Russia’s Great Léon Bakst

Stage Design for Scheherazade by Leon Bakst for the Ballet Ruses (LEO Design)

Lev Samoilovitch Rosenberg—later known as Léon Bakst—was born on this day in 1866 in Grodno, Russia (which is in modern day Belarus).  He grew-up in Saint Petersberg where his grandfather was a skilled tailor whose service to the Tsar was rewarded with a large house and generous wage.  Though his middle-class parents didn’t encourage it, Léon was skilled at drawing and painting and he eventually moved to Paris to advance his studies.  Here he joined a circle of  Russian expats—artists and the artistically-inclined—who together published a journal called Mir Iskusstva (or “The World of Art”).  Léon soon was recognized for his skilled graphic designs.

In time, many of the Mir Iskusstva contributors, lead by the dynamic Sergei Diaghilev, founded The Ballets Russes, intent on reinventing (what they perceived as) the “stale” and “academic” classical ballet.  This “New Ballet” was eagerly received in Paris and Léon Bakst became one of the company’s featured scenic and costume designers.

In 1910—at the height of the Art Nouveau period and Europe’s enchantment with all things “Oriental”—Diaghilev staged a revolutionary rendition of Scheherazade composed by the Russian Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (recently deceased) and based on One Thousand and One Nights (or the Arabian Nights).  The ground-breaking choreography was created by Michael Fokine and the sets and costumes were designed by Léon Bakst.  It premiered at the Opéra Garnier on 4 June 1910.

Rimsky-Korsakov’s music was lush and exotic, inspired by traditional Russian folk tunes (some nearly lost) and his interpretation of mysterious Middle Eastern music.  Bakst’s designs, like the scenic sketch pictured above, conveyed the alien, colorful, and claustrophobic wonderment many Europeans associated with Arab lands.

Scheherazade took Paris by storm.  Diaghilev’s “New Ballet” coincided perfectly with L’Art Nouveau—in timing, inspiration, style and purpose.  And Léon Bakst, with his cohort of Russian expats, reinvented the art of the ballet and the art of the stage.


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