From its legendary first performances in May 1909 at the Theatre du Chatelet, the Ballets Russes did more for Parisian audiences than just present them with new choreography, new music, new stars, and a new performing company. These productions redefined ballet for the twentieth century, reinventing an entire art form that had grown stale elsewhere in Europe. At Russia's Imperial theaters and ballet school, the traditions of ballet, rooted in the court dances of Louis XIV's reign and Italian pantomime were not only preserved, but nurtured and developed further. With extensive financial support from the Tsar's coffers, few corners were cut in the training of dancers, the hiring of choreographic and performing talent, and the staging of productions. It was in St. Petersburg that all of Diaghilev's great choreographers, and many of his star and corps de ballet dancers were trained. Fokin, Nijinsky, Massine, Nijinska, and Balanchine were all the products of the Imperial Ballet School, and began their dance careers at the Mariinsky theater, as did Karsavina, Pavlova, Danilova, Lopokova and countless others.

   The first Ballets Russes ballet actually premiered in Russia and had nothing at all to do with Diaghilev. Pavillon d'Armide was the brainchild of the artist, critic and historian Alexandre Benois, an avid balletomane whose grandfather had built the Mariinsky Theater. Benois wrote the libretto of the ballet in 1903 and Nikolai Tcherepnin composed the music to suit the plot, in close consultation with Benois. The ballet was bought by the Mariinsky, but left unstaged until Mikhail Fokin, a brilliant young choreographer and balletmeister there came across it, staging a segment of it as a graduation performance for the students of the Imperial Ballet School. The success of this performance led to renewed interest in the ballet for the Mariinsky's main stage, and in 1907 Fokin and Benois staged the ballet together, with sets and costumes designed by Alexandre. A scholar of not only art but dance history, Benois worked throughout with Fokin on the stage direction and even choreography of the piece, especially the numbers involving large groups of dancers. Benois' great friend, Diaghilev was present at the opening and was conquered by the performance, finally agreeing with Benois' advice that he should bring not only opera but ballet productions to Paris. Le Pavillon d'Armide demonstrated both Fokin's innovative approach to choreography, and Benois' ideas about collaborative creation in the theater, where he felt directors, designers, composers and performers should work together as one, to achieve aesthetic unity. All this would become the foundation of the Ballets Russes as a company, and would ensure its Parisian success.

   The Ballets Russes' twenty-year existence can be broken up into approximate choreographic periods. 1909-1914 was the Fokin era, and it was he who not only created most of the company's ballets, but also maintained the troupe as balletmeister. Fokin's seminal choreographic works, performed frequently to this day, include Les Sylphides, Scheherezade, Firebird, Petrushka, and Spectre de la Rose. He also created numerous other productions that are less well known today because the complexities of their staging and the lack of preserved choreography make them difficult to put on, among them are Pavillon d'Armide, Daphnis et Chloe, and Le Coq d'Or. A student of Fokin's from the Imperial Ballet School and star of many of his choreographic compositions, Vaslav Nijinsky, eventually became Diaghilev's choreographic protege. However, he managed to create just three ballets before his 1913 marriage nearly ended his career. Insanely jealous, Diaghilev fired Nijinsky, and re-hired him only briefly in 1916 when Nijinsky danced in the Ballets' North American tour and created one last ballet, Till Eulenspiegel. Although his work as a choreographer was brief, it was significant; in Prelude a l'apresmidi d'un Faune, Le Sacre du Printemps and Jeux, Nijinsky departed even further than Fokin from the traditional vocabulary of movement, progressing more in the direction of modern dance than in the continuation of ballet tradition resumed by his successor, Leonid Massine.

   Principal choreographer as well as star dancer after the departure of both Fokin and Nijinsky, Massine led the company from 1915 to 1921. Among his innovative choreographic works of the period were Le Soleil de Nuit, La Boutique Fantastique, and Le Tricorne. When, after years as Diaghilev's lover, Massine declared his independence by marrying and refusing to allow himself to be bullied by his sometimes overbearing boss, he nevertheless remained tied to the Ballets Russes. From 1932 to 1937 he was the chief choreographer of the Colonel de Basil Ballets Russes, a successor company, before leaving with a group of discontented dancers to start his own troupe, the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. In the de Basil Ballets, Massine had shared the spotlight with two former colleagues, Bronislava Nijinska and George Balanchine. A brilliant dancer herself, though not so beloved as her elder brother, Nijinska had worked for Diaghilev for over a decade when she finally got her chance to be a choreographer in 1923. Among the pieces she created at the Ballets Russes were Les Noces, Le Train Bleu, and Les Biches. Balanchine was her successor and the company's last major choreographer. After a knee injury effectively ended his performing career in 1926, he concentrated his energies on choreography and by Diaghilev's death in 1929 had created nine ballets, including La Chatte, Apollon Musagete, Le Fils Prodigue and Le Bal. Many of these starred Diaghilev's latest lover, Serge Lifar, who might well have become the next balletmeister if Diaghilev had not died soon after Lifar's first efforts in choreography. Altogether, the choreographers and dancers of the Ballets Russes overturned many of the static conventions of classical Ballet, and ushered in the era of modern dance while preserving a sense of tradition and the heritage of the Russian ballet school.

   During the 2009 festival, Boston Ballet will present a new evening program of four of the groundbreaking short ballets from different phases in the aesthetic evolution of the Ballets Russes. First performed in 1911, Le Spectre de la Rose (the Specter of the Rose) is in essence a pas de deux created by Mikhail Fokin specifically for the first two dancers to perform it, Vaslav Nijinsky and Tamara Karsavina. In the ballet, a young girl returns home from her society debut at a ball. She dreams that she dances with the rose she held at the ball, whose specter was danced by Nijinsky, causing quite a sensation. Audiences were particularly enraptured by his final athletic leap out of the girl's window, which ended both the girl's reverie and the ballet itself.

   Nijinsky's first choreographic effort, Prelude a l'apresmidi d'un Faune (Prelude to the Afternoon of the Faun) was the most controversial performance of the Ballet Russe in 1912, signaling the beginning of a shift towards modernism. In the ballet, Nijinsky completely fulfilled Diaghilev's expectations of a revolutionary and provocative dance. The plot centers on a faun who unsuccessfully flirts with nymphs. When the nymphs run away, leaving behind a scarf belonging to one among them, the faun plays with the scarf ending the ballet with simulated masturbation. Nijinsky's performance as the faun was powerful, virile, and even animalistic, according to some observers, who were mostly shocked by the ballet's overt sexuality, which went far beyond the subtler eroticism of Fokin ballets like Cleopatre and Scheherezade.

   Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring) went even further, in 1913, towards flouting old conventions. While Fokin's work was stylized and aestheticised, Nijinsky moved towards the primitive, choreographing jerky movements and sharp body angles that reflected Stravinsky's extremely rhythmic and avant-garde score. Once again, sex was the subject, depicting old mythologized Russian fertility rites, which included human sacrifice. The first presentation of the Ballet created such a stir that fights broke out in the audience, which could only be stopped by the eventual arrival of the police.

   Balanchine's Le Fils Prodigue, (The Prodigal Son) was one of the last productions premiered by the Ballets Russes. Based on the biblical tale, it was more narrative and less abstract than some of Balanchine's other works, reflecting his neoclassical approach to ballet.

Mikhail Fokin and Vera
Fokina in 'Carnaval',

Vaslav Nijinsky and
Tamara Karsavina in
'Le Spectre de la Rose',

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