Sergei Diaghilev and Beyond: Les Ballets Russes

Participants: Diaghilev's Opera & Ballet Seasons > Introduction

In May 1907, Nikolai Rimskii-Korsakov, Sergei Rakhmaninov, Fiodor Chaliapin and many other famous Russian musicians descended on Paris to attend five nights of concerts to be played at the City’s Grand Opera.  These concerts, which later became known as the “Russian Historical Concerts,” unveiled a nearly century-long panorama of Russian music.

The audience was ecstatic; the presence of Chaliapin, Rakhmaninov, and Rimskii-Korsakov added more excitement to the concerts; the critics filled the newspapers with an endless stream of complimentary accounts. It was one of those moments when Russia’s great art belonged to the world.

Encouraged by the extraordinary success of his concerts in Paris, Sergei Diaghilev started working on new projects.  A year later he introduced to Paris the renowned Boris Godunov with Chaliapin as Boris.  Fiodor Chaliapin became the first Russian artist to establish a great international reputation.  His success in Paris determined Sergei Diaghilev’s future career.

Starting in 1909, Russian seasons in Paris became regular.   These seasons were completely devoted to ballet and helped Diaghilev to define and introduce his own concept of a new kind of ballet.  Working with fabulous Russian artists and composers, Diaghilev created in the West a popular image of Russian art and music.   Leon Bakst, Alexandre Benois, Nicholas Roerich, Konstantin Korovin, Natalia Goncharova, Mikhail Larionov, Ivan Bilibin, Mstislav Dobuzhinskii, and others defined the opulent, exotic look now associated with the Ballets Russes.

Diaghilev discovered and promoted both Igor Stravinsky and Sergei Prokofiev. Igor Stravinsky composed the Firebird suite for the second season of the Ballets Russes in 1910.  It was enormously successful and he became permanently associated with Diaghilev’s ballet company.

After the First World War, Diaghilev’s Russian seasons evolved in an ongoing experiment with stage designs, music, lighting, and costumes.  He staged one-act ballets only, although there could be several of them in one night.  This was a complete departure from the previous tradition of the nineteenth century ballet.

Diaghilev’s new visions called for new music, new stage-set designs, new creative interpretations, and new non-traditional artists who shared his innovative concepts.  Coincidentally, it was exactly at this time that the ballet’s influence began to be felt in other arts, as well.  Their collaboration with Diaghilev’s ballets gave artists like Andre Derain, Joan Miró, George Braque, Maurice Utrillo, Henri Matisse, the poet-designer Jean Cocteau, and Pablo Picasso the opportunity to realize their visions on the massive scale demanded by the design of backdrops. 

Today their stage and costume designs, posters, and programs for the Russian seasons can be found in the best museums around the world, as well as in prestigious private collections.

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