstva days), which illustrated that superb artistic work could be created outside the academy, opened doors for many independent artists. Without Diaghilev’s model of a touring company with new repertory each season, it is doubtful that many of the fine ballet companies of today would have come into existence. Indeed, American ballet owes a tremendous debt to the Ballets Russes, from which it received not only dancers, teachers, and choreographers but also the vision of what twentieth century ballet could be. Dance;ballet Ballet companies;Ballets Russes Ballets Russes Music;ballet Ballet Choreography;ballet

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fokine, Michel. Fokine: Memoirs of a Ballet Master. Translated by Vitale Fokine, edited by Anatole Chujoy. Boston: Little, Brown, 1961. Fokine’s account of his early life, ballet training, and rise to stardom as a choreographer.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Garafola, Lynn. Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. 1989. Reprint. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005. Examines the entire enterprise of the Ballets Russes from a broad and fresh perspective. Analyzes the concurrent artistic, economic, social, and cultural trends and conditions that influenced and were influenced by Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes. Scholarly, well written, and thorough.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Legacies of Twentieth-Century Dance. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 2005. A selection of essays and reviews by one of the most influential scholars of the history of dance. Covers the transformation of dance, especially ballet, since the early twentieth century. Includes many photographs.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______, ed. The Ballets Russes and Its World. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1999. Collection of fourteen essays on the history and importance of the Ballets Russes by dance and music scholars and critics. Includes illustrations and bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Haskell, Arnold Lionel. Diaghileff: His Artistic and Private Life. 1935. Reprint. Whitefish, Mont.: Kessinger, 2005. Written in conjunction with Diaghilev’s contemporary Walter Nouvel. Dated, romantic, and gossipy; interesting (if suspect) details of Diaghilev’s private life and behind-the-scenes drama at the theater. Appendixes include catalog of productions and company roster through the years.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kochno, Boris. Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes. Translated by Adrienne Foulke. New York: Harper & Row, 1970. Contains excerpts from letters, program notes, and unpublished essays by Diaghilev and his contemporaries, including Benois, Jean Cocteau, Picasso, and Stravinsky. Excellent resource for information about specific ballets, dancers, designers, and musicians from 1909 to 1929. Amazing photographs, sketches, and anecdotes about every ballet produced under the auspices of the Ballets Russes.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pozharskaia, Militsa, and Tatiana Volodina. The Art of the Ballets Russes. Translated by V. S. Friedman. New York: Abbeville Press, 1990. Emphasizes costume, set, and stage design rather than choreography or dancing. Minimal but informative text accompanies beautiful photographs, many in color. Arranged chronologically to display the productions of the Ballets Russes in its Paris seasons from 1908 to 1929. Includes a foreword by Clement Crisp and an annotated list of artists.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Van Norman Baer, Nancy, comp. Art of Enchantment: Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, 1909-1929. New York: Universe Books, 1988. Catalog of an exhibition of Ballets Russes artifacts at the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco. Excellent articles by ten different authors accompany photographs of the exhibit material. Elena Bridgman’s essay on the Mir Iskusstva origins of the Ballets Russes and Joan Aceola’s essay on Nijinsky are exceptional. Includes a chronological table of Ballets Russes productions.

Fokine’s Les Sylphides Introduces Abstract Ballet

The Firebird Premieres in Paris

L’Après-midi d’un faune Scandalizes Parisian Audiences

The Rite of Spring Stuns Audiences

Stravinsky Completes His Wind Octet

Categories: History