Premieres in Paris

When Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes returned to Paris for a second triumphal season, the company performed original ballets by Michel Fokine, among the most important of which was The Firebird.

Summary of Event

In 1909, the Ballets Russes, Ballet companies;Ballets Russes a touring ensemble of Russian dancers under the direction of Sergei Diaghilev, astonished Parisian audiences with exquisite dancing, innovative choreography, and vibrant set decor and costumes, which were surrounded by an aura of pagan exoticism. That first season introduced the choreography of Michel Fokine and the dancing of Vaslav Nijinsky, Tamara Platonovna Karsavina, Anna Pavlova, and others, as well as the colorful set and costume designs of Léon Bakst, Alexandre Benois, and Nikolay Konstantinovich Roerich. Music for the ballets was equally nationalistic, featuring Russian composers Aleksandr Borodin, Mikhail Glinka, Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov, Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky, and Nicholas Tcherepnin. A brilliant artistic and cultural success, the Ballets Russes’ 1909 premiere season set the stage for subsequent triumphs. Dance;ballet
Ballet;The Firebird[Firebird]
Firebird, The (ballet)
Ballets Russes
[kw]Firebird Premieres in Paris, The (June 25, 1910)
[kw]Paris, The Firebird Premieres in (June 25, 1910)
Ballet;The Firebird[Firebird]
Firebird, The (ballet)
Ballets Russes
[g]France;June 25, 1910: The Firebird Premieres in Paris[02640]
[c]Dance;June 25, 1910: The Firebird Premieres in Paris[02640]
[c]Music;June 25, 1910: The Firebird Premieres in Paris[02640]
Fokine, Michel
Diaghilev, Sergei
Bakst, Léon
Golovin, Alexander
Karsavina, Tamara Platonovna
Stravinsky, Igor

The company’s second Parisian season had even more emphasis on the exotic East and mysterious Russia. Of five ballets presented in 1910, three featured Russian or Oriental themes, music, and decor: Schéhérazade, L’Oiseau de feu (known in English as The Firebird), and Les Orientales. Only Giselle and Carnaval were in the Romantic tradition. Although all five ballets displayed the celebrated technique of the company’s Mariinsky-trained dancers, ballet technique, no matter how exquisite, was not the appeal of the Ballets Russes. Rather, it was the transformation of the stage into an exotic world awash with color, motion, and brilliance, where music enveloped the senses and dancers exuded an aura of sensuous liberation, that captivated the Parisian public.

The Firebird featured the choreography of Fokine, set decor and costumes by Alexander Golovin and Léon Bakst, and the music of Igor Stravinsky. The cast included Karsavina as the Bird of Fire, Fokine as Ivan Tsarevitch, Enrico Cecchetti as the evil Kostchei the Immortal, and Fokine’s wife, Vera Fokina, as the beautiful Tsarevna. The libretto, created by Fokine, is an amalgam of several Russian fairy tales. A ballet in one act and two scenes, The Firebird presents a fairy tale for adults. The story concerns the young Prince Ivan, his encounter with the glorious, magical Bird of Fire, and his battle with Kostchei, an evil magician. The plot is an allegory of heroism overcoming political tyranny, and the Tsarevitch is rewarded with marriage to the Tsarevna and the obeisance of adoring subjects.

The Firebird opens with a musical overture. As one critic has described the work’s beginning, “There are low mutterings, mysterious long-drawn wails as of one unknown creature calling to another, the tramp of gnomes underground, strange rustlings, moans . . . and above all can be heard, at first faintly . . . the tremulous whirr of the wings of a bird soaring in circular flight.” Stravinsky’s music and Golovin’s set combined to create an atmosphere of mystery; Karsavina’s shadowy entrance completed the illusion.

Fokine’s choreography explores the precariousness of individual freedom and the conflict of freedom and authority, which is represented both by Ivan, who will one day be a king, and by Kostchei, an evil tyrant who is forced from his throne. Critic Lynn Garafola has observed that when alone, “the Firebird gleams with the power of a fully realized being; captive, she reflects the tenuousness of individualism itself.”

