THE BALLETS RUSSES
On the eve of the 100th anniversary of the creation of the Ballets Russes, and based
on an original idea by Ravenscourt Galleries, Sotheby's is pleased to announce the
staging of an exceptional exhibition of works lent mainly by French, British and
Russian private collectors, museums and foundations.
Some 150 paintings, designs, costumes, theatre decors, drawings, sculptures, photographs,
manuscripts, and programmes will be on display in Paris, retracing the key moments in
the history of the Ballets Russes - a company that for twenty years made a revolutionary
impact on 20th century theatre and dance, and continues to fascinate to this day.
Conceived in St Petersburg, then brought to life in Paris, the Ballets Russes was an
exceptional phenomenon in the history of European theatre and dance. Under choreographer
Mikhail Fokine, dance was to involve far more than athletic prowess, becoming a vehicle
for self-expression and emotion, backed by decors and costumes designed by frontline
artists. Meanwhile impresario Serge Diaghilev signed up the biggest names from the
Russian imperial theatres - the Mariinsky in St Petersburg and Bolshoi in Moscow.
This outlet for Russian creativity, mixing sophistication and sensuality in music,
dance, art and drama, swiftly enjoyed a runaway success. The debut performance, an
opera in 1908, was followed in 1909 by the first of many ballets, among them
Polovetsian Dances (1909), Sheherazade (1910), Petrushka (1911),
Le Spectre de la Rose (1911), Parade (1917) and Le Train Bleu (1924).
In 1911 Diaghilev established a permanent troupe, and embarked on international
tours to London, Monte Carlo and Germany, soon followed by South America and the
United States. As a private, independent company, the Ballets Russes travelled
everywhere without being attached to any one venue, although their Paris season
remained an important annual event.
Until his death in 1929, Diaghilev maintained a creative team of international
talent that at various times included avant-garde composers like Igor Stravinsky,
Maurice Ravel, Erik Satie, Serge Prokofiev, Manuel de Falla and Vittorio Rieti;
and innovative theatre designers like Leon Bakst, Alexander Benois, Nikolai Roerich,
Michel Larionov, Natalia Goncharova, Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Georges Braque,
André Derain and Giorgio de Chirico.
Only the choreographers (and most of the dancers) were of Russian origin: Mikhail
Fokine, Vaslav Nijinsky and his sister Bronislava Nijinska, Leonid Massine and
Georges Balanchine. Often performing in their own ballets, they broadened the
choreographic vocabulary of ballet and exploited dynamic new rhythms. On stage,
alongside Russian dancers like Anna Pavlova, Tamara Karsavina, Alexandra Danilova
and Serge Lifar, some key roles were played by other nationalities - whether
Polish (Leon Woidzikowski and Stanislas Idzikowski), British (Lydia Sokolova,
Anton Dolin and Alicia Markova), Spanish, and American.
The Sotheby's show aims to reflect the revolutionary creativity, stimulating diversity
and sheer magic of a troupe that danced its way to glory and into history.
On display will be costumes designed by such great French artists as André Derain
(La Boutique Fantasque, 1919) and Henri Matisse (Le Chant du Rossignol, 1920), and
by the Russian designer Leon Bakst, who amazed the theatrical world with his passion
for stark colour, bold forms and startling set designs. Bakst's vivid and sensual
costume designs on Oriental and Greek themes not only impressed theatrical audiences
but began new fashion trends. He was the first theatrical artist to become a celebrity
in his own right.
Posters recalling the surge of creativity that surrounded the Ballets Russes include
Pablo Picasso's iconic image of the Chinese Conjuror for the audacious production of
Parade (1917), and Jean Cocteau's poster for Le Spectre de La Rose (1911), which
enjoyed universal acclaim.
Costumes and stage designs presented include works by Alexander Benois, for Le
Pavillon d'Armide (1909) and Petrushka (1911); Leon Bakst, for La Peri (1912)
and Le Dieu Bleu (1912); Mikhail Larionov, for Le Soleil a Minuit (1915); and
Natalia Gontcharova, for The Firebird (1925 version).
Among the sculptors who derived inspiration from the Ballets Russes' choreography
were Demetre Chiparus, Paul Philippe and Boris Frodmann Cluzel, whose remarkable
bronze dancers are featured in the exhibition, along with figurines in Meissen
porcelain, representing characters from the ballet Carnaval, modelled by Paul
The exhibition also contains photographs of various dancers, such as Tamara Karsavina
in Carnaval and Vaslav Nijinsky in the role of Petrushka; and correspondence between
Serge Diaghilev and his collaborators, notably Georges Braque (1923), Walter Nouvel (1928)
and Georges Rouault (1929).
Finally, there will be a handful of contemporary works reflecting the visual heritage
of the Ballets Russes - notably an installation made of paper by Isabelle de Borchgrave,
and items from the Imperial Porcelain Manufactory in St. Petersburg.
Sotheby's will also be showing, alongside the exhibition, a selection of works from
the sale of Russian Art to be held in London in November 2008.
Sotheby's were the first auction house to stage sales with a Ballets Russes theme
in London in the 1960s, most notable 1968 and 1969, including many of the costumes
and decors used by the troupe. Among the most celebrated pieces offered at auction
have been Pablo Picasso's curtain for Le Train Bleu; decors by Natalia Goncharova
and Leon Bakst; and costumes worn by Vaslav Nijinski and other dancers. The wide-ranging
debut auctions made a huge impact among connoisseurs and the media, prompting regular
sales in London, New York and Paris, which have continued ever since.