Leon Bakst: Costume rendering of Nijinsky in “Afternoon of a Faun” (1912)
After relocating the company from Russia to Paris, The Ballets Russes continued to grow in fame and ambition. Its captain, Sergei Diaghilev’s genius was in identifying and recruiting exquisite talent (dancers, composers, choreographers, and designers) and pulling from them new, wonderful, and (sometimes) shocking collaborations. Diaghilev was also a wit and a master of promotion. But his goal always remained: to bring new and innovative ballets—steeped in an “exotic” Russian aesthetic and folklore—to a hungry (and paying!) Western audience.
The artists in his stable reads like a “Who’s Who” of the great (and groundbreaking) artists of the early 20th century. It included designers like Alexandre Benois, Leon Bakst, Natalia Goncharova, Nicholas Roerich, Georges Braque, Marc Chagall, Henri Matisse, Jean Cocteau, and Pablo Picasso. The choreographers and dancers included Anna Pavlova, Michel Fokine, Leonide Massine, George Balanchine (who was brought to America and co-founded the New York City Ballet), and, of course, the legendary Vaslav Nijinsky. The composer list comprised Claude Debussy, Sergei Prokofiev, Maurice Ravel, and Igor Stravinsky, whose 1913 ballet, The Rite of Spring—legend has it—induced a riot of discontent at its Paris debut. Some say the riot was just another Diaghilev production.