PRINT May 2009


the Ballets Russes centennial

THIS SPRING, A FLURRY OF exhibitions in Europe and America will celebrate the centennial of Sergey Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, which debuted on May 18, 1909, in Paris—an inauguration that was to have a profound impact on the way art, dance, and theater would be promoted and experienced in the twentieth century. The company’s first season marked the moment when dance displaced Wagnerian opera as the most modern medium of high-cultural entertainment. The Ballets Russes quickly became a fashionable brand associated with ambitious multimedia performance, achieving production values of Zeffi relli-esque proportions. It was the first company to employ professional visual artists, who designed every last detail—sets, costumes, posters, programs. It raised the bar for the kinds of music that could accompany dance. Diaghilev made concert music fair game for choreography, and, for the first time, ballet became a major forum for promoting new composers.

This multimedia enterprise is invariably described with Wagner’s term Gesamtkunstwerk. But this assimilation suppresses the fact that the Ballets Russes’ success was inseparable from the exhaustion of certain aspects of that “total work of art” model. In fact, one of the most important social dimensions of the Ballets Russes was that it invited a relationship with the spectator precisely the opposite of the one cultivated by Wagner, who had wished to rescue theater from its status as divertissement and use it to galvanize national community. His music and his influential innovations in the lighting and layout of theaters thus encouraged a new, trancelike form of spectatorship. (At the Festspielhaus Bayreuth, he eliminated boxes, sank the orchestra pit, and totally darkened the auditorium during performances.) His audiences were expected, to an unprecedented degree, to be silent, face forward, and sit still—often for five or six hours at a time. While Wagner’s operas brought many nineteenth-century aesthetes to raptures (Baudelaire said Tannhäuser produced a high equal to opium’s), his extended and antisocial spectacles elicited a different sort of response from the subsequent generation.

Recalling the Bayreuth Festival of 1912, Igor Stravinsky recounted: “I sat humble and motionless, but at the end of a quarter of an hour I could bear no more. My limbs were numb and I had to change my position. . . . I withdrew into myself, but I could think of only one thing, and that was the end of the act which would put an end to my martyrdom.” After seeing the Ring cycle in 1913, Virginia Woolf wrote, “My eyes are bruised, my ears dulled, my brain a mere pudding of pulp. . . . Everyone seems to have come to this opinion, though some pretend to believe still.” By 1914, this disenchantment was publicly broadcast: F. T. Marinetti issued a sardonic leaflet addressing all “kings and queens of snobbism”: “Leave the corpse of Wagner,” it instructed. “These things are no longer chic!”

To be chic was central to the Ballets Russes’ mission, and it was able to resolve this emergency of ennui by dispensing with Wagner’s epic sanctimony, updating the total work of art for the shortened attention spans and cosmopolitan social ambitions of the twentieth century’s “kings and queens of snobbism.” Instead of promoting nationalist myths on native soil, Diaghilev exported exoticized Russianness for wealthy French, British, and American clienteles. The social climbing and the antics of those audiences have become as famous as the Ballets Russes itself. Rather than docile, silent, and still, the behavior these ballets incited was rambunctious, loud, and performative. This liveliness erupted into occasional pandemonium, as at the 1913 premiere of Le Sacre du printemps. (The enduring fascination with that purported riot, the subject of a recent BBC dramatization as well as of Yvonne Rainer’s 2007 work RoS Indexical, almost overwhelms the mythology surrounding Vaslav Nijinsky’s choreography and Stravinsky’s score.) More frequently, the audience’s participation was manifest in a blurred division of stage and auditorium. Thanks to couturier Paul Poiret, it became possible and indeed common for ladies to observe the oriental orgy in Michel Fokine’s Schéhérazade while wearing harem pantaloons. As writer Paul Morand observed, what occurred on the Ballets Russes stage mirrored the audience’s “immodesties, extravagant coiffures, depilated bodies, cosmetics.”

This energized social dynamic went hand in hand with a change in the temporality of the theatrical experience. At a time when Marinetti was advocating “a futurist theater of essential brevity,” citing music-hall variety shows as the only appropriate paradigm for twentieth-century theater, the Ballets Russes was pioneering the format of the single-act ballet. Few of the company’s most famous dances are longer than half an hour; two of the most iconic, Le Spectre de la rose and L’Après-midi d’un faune, last less than ten minutes. During World War I, financial crisis actually forced Diaghilev to accept bookings at major London music halls such as the Empire, the Alhambra, and the Coliseum. And although he held his nose when his ballets were sandwiched between clowns and snake charmers, his company’s adaptability to such venues testifies to its absorption of the essential kernel of Marinetti’s Futurist admonitions. (The two impresarios studied each other carefully, but backed away from several plans for full-scale collaboration.)

The music-hall principle of disjunctive heterogeneity became intrinsic to the Ballets Russes’ signature aesthetic, whose only consistent feature was a penchant for constant variety. Although now associated with one particular look and mood—popularized by the Persian-Cossack peasant-millionaires of Yves Saint Laurent’s 1976 “Ballets Russes” collection—the company explicitly avoided settling for a single aesthetic. Diaghilev bored easily and had a voracious appetite for what was called “the new.” The seventy-some productions the company staged between 1909 and 1929 encompass a hyperactive trajectory of styles. The Futurist Enrico Prampolini summarized the aesthetic of the first Ballets Russes–employed artists, Léon Bakst, Alexandre Benois, and Nicholas Roerich, as “Assyrian-Persian-Egyptian-Nordic plagiarist” in spirit. That initial formula of time travel and armchair tourism generated an enormously adaptable aesthetic model, dependent on constant digestion of new visual data. By 1914, the company had turned its pseudo-anthropological eye to modernity itself, regurgitating the plurality of styles native to the contemporary moment in saucy renditions of Cubism, Futurism, Constructivism, Surrealism, and rappel à l’ordre classicism.

