The Ballets Russes was the first international performing company to feature stage designs by outstanding artists, rather than professional theatrical decorators. Parisian audiences were stunned by the dynamic and riotous, yet harmonized color of sets and costumes from the imaginations of Leon Bakst, Alexandre Benois, Aleksandr Golovin, Nikolai Roerich and other artist-designers of the 'Mir Iskusstva' group. Works by these artists and a group of younger Russian painters that included Mikhail Larionov and Natalia Goncharova were first exhibited in the West in 1906 when Diaghilev organized a novel exhibition of Russian art at the Salon d'Automne in Paris. However it was Diaghilev's 1908 production of the opera Boris Godunov, and the first ballet season of 1909 that made them household names outside of Russia. For the Ballets Russes they designed not only costumes, decors and curtains, but programs, posters and other visual material. Furthermore, these Russian artists were deeply involved in the staging of many of the ballets, collaborating with choreographers and stage directors so that their designs best enhanced the movements of the dancers and the visual structure of the dance. Their work not only revolutionized theatrical design, but left a lasting impact on western fashion, graphic design and decorative art, contributing to trends to both orientalist and Art Deco aesthetics in the 1910s and 1920s.

   Among these artist-designers, Leon Bakst was the one most closely linked to the Ballets Russes both in practical terms and in the public's mind. The productions he designed for Diaghilev between 1909 and his death in 1924, especially in the period 1909-1917 included such famous projects as Scheherezade, L'Après Midi d'un Faune, Daphnis et Chloe, and Sleeping Princess. Alexandre Benois was another scenographer deeply involved in the Diaghilev enterprise during its early years, without whom, in fact, there would have been no Ballets Russes (see the Dance page for more information). In addition to being Diaghilev's major creative advisor in the first several years, even briefly occupying the position of Artistic Director in 1911, Benois created a number of productions that became instant classics, including Les Sylphides, Giselle, and Petrushka. Perhaps even more importantly, he was a theatrical theorist who had already worked and communicated with avant-garde dramatic directors in Petersburg. His ideas about the nature of collaboration between designers, directors, composers and performers in the theater greatly influenced the rest of the creative team, and set a standard for cooperative creation that was followed throughout the existence of the Ballets Russes.

   From 1914 onwards, Diaghilev began to turn to a new crop of Russian artists, such as Larionov, Goncharova and later Naum Gabo and Pavel Tchelitchew. After 1917 he further expanded the ranks of his designers by commissioning European modernist painters, among them Henri Matisse, Juan Gris, Giorgio de Chirico, and perhaps most notably, Pablo Picasso to create productions. Although he was already on the rise, Pablo Picasso truly became a cultural superstar in part thanks to the success and exposure of working for Diaghilev.

Curtain design for 'Coq
D'Or' by Natalia
Goncharova, 1914

Women Running on the
Beach, curtain by
Alexandre Shervashidze
based on a design by
Pablo Picasso, 1922

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