The most influential figure of the early twentieth century was the impresario Sergey Diaghilev, who founded an innovative touring ballet company in 1909 with choreographer Michel Fokine, dancer Vaslav Nijinksy, and designer Alexandre Benois. After the staging of Stravinskiy's controversial The Rite of Spring , World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution kept Diaghilev from returning to Russia. Until Diaghilev died in 1929, his Russian dance company, the Ballet Russe, was headquartered in Paris. In the same period, the émigré dancer Anna Pavlova toured the world with her troupe and exerted a huge influence on the art form. [Source: Library of Congress, 1996 *]

After Diaghilev, several new companies calling themselves the Ballet Russe toured the world, and new generations of Russian dancers filled their ranks. George Balanchine, a Georgian émigré and protégé of Diaghilev, formed the New York City Ballet in 1948. Meanwhile, the Soviet government sponsored new ballet companies throughout the union. After a period of innovation and experimentation in the 1920s, Russia's ballet reverted under Stalin to the traditional forms of Petipa, even changing the plots of some ballets to emphasize the positive themes of socialist realism. *

The most influential Russian dancer of the mid-twentieth century was Rudolf Nureyev, who defected to the West in 1961 and is credited with establishing the dominant role of the male dancer in classical ballet. A second notable émigré, Mikhail Baryshnikov, burnished an already brilliant career in the United States after defecting from Leningrad's Kirov Ballet in 1974.The large cities of Russia traditionally have their own symphony orchestras and ballet and opera houses. Although funding for such facilities has diminished in the 1990s, attendance at performances remains high. The ballet companies of the Bol'shoy Theater in Moscow and the Kirov Theater in St. Petersburg are world renowned and have toured regularly since the early 1960s. *

Influential Choreographers in Russian

Under the Frenchman Marius Petipa the St. Petersburg Imperial Ballet (now the Kirov) became the best in the world in the late 19th century. Petipa is credited with making ballet into an entertaining spectacle. He choreographed more than 60 works including “Swan Lake”, “The Nutcracker” and “Sleeping Beauty”.

Petipa was succeeded by another great choreographer Russian American Mikhail Fokine, who choreographed “Les Sylphides”, “The Firebird” and “Petrushka”. Fokine is credited with revitalizing dance ta the beginning of the 20th century. He graduated from the Imperial School (Maryinsky Theater) in St. Petersburg in 1898. He aimed to make dance more expressive while staying true to the basic ballet movements.

The Russian-American choreographer George Balanchine (1903-1983) was of Georgian descent. He was born in St. Petersburg and graduated from the Soviet State School of Ballet (formally the Imperial School). He first distinguished himself in St. Petersburg and was a member of the Diaghilev company from 1925 to 1929. He came to the United States in 1933. and was the Artistic Director and one of the founders of the New York City Ballet.

Balanchine was a musical and dance genius. In Russia, he studied piano and theory for three years at the Petrograd Conservatory while dancing in the State Opera corps and running his own ballet group. He left Russia in 1924. He collaborated with Stravinsky when he was only 21 years old and created works for the Ballet Russes.


Although he was neither a dancer, choreographer or composer, Sergei Diaghilev (1872-1929) is considered the father of modern ballet. More than just a producers, he had a talent for bringing great people together and getting the best out of them. People were attracted to Diaghilev by his enthusiasm but wary of him because of his homosexuality

The son of a general and noblewoman, Diaghilev was born in Perm in the Urals. He developed his interests in the arts and began his association with painters and musicians when he came to St. Petersburg to study law. He attended operas at the Maryinsky Theater, and thought briefly about composing before he was advised against it by Stravinsky's mentor Rimsky-Korsakov.

Diaghilev chose the famous Michelangelo saying "he who follows another will never overtake him" as his motto. Diaghilev also liked to quote the famous Dostoevsky saying: "Ideas fly throught the air, but they are conditioned by laws which we cannot understand. Ideas are infectious and, and an idea which might be thought the prerogative of a highly cultured person can suddenly alight in the mind of a simple carefree being and take procession of him.”

In 1893, as a young man, Diaghilev toured Europe and met many of the leading artists of his day, including Zola and Verdi. A few years later time late he began organizing exhibitions of paintings, including a famous show in 1898 featuring works by Degas, Renoir and Monet. After working briefly on the staff of the Imperial Theater in St. Petersburg, Diaghilev produced his first opera, Mussorgsky's “Boris Godonov” at the Paris Opera in 1908. A year later he revitalized classical ballet in Paris with the creation of the Les Ballet Russes.

In Paris, Diaghilev hung out with people like Coco Chanel, Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel, Giacomo Puccini, Marcel Proust and Pablo Picasso. He failed to join his dancers on tours of the Latin America and the United States because of his obsessive fear of the ocean.