By condensing the Gesamtkunstwerk, replacing four-evening cycles with mixed menus of several “total works” in a single evening, the Ballets Russes dealt with the acute restlessness that made it so unpleasant for Stravinsky to be a Wagnerian spectator, “humble and motionless.” It satisfied this restlessness on a viscerally physical level, placing kinetic energy at the heart of its spectacles. Diaghilev’s decision to make dance his platform reflects a comprehension of the new century’s new appetite for dynamism. As Gertrude Stein commented in 1935, “In the Twentieth Century you feel like movement. The Nineteenth Century didn’t feel that way.” The Ballets Russes performed in a period marked by the ascent of motion pictures, successive crazes for social dances (the tango, turkey trot, cakewalk, Charleston, etc.), and a diffuse obsession with speed and movement analysis shared by avant-garde artists and industrialists. It is telling that the Ballets Russes’ centennial coincides with that of Futurism. By 1909, both Diaghilev and Marinetti had realized that the best way to capture and hold the attention of the media and the public was by harnessing this “feeling like movement,” infusing art with frenetic forms of energy.

To attend all the numerous commemorations of the centennial—a diverse calendar of shows, performances, and scholarly symposia that started a few months ago and will continue for several to come—would require an impresario’s energy and ambition. In February the Sorbonne held a conference, “Une Modernité interartistique,” devoted to studying the interaction of the arts in the Ballets Russes. In Stockholm this month, the Dansmuseet will exhibit its rich collection of the company’s costumes. The Deutsches Theatermuseum München is presenting the exhibition “Swans and Firebirds: The Ballets Russes 1909–1929” in tandem with performances this month by the Bayerisches Staatsballett, which will dance the old favorites Schéhérazade, Le Spectre de la rose, L’Après-midi d’un faune, and Apollo, as well as Bronislava Nijinska’s less familiar Les Biches. This outré work from 1924 dramatizes a Riviera house party populated by a lesbian couple and insipid men in athletic gear. Also this month, the Hamburger Kunsthalle will present a long-overdue exhibition of Nijinsky’s drawings. Made after he was expelled from the Ballets Russes and institutionalized for schizophrenia, these abstract compositions can be read as aerial plans for the distribution of movements. The frequent ovoid motifs referenced in the show’s title (“Dance of Colors: Nijinsky’s Eye and Abstraction”) are surely related to the choreographer’s obsession with creating an eye-shaped stage.

In the United States, Boston has become a command center for Ballets Russes celebration. The Harvard Theatre Collection, in tandem with the academic symposium it hosted last month, has a large exhibition of art and ephemera from its holdings, which include the papers of the Stravinsky-Diaghilev Foundation. The Ballets Russes 2009 festival in Boston, which includes the launch of a program promoting cultural exchange between Russia and other nations, will kick off on May 16 with a Diaghilev Day Parade down the Charles River Esplanade, featuring enormous puppets made by community groups and schoolchildren, paying homage to beloved stage characters such as Petrushka. The weeklong program of events will include gallery exhibitions, screenings, a symposium, performances by the Boston Ballet and the Boston Pops, and piano and opera concerts of Russian Silver Age music by members of the Moscow Conservatory and the New Opera Theater. In collaboration, the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut, is exhibiting its extraordinary trove of Ballets Russes material. It includes handpainted silk costumes by Henri Matisse and eerie backdrop designs by Max Ernst, as well as Bakst’s rendering of Nijinsky in his spotted body stocking from L’Après-midi d’un faune. This image, perhaps the most reproduced object in the annals of Ballets Russes memorabilia, is particularly affecting if you consider that the scarf swirling around Nijinsky was the receptacle of his masturbation gesture in the ballet’s infamous closing tableau.

The proliferation of centennial exhibitions this anniversary year is possible because of the sheer profusion of mnemonic material that the Ballets Russes generated in self-memorialization. Today it seems remarkable that even while the Ballets Russes was alive and kicking, Diaghilev promoted something of a memory cult around the company. He invented a new form of souvenir industry to memorialize individual dances, notably with lavish collectible programs. (Bakst’s watercolor of Nijinksy appeared in just that format.) He organized gallery exhibitions to coincide with performances so that audiences could see a dance and then revisit it in two dimensions. At times, this compulsion to repeat and revisit was even woven into live performances: It was standard practice for Nijinsky to dance L’Après-midi d’un faune twice in a row, in immediate succession. Diaghilev seems to have realized that for his audiences, these ballets would assume the status of sentimental mementos from the moment the curtain closed on them.

This proclivity for reminiscence was part and parcel of the Ballets Russes’ wholesale investment in novelty. Strategies employed to protect audiences from boredom, the frantic pace of production, and the cycling through styles accelerated the process by which the ballets became dated. And Diaghilev had a canny comprehension of that process. He understood that dated things, when marketed properly, provoke feelings not of tedium but of intense nostalgia.

Emmelyn Butterfield-Rosen is a doctoral candidate in Princeton’s department of art and archaeology.