Fokine was an innovative choreographer who liberated classical ballet from its academic straitjacket. The Firebird is especially noteworthy for the use of both classical ballet technique and nontraditional movement styles. Fokine’s interest in the individual, expressivity, and naturalism were clearly evident in The Firebird. His unconventional aesthetic was matched and supported by Bakst’s designs, which bared the torsos and midriffs of the dancers. As one critic has noted, by allowing dancers to move freely, Bakst’s costumes “brought a greater psychological naturalism to the ballet stage.”

A musical masterpiece, Stravinsky’s score for The Firebird marked his first composition for Diaghilev. The music incorporates traditional Russian folk songs, modified and orchestrated in a manner that presages Stravinsky’s later compositions of Petrushka (1911) and Le Sacre du printemps (1913; The Rite of Spring). Stravinsky worked in close collaboration with Diaghilev and Fokine, who, Stravinsky later wrote, created the ballet’s choreography “section by section, as the music was handed to him.” Stravinsky was later critical of Fokine’s choreography, which he asserted was complicated and overly detailed, thus making it difficult for the dancers to coordinate their movements and gestures with his music. Nevertheless, in his 1962 biography, Stravinsky credited the success of the ballet as “equally due to the spectacle on the stage in the painter Golovin’s magnificent setting, the brilliant interpretation by Diaghileff’s artists, and the talent of the choreographer.”

After the ballet’s premiere, the French critic Henri Léon lavished praise on the production. Noting the unusually close collaboration of Fokine, Stravinsky, and Golovin, Léon applauded their attainment of an equilibrium of motion, sound, and form. He commented:

The backdrop, shot with darker tints of gold, seems to be woven of the same yarn as the fabric of the orchestra. In the sounds of the instruments you hear the living voices of the sorcerer, raving witches and gnomes. When the bird is flying by, it makes an impression of being carried by music. In all of them—Stravinsky, Fokine and Golovin—I see one author.

It was precisely this synthesis that was the strength of the Ballets Russes and the source of the exceptional appeal of The Firebird.


With the success of The Firebird and the entire 1910 season, the Ballets Russes established itself as the dominant force in the realm of the ballet and its allied arts. The name Ballets Russes became synonymous with innovations in choreography, musical composition, and stage design. All things “à la Russe” were in vogue; the influence of Bakst, Benois, and Golovin was visible in the designs of everything from ottomans to evening gowns. The Firebird and subsequent “Oriental” ballets such as Petrushka, Le Dieu bleu (1912), Thamar (1912), and Sadko (1911) came to represent the Ballets Russes. The effects of the Ballets Russes on developments in the arts, society, and culture were far-reaching and long lasting.

To understand the significance of The Firebird, one must understand the unique characteristics of the artists of the Ballets Russes and the philosophical antecedents of the ensemble. In the prewar seasons of the Ballets Russes (1909-1914), Diaghilev engaged Russian artists exclusively as his designers. All had been members of Mir Iskusstva Mir Iskusstva (world of art), a group of Russian artists who shared a similar, progressive aesthetic. These artists believed that Russian folk arts and crafts should be supported and used to revitalize the visual arts and to create a modern, truly Russian style. They also believed in the necessity of an artistic synthesis of elements within a production, a concept that composer Richard Wagner had earlier popularized with the idea of the Gesamtkunstwerk, Gesamtkunstwerk or total work of art. Influenced by the Symbolist movement, Symbolist movement the group saw in ballet productions the possibility for a true unity of design.

The early Ballets Russes productions, in fact, were Symbolist experiments in which, as Elena Bridgman has noted, “the constituent parts—movement, costumes, decor, and music—worked en ensemble to induce specific emotional states.” Many of the principles adhered to in the early Ballets Russes productions had their origins in the art colonies established at Abramtsevo and Talashkino by Russian neonationalists Savva Mamontov and Princess Maria Tenisheva. Diaghilev borrowed the collaborative method of scenic design first established at Abramtsevo and also employed easel painters, rather than professional decorators, as stage designers. Diaghilev’s presentation of Russian culture as exotic and alien to the Western world—an approach that was enormously successful with audiences and critics, who raved about the “wild Asiatic horde”—was one of Mamontov’s important legacies.