Stravinsky, Diaghilev, The Firebird and Petrouchka

In 1908, the great Russian composer Igor Stravinsky was badly shaken by the death of his mentor Rimsky-Korsakov but after a months he began collaborating with a new patron, Sergei Diaghilev, a producer who attended a performance of Stravinsky's “Fireworks” and was greatly impressed.

Diaghilev, who had begun staging Russian ballet productions in Paris, had commissioned a composer to write a new ballet based on the Russian folk tale The Firebird. When the composer failed to produce the piece, Diaghilev asked Stravinsky to do it. The result was “The Firebird” (1910), an adaption of Russian folk melodies to the ballet rhythms. It was a great success and Diaghilev and Stravinsky both became an instant celebrities

“The Firebird” was produced in Paris in 1910, when Stravinsky was only 28. It remains Stravinsky's most poplar piece. It was very much a Rimsky-styled piece with, in the words of Alex Ross of the New Yorker, "exotic scales, diaphanous orchestration and rapt repetitions of fascinating chords."

Stravinsky’s and Diaghilev’s next collaboration, “Petrouchka” (1911), was also a big success. Featuring Vaslav Nijinsky in the title role, this ballet was based on a Russian folk story about a puppet that comes to life at a fair on the frozen Neva River. Both the “Firebird” and “Petrouchka” were choreographed by another Russian, Mikhail Fokine.

Rite of Spring

The next Stravinsky-Diaghilev-Nijinsky collaboration, “The Rite of Spring” (1913), caused a scandal in the musical community. Choreographed by Nijinsky and based on Stravinsky's childhood memories of the Russian countryside, the “Rite of Spring “aimed to re-create an ancient Russian folk ritual: individual earth worship and sacrifice. It was about a group of pre-historic Slavs greeting the spring, with the second act revolving around the sacrifice of a young girl who dances herself to death. The rhythms were explosive and unpredictable. The beat of the adolescent dance was the same as the basic rock 'n' roll beat. One critic described the event as a “sonic rock fight.” When the first performance was over, Stravinsky said he felt "excited, angry, disgusted and happy."

“Rite of Spring” was so the original that audiences were almost horror-stricken by the music and dance. Audience were shocked by both Stravinsky's discordant music and Nijinsky’s frenetic, herky-jerky movements and responded by making catcalls, whistling and throwing things. The critic Jacques Riviere described the performance as a “biological ballet: with he dancers acting like “large revolving masses of protoplasm; germ layers...placentas.”

The world premier of the “Rite of Spring “ took place at the Paris Théâtre des Champs-Elysées on May 29, 1913 when Stravinsky was 30. The night began with the renowned composer Camille Saint-Saëns walking out after the first movements were played because he felt the notes from the bassoon were too high. As the night progressed the catcalls and whistles became so loud, the dancers couldn't hear their cues and fist fights broke out and a riot ensued.

Late the pieces was embraced by the public. After one performance in 1914, Stravinsky was carried out of the concert hall on the shoulders of the audience. After that it became one of the world’s most choreographed pieces of music. By one count is has been staged at a rate of almost once a year since 1913. Despite efforts to construct what happened at the premier, Nijinsky’s choreography has is mostly been lost. Joan Acocella wrote in The New Yorker; “the dancing, like the music, was not just primitive but modernist. Though the dancers may have quaked and stamped, they did so in angular postures, rigid lines.”

Diaghilev, Nijinsky and Massine

Diaghilev and Nijinsky became lovers when the young dancer was only 19. Five years later when Nijinsky married a dancer in the corps Diaghilev felt betrayed. He had Nijinsky dismissed and ended their sexual relation and tried to destroy his career. "I lived with Diaghilev for five years," Nijinsky later wrote: "I loved him sincerely and, when he told me that the love of a woman was terrible thing, I believed him." Nijinsky also wrote, "Diaghilev dies his hair not to look old. Diaghilev's hair is white. He takes black paste and rubs it on his hair. I would see it on his pillow, which would be stained black."

Diaghilev made the bold move of replacing Nijinsky, at the height of his fame, with an unknown 18-year-old dancer named Léonid Massine (1895-1979). Diaghilev molded Massine into a "titan of dance" and made him his sexual partner. When Diaghilev found that Massine was interested in a young female dancer in his troop he got the young girl drunk and threw her in Massine's adjoining room and fired them both.

In addition to Folkine, Nijinsky and Massine, Diaghilev also worked with choreographer George Balanchine. He drew on the music of Ravel, Richard Strauss, Prokofiev and Debussy and enlisted Derain, Picasso, Rouault and Chirico to design his sets and costumes.

When Diaghilev finally overcame his fear of the ocean and traveled to the United States, he was taken to court in the U.S. by the Catholic Theater Movement because of a simulated masturbation scene in "The Afternoon of Faun." Diaghilev died suddenly in 1929. The Ballet Russes disbanded after his death.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated May 2016

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