Sergei Diaghilev and Beyond: Les Ballets Russes

Sergei Diaghilev's Cast and Beyond > Introduction

Diaghilev’s ballet company attracted many famous Russian choreographers and dancers:  George Balanchine, Mikhail Fokine, Tamara Karsavina, Vaslav Nijinsky, Bronislava Nijinska, Leonid Massin, Serge Lifar, and many others.

One of the most influential choreographers and a principal dancer for Diaghilev’s Russian ballets was Mikhail Fokine (1880-1942).   He believed that ballet at the beginning of the 20th century was too absorbed with technique and gymnastics and that it needed to be completely reevaluated.  Fokine created his masterpieces to change the perception of viewers, and to show that dance could express mood and emotions.  His innovative one-act ballets revealed an exotic, seductive, and thrilling world of mystery. 

Tamara Karsavina (1885-1978) was one of the greatest ballet dancers to fully accept Mikhail Fokine’s idea of expressive dance.  She performed in Paris in his Les Sylphides (1909), Carnaval (1910), The Firebird (1910), Le Spectre de la Rose,and Petrushka (1910). After the October revolution in 1917, she married a British diplomat and lived in London.  Karsavina came back to Diaghilev’s Russian ballet company in 1919 to star in Leonid Massin’s Le Tricorne and in 1926 returned to dance in Bronislava Nijinska’s and George Balanchine’s Romeo and Juliet.

Vaslav Nijinsky (1890-1950) was a young ballet dancer who joined Diaghilev’s company in 1909.  He danced the leading roles in Le Pavillon d’Armide and Les Sylphides and won the adulation of Parisian audiences.  His great elevation, his incredible ability to rise and seem to remain in the air, his extraordinary virtuosity, and his dramatic acting made him a genius of the ballet.  In 1912, he began his career as a choreographer and staged L’Après midi d’un faune and Le Sacre du printemps for the Russian ballets. In 1913, he married a Hungarian dancer and was fired from Diaghilev’s company.  He last appeared in Diaghilev’s Russian ballets during the company's North American tour in 1916.

Leonid Massin (1896-1979) was recruited by Diaghilev to replace the recently married Nijinsky as principal dancer in the Ballet Russes.  Massin made his Paris debut in 1914 and received many favorable reviews.  Soon after, he was inspired by Diaghilev to work as a choreographer.  His first work premiered in 1915 (Le Sôleil de nuit), followed by such masterpieces as Parade (1917), Boutique fantasque (1919), Le Tricorne (1919), Le Beau Danube (1924), and Gaîté Parisienne (1938).  His set designs were often done by Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Salvador Dali, and Marc Chagall.  From 1932 until 1938, Massin was principal dancer and choreographer of Colonel de Basil’s Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo.  In 1938, he formed his own company, Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo.

Serge Lifar (1905-1986) was introduced to dance in 1920 by Bronislava Nijinska.  He became a company principal dancer in 1925 and created the leading roles in a number of George Balanchine’s early ballets including The Prodigal Son (1929).  The first ballet he choreographed was Le Renard (1929).  After Diaghilev’s death in 1929, he joined the Paris Opera Ballet as principal dancer and ballet master. Lifar choreographed and staged more than 50 works for the Opera and various European companies.

Diaghilev’s death in 1929 became the catalyst for the beginning of Colonel de Basil’s Ballets Russes de Monte-Carlo.  Colonel-W-de-Basil, original name Vasilii Voskresenskii (1888-1951), created his own ballet company in 1932, adopting the name of Diaghilev's company.  His co-director was René Blum, his principal choreographers were Leonid Massin and George Balanchine.  Their innovative compositions attracted such young and talented dancers as Alexandra Danilova, Leon Woizikowski, and David Lichine.  In 1938, Massin left the company and, along with René Blum, formed his own Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo with the dancers Alexandra Danilova, Tamara Toumanova, Alicia Markova, Serge Lifar, and others.

De Basil renamed his company the Covent Garden Russian Ballet, and in 1939, the Original Ballet Russe.  The company toured internationally before dissolving in 1948.

Rare Book & Manuscript Library / Butler Library, 6th Fl. East / 535 West 114th St. / New York, NY 10027 / (212) 854-5153 /