Russian Imperial Ballet

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Ballet Russes and Sergei Diaghilev

Russian Ballet is one of the most popular forms of Classical Ballet. The first Russian ballet company, the Imperial School of Ballet, was developed in St. Petersburg in the 1740s. The Ballet Russes, directed by Sergei Diaghilev, played a major role in the establishment of Russian ballet. Founded in 1909, Ballet Russes was one of the great ballet companies of the 20th century. Diaghilev had already enjoyed success in Paris in 1908, when he presented a season of Russian art, music, and opera. He was invited back the following year to give a program of Russian opera and ballet. Ballet Russes original members were from the Tsar’s Imperial Ballet of St. Petersburg, Russia where all its dancers were associated and trained. The company consisted of 13 members, all attaining a very high standard of dance.

Sergei Diaghilev acted as an organizer of the Ballets Russes, rather than a dancer or an artist. He was wealthy and had studied to be a lawyer. With Alexandre Benois and Léon Bakst, he had formed the Pickwick Club; together, the three published World of Art and created a movement. They believed that “art is free, life is paralyzed.” Their ideas of developing a Russian art led to the creation of the Ballets Russes. Among the ground-breaking premieres of the Ballets Russes was The Firebird and The Rite of Spring in 1913, both to music by Igor Stravinsky, as well as Balanchine’s Apollo to Stravinsky in 1928.

Visually, the first Ballets Russes seasons were marked by the exotic designs of the Russian born artist Léon Bakst. His bejewelled colours, swirling elements and sense of the erotic re-envisioned dance productions as total works of art.

Ballet Russes in the 1920s

Diaghilev’s great themes, Russia, the classical world and the Orient, were now treated in the context of modernity. Other ballets reflected topical interests such as beach culture, films and sport.

By 1920 the Ballets Russes had a considerable repertoire to which new ballets were added each year. French avant-garde artists designed productions, while the choreographers Massine, Nijinska and Balanchine approached movement in innovative ways.

Diaghilev and his company had to adjust to very different economic circumstances. Monte Carlo now provided a winter base in which to create new works, while long seasons in London provided some financial stability.


The repertoire of the Ballets Russes remains an invaluable resource for choreographers today. Over 200 different versions of The Rite of Spring have been choreographed since Diaghilev commissioned it. Diaghilev’s achievements continue to inspire the worlds of art, theatre, music and dance.

The Firebird and Igor Stravinsky 


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Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring

Stravinsky introduced new concepts in music, dance, and story.

May 29, 1913-The Rite of Spring was the most famous opening night scandal in history. This intensely rhythmic score and primitive scenario shocked the audiences who were more accustomed to the conventions of classical ballet.Up until this point, audiences were used to ballet that was beautiful, elegant, and charming. The complex music and violent dance steps depicting fertility rites first drew catcalls and whistles from the crowd, and were soon followed by shouts and fistfights in the aisles. The unrest in the audience escalated into a riot.



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