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  • Writer's pictureClaire Biek

Researching the Ballets Russes: A 20th Century Artistic Treasure Trove

Updated: Nov 29, 2023

Although our September concert might feel like a long time ago now, I’ve been reflecting on my personal experiences during the project and would love to use them to demonstrate Odyssey’s individuality. Odyssey offers us all a platform to learn and to think more about classical music through a variety of different contexts and in September, we focused on the Ballets Russes.

Claire playing in our September concert

First of all, let me introduce myself. My name is Claire and I play the cello in Odyssey. While I don’t come from a musical family, music has always had a prominent position in my life. When I became part of the team running the orchestra as social media manager, I engaged with Odyssey’s concept fully for the first time. Odyssey aims to present music played to the highest standard while provoking thoughts and ideas about the context in which it was created, historically and philosophically engaging its audiences through its collaboration with narrators.

In preparation for the concert, I decided to research the concert’s theme, the Ballets Russes, to share my findings and make sure there was information for those who were interested in learning more through the orchestra’s social media. I have to say, the topic itself intrigued me. Researching to create social media posts on Sergei Diaghilev’s infamous dance company, the Ballets Russes, along with the incredible six pieces we were performing, was beyond eye-opening. Other than playing in the actual concert, it was my personal highlight.

I had no idea who the Ballets Russes were, let alone the fact that they engaged such a wide variety of famous artists, composers and designers, including Picasso, Matisse, and Coco Chanel.

Costume design by Picasso for Parade

If you’re familiar with Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, you most likely will be aware that it was nicknamed ‘The Riot of Spring’ after its premiere, due to the extent it outraged the audience, both musically and choreographically, infamously starting a near-riot. Stravinsky composed that very piece for the Ballets Russes. The music and ballet were about ritual and sacrifice (two undeniably controversial subjects for a contemporary audience!) and to add insult to injury, the choreography involved the dancers stomping on stage in a way that was most unlike traditional ballet, much to the audience’s horror. A particularly exciting personal revelation was when I realised that the ballet Le Spectre de la Rose which features Weber’s Invitation to the Dance, was based on a poem by Théophile Gautier, a French author I had studied a little at university. I found out that the beloved Daphnis et Chloé, which most of the orchestra said was their favourite piece in the programme, actually received a ‘lukewarm reception’ [LA Phil, Meg Ryan] at its premiere due to the scandalous ballet, L’après-midi d’un faune, that had been performed the night before by Vaslav Nijinsky (legendary male dancer and choreographer for the Ballets Russes, actually regarded as one of the greatest male dancers of the early 20th century). Why had this ballet caused such a stir, you might ask? Because, set to Claude Debussy’s ‘dreamily impressionistic’ music, the great dancer Vaslav Nijinsky had appeared to shudder in orgasm over a scarf abandoned by one of the nymphs [The Guardian].

I was completely ignorant of the immense impact this ballet company has had on dance all over the globe, despite its mere twenty years of existence. Although I had never given much thought to ballet before, I thoroughly enjoyed researching this ground-breaking dance company and discovering the extent of its influence on the artistic world through the lens of classical music.

I turned my attention to Tamara Karsavina, prima ballerina within the company and the figure whose role our narrator, Kathryn Hunter, would take on (with a script stitched together from a variety of sources: her memoirs, articles by Stravinsky, and memoirs from other Ballet Russes members). Clearly, she was a significant figure if the narrator’s role would be focusing on her.

Karsavina as Columbine in Carnaval

Karsavina created many primary roles within the company’s productions (including The Firebird and Petrushka), some with the legendary Vaslav Nijinsky as her partner, and was known for her innovative dance style. After marrying Henry Bruce and moving to London, she helped establish the Royal Ballet in London as well as design syllabuses for the Royal Academy of Dance in 1854. Her great influence on the world of ballet is still felt today. Vaslav Nijinsky’s virtuosity and charisma as a ballet dancer ‘were such that no one who saw him perform, it was claimed, ever forgot him.’ [V&A Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes]. He was also infamous for his varied and unusual choreography which shook up the kind of ballet audiences were used to seeing (notably, The Rite of Spring).