From this aesthetic perspective, Diaghilev’s productions can be viewed as visible symbols of the ideals that Mir Iskusstva championed. The Firebird, praised for its artistic harmony and collaborative unity, was the prototype for future collaborations and provided validation for the aesthetic philosophies of its artists. According to Garafola, The Firebird was the Ballets Russes’ only true example of collaborative process; Garafola suggests that “far more than collaboration, what held together the pieces of Diaghilev’s best works was the community of values to which their contributing artists subscribed.” Both the Mir Iskusstva ideals and method of process were validated through the success of the company’s 1910 season.

In The Firebird, Fokine’s revolutionary choreographic aesthetic continued to develop. He attacked the stale, academic conventions of the Russian Imperial Ballet and created new forms of movement that were expressive and reflective of the time, place, and ethos of each ballet. He brought new life and enhanced expressiveness to the use of the arms and torso in dance, discarded the artificial geometry of a regimented corps de ballet, and democratized and humanized his dancers by insisting that they move as a collective of individuals. His reforms paralleled those of Konstantin Stanislavsky Stanislavsky, Konstantin and the Moscow Art Theater; Moscow Art Theater both believed in the principles of scenic realism and worked to promote reform from within their disciplines.

It is ironic that the very success of The Firebird presaged the beginning of Fokine’s choreographic decline. Locked into the creation of exotic pagan extravaganzas because of their popularity, Fokine increasingly (with the exception of his masterpiece Petrushka) produced formulaic work. Diaghilev’s enthusiasm for sensationalism and for his young protégé Vaslav Nijinsky Nijinsky, Vaslav made further difficulties for Fokine. Fokine was expected to create ballets that would feature Nijinsky, even though he preferred to choreograph for women. Fokine left the company in 1912, returning only briefly in 1914.

In contrast, Stravinsky’s association with Diaghilev propelled him to the vanguard of modern art. Following The Firebird he composed Petrushka, The Rite of Spring, and Les Noces (1923) for Diaghilev productions. His ballets, operas, and many compositions brought him international renown. Diaghilev’s (then uncommon) insistence that musical scores be of the highest quality for ballets elevated both arts to new heights.

The success of The Firebird and other ballets of the early Ballets Russes seasons provided visual artists wide exposure and freedom to experiment. Bakst, for example, brought to his stage designs for the Ballets Russes the influence of numerous movements in contemporary European painting, including Symbolism, Art Nouveau, expressionism, and Fauvism. Some historians have speculated that the presentation of such designs in Ballets Russes performances may have encouraged the general acceptance of these artistic currents. The powerful effect of the Ballets Russes designs on the evolution of the visual arts is evident in the list of artists who chose to work with Diaghilev; after the tremendous success of Bakst, Benois, Golovin, Roerich, and Natalya Goncharova, such distinguished artists as Giacomo Balla, Juan Gris, Henri Matisse, and Pablo Picasso made history with their designs for the company.

The impacts of The Firebird on choreography, music, scenic design, and the visual arts were immediate and profound. These were, however, only a harbinger of the artistic revolution that would take place during the next few seasons of the Ballets Russes: Beginning with L’Après-midi d’un faune (1912), quickly followed by Jeux (1913) and The Rite of Spring, the Ballets Russes would catapult ballet into the modern age. Dance;ballet
Ballet;The Firebird[Firebird]
Firebird, The (ballet)
Ballets Russes

Further Reading

  • 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, dance training, and rise to stardom as a choreographer.
  • Garafola, Lynn. Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. 1989. Reprint. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005. Exceptionally well-written and thorough analysis of the Ballets Russes examines the company from artistic, social, economic, and aesthetic perspectives. Provides rich and thought-provoking information on Fokine.
  • _______. 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.
  • _______, 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.
  • Kochno, Boris. Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes. Translated by Adrienne Foulke. New York: Harper & Row, 1970. Contains photographs, excerpts from letters, program notes, and unpublished essays by Diaghilev and his contemporaries. Provides less documentation of the early seasons of the Ballets Russes than for later ones, but covers every ballet produced by the company from 1909 to 1929.
  • 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.
  • 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 various authors accompany photographs of the exhibition material. Nancy Van Norman Baer’s article on design and choreography and Dale Harris’s essay titled “Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes and the Vogue for Orientalism” provide useful information on the exotic ballets of the prewar seasons. Includes a chronological table of Ballets Russes productions.

Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes Astounds Paris

Fokine’s Les Sylphides Introduces Abstract Ballet

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

The Rite of Spring Stuns Audiences

Stravinsky Completes His Wind Octet