Sergei Diaghilev and Beyond: Les Ballets Russes

Sergei Diaghilev (1872-1929) > Introduction

Souvenir: Serge de Diaghileff's Ballet Russe, unnumbered page 2

Sergei de Diaghilheff.

Print of a painting by Leon Bakst, 1916.

Metropolitan Ballet Company, Inc., New York.

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Sergei Diaghilev, the renowned Russian cultural impresario, founder of the famous Ballets Russes Company, which centennial seasons in Paris are being widely celebrated this year, was born in a small town in Novgorod province.  Soon after his birth, the family moved to St. Petersburg, where he graduated from law school. Thanks to his cousin Dmitrii Filosofov, young Diaghilev was introduced to a circle of artists who belonged to the innovative artistic movement, “The World of Art”.  Two of the founders of this group, Alexandre Benois and Leon Bakst, later became Diaghilev’s close friends and lifelong collaborators. 

In 1899, Sergei Diaghilev co-founded and edited the progressive art journal Mir iskusstva (The World of Art, 1899-1904), which helped familiarize Russians with the latest developments in Western visual arts.  The same year, he became artistic adviser to the Imperial Theaters in Moscow and produced several operas and ballets.

From 1897 to 1906, Diaghilev organized a series of major art exhibitions in Russia and abroad.  These exhibitions showcased the best in Russian and European art and also helped revive interest in eighteenth century Russian art and in icons.

Diaghilev’s dream, however, was to bring Russian culture to the West and create a work of art in which décor, costumes, music, and expression were one harmonious whole.

He achieved his dream through exhibitions and concerts but most lastingly through his ballet company's performances, which began in 1909 and lasted until his death in 1929.  Diaghilev’s first Russian ballet season opened in the Theatre du Chatelet in Paris.

The cast included the now legendary dancers Vaslav Nijinsky, Anna Pavlova, Tamara Karsavina, and Adolf Bolm.  Diaghilev’s designers created explosive color combinations that had never been seen before.  Diaghilev’s choreographers created a new way of moving, at times primitive and erotic.  Diaghilev’s vision initiated a revolution in the theater and had a far reaching influence on the visual arts and the future of dance.

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