Of course, I found out some things that are intensely unsavoury. Like the fact that the Ballets Russes used blackface in their production of Petrushka and Daphnis et Chloé includes a scene of sexual assault. Or that Diaghilev, a highly influential figure in 20th-century art, is repeatedly described as a ‘dictator, devil, charlatan, sorcerer, charmer’ [V&A Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes – an introduction, written for their exhibition 2010-2011]. Diagheliv’s character in this story was highly intriguing. After Stravinsky’s riot-starting The Rite of Spring caused a stir among the press and more widely Parisian society, Diaghilev confided to Stravinsky that this was ‘Exactly what [he] wanted.’ [Luke Jennings, 2010, The Guardian].

Diaghilev and Stravinsky in 1926

Diaghilev undeniably understood celebrity and power, and had the ability to network and manipulate the press. Ironically, although Diaghilev never partook in dancing, he always wanted the spotlight on himself, viewing himself as the creator and director of Russian ballet. He bullied ballet dancers who left the company, preventing their employment by other companies and them receiving entry visas to England. When Vaslav Nijinsky’s sister tried to set up her own company in Britain in 1925, after having danced in and choreographed Ballet Russes productions, Diaghilev indirectly informed the Home Office that her dancers did not have the correct visas. Diaghilev often had relationships with leading male dancers in the company. He famously had relationships with Vaslav Nijinsky and Léonide Massine, both of which resulted in their expulsion from the company when they ended. Reportedly, sex with Diaghilev was like having a cuddle ‘with a nice fat old lady’ [The Guardian]. Ultimately, Diaghilev was known as a master manipulator and sexual predator, if he was also undeniably an artistic genius.

Dancers of the Ballet Russes

What was remarkable about the Ballets Russes, was the way that Diaghilev combined all the art mediums through prominent artists into one production. Anyone who was ‘anyone’ in the early 20th-century art world worked with the Ballets Russes at some point. In fact, many of them, including Stravinsky, could attribute the launching of their careers to Diaghilev and his dance company. Diaghilev was highly ambitious, wanting to create entirely new and innovative ballets. He famously declared:

"There is no interest in achieving the possible, but it is exceedingly interesting to perform the impossible."

Diaghilev therefore undoubtedly created a space where artists could experiment more freely while feeding back into their own work. Perhaps then the music that Diaghilev commissioned is the Ballets Russes’ greatest legacy? Or the choreography that they developed? More than 200 different versions of The Rite of Spring have been choreographed since it was originally commissioned [V&A]. For visual artists, Diaghilev encouraged the avant-garde, giving them the opportunity for them to move outside of the studio into an experimental, three-dimensional space, designing backdrops and costumes for his productions.

Set design for Scheherazade by Leon Bakst

This wasn’t without its controversy. Critics accused Diaghilev of turning the ballet stage into an art gallery, particularly noting his overspending which was placing the company’s finances in a dangerous position. In any case, Ballet Russes’s influence on ballet, art, and classical music is undeniable and still greatly felt today.

What Odyssey does is different from any other orchestra. The role of the narrator is crucial in engaging the audience directly with the music itself and the historical context in which it took place. That’s what I love about it. I myself find it far too easy to engage with music on a superficial level, enjoying the sounds created without thinking about its context and meaning. Of course, that’s part of the point – music is written to be listened to. But when you engage with that very context and meaning, that’s when the music can truly come to life. Playing Weber’s Invitation to the Dance, I could practically see Vaslav Nijinsky’s final leap into the darkness which left so many audiences spellbound.

I honestly can’t wait to do more research for our next concert Every Tree Speaks to Me! focusing on nature and the role it plays in art and music. I look forward to exploring the importance of the natural world for creative minds such as Beethoven, Wagner, and Janacek and how this can resonate with us today. Tackling such a topical subject in this concert, Odyssey is recognising the way that music can be a useful lens through which we examine these topics. Learning about classical music can seem incredibly daunting, but being able to learn about it through a variety of different contexts, is both undeniably unique and entertaining. Come and find out for yourselves at our next concert!

Our next concert will be at Cadogan Hall on the 11th of January and will explore how the natural world has influenced artists, particularly through the Industrial Revolution. Starting with Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony, interspersed with poetry by the poet John Clare, we reflect on the idyllic rural life before exploring Wagner and Janacek's reflections on nature. Wagner's epic Ring Cycle has, at its heart, a plea to respect the natural environment whilst Janacek presented a more hopeful vision of man and nature living in harmony in his opera Cunning Little Vixen. Wagner's Forest Murmurs and the Suite from Cunning Little Vixen will form the second half of the concert, along with readings from the composers themselves.

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