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BALLETS RUSSES: 1909 - 2009


By Patricia Boccadoro

PARIS, 22 FEBRUARY 2010 — The story of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes actually began in Western Europe in 1906, when Serge Diaghilev arrived in Paris with a few cases full of lavish Russian art to show at the Salon d’Automne. The following year, the 35 year-old impresario presented five concerts of innovative Russian music at the Paris Opera, and in 1908, his bold production of Boris Godounov led to an invitation to bring his newly formed ballet company to the French capital for a season of Russian opera and dance. It was an overwhelming success and the face of dance was changed forever. Indeed, Diaghilev had moved heaven and earth to programme not only dancers such as Nijinsky, Pavlova and Karsavina, Russia’s finest interpreters, but also the greatest choreographers, designers and composers of the day, believing that ballet should be a complete theatrical art.

Benjamin Pech in Petrouchka
Photo: Sebastien Mathe

Painters including Léon Bakst, Pablo Picasso, Alexandre Benois and Giorgio di Chirico worked alongside such composers as Debussy, Stravinsky and Manuel de Falla, who in turn collaborated with choreographers Massine, Fokine and Nijinsky to produce an electrifying explosion of colour, and musical and choreographic invention on stage. All the costumes were extravagantly made in silks and satins whilst bold uses of primary colours made each spectacle a feast for the eyes. It was pure magic. Paris, indeed Europe, had seen nothing like it before. 

As part of Europe’s Ballets Russes centenary celebrations of their first season in the West, the Paris Opera Ballet programmed four of Diaghilev’s legendary works over the holiday period, works which have formed a popular part of their repertory for many years. The tribute began with the romantic Le Spectre de la Rose, a beautiful short ballet based on lines from a poem by Théophile Gautier and choreographed by Michel Fokine to a score by Carl Maria von Weber, with scenery and costumes by Bakst. It was created at the Opera of Monte-Carlo in 1911 by Nijinski and Karsavina who subsequently gave two performances at the Paris Opera later on in the year. But it wasn’t until some twenty years later that it entered the French opera’s repertoire where it has been interpreted by many remarkable artists, not least by étoile  Nicolas Le Riche, who gave an unforgettable performance in 1997.

Isabelle Ciaravola and Mathias Heymann
Photo: Sebastien Mathe

A young girl returns from her first ball holding a rose which slips to the floor as she falls asleep in an armchair, dreaming that the spirit of the rose is dancing with her. Created for the exceptional talents of Vaslav Nijinsky, famous for both his technique and artistry, it is not an obvious role for any male dancer, the spirit of the rose being neither male nor female, but both Emmanuel Thibault and Mathias Heymann, partnered respectively by Delphine Moussin and Isabelle Ciaravola at the Palais Garnier in December, gave convincing, dreamlike performances.

The beauty of Thibault’s arm movements, poetical and full of grace, was outstanding, "singing, living and speaking," as Fokine himself had described his choreography should be. After his now-so-famous final leap where he disappears through the window and the young girl awakens, the stage seemed bereft, with merely the trace of a fragrance, an aura on stage, as the curtain descended. Thibault gave the impression of dancing in one single, uninterrupted movement, where his technique was always at the service of his art.

Technically, Mathias Heymann was brilliant, combining athletic skill with emotion. Aged 22 years, the same age as Nijinsky when he danced the role, he gave a most commendable performance, light and buoyant, his feet barely skimming the ground. Moussin and Ciaravola, in their vaporous white dresses, gave performances of exquisite gentleness and grace.

The second piece on the programme was Nijinsky’s own L’Après-midi d’un faune, set to Debussy’s score of the same name, the work which caused such a scandal at its première in 1912 at the Theatre du Chatelet, Paris. The ballet imposes from the moment the curtain rises on Bakst’s fantastic costumes and backcloth, directly inspired by Greek mythology.

Paris Opera Ballet: L’Après-midi d’un faune
Photo: Sebastien Mathe

It is a work which moves away with a vengeance from the charming dream-world of the 19th century traditional ballets, and which heralds the birth of modern dance. People were disturbed by the fact that Nijinsky chose to abandon his leaps and classical style, walking sideways instead, with his feet and knees turned inwards rather like an ancient fresco. But it was the erotic nature of the subject matter which shocked the most. A sensual fawn is spying on a group of nymphs and tries to embrace one of them, but she escapes, leaving her scarf behind. He carries it off to his lair in triumph and lies voluptuously on it, attaining a solitary orgasm with a single pelvic thrust.  

The work entered the repertoire as recently as 1976, with the magnificent interpretation of Charles Jude, coached by Leonide Massine himself, leaving an indelible souvenir. However, Nicolas Le Riche, perpetuating the tradition of this extraordinary work, barely 15 minutes long, mesmerized his audience with his brazen animality and insolence. Moreover, he had an added advantage in his partner, the charismatic Emilie Cozette, whose superb interpretation gave meaning to a difficult role and thus to the whole piece, more a choreographic poem than a ballet.

Nicolas Le Riche and Emilie Cozette in L’Après-midi d’un faune
Photo: Sebastien Mathe

From her first encounter with the fawn, taken aback whilst very frightened, Cozette, with her blonde beauty, mastered the totally unnatural steps, achieving the impossible with credibility. This was a splendid performance from two great interpreters. 

Le Tricorne could have been a ballet especially created for the Spanish-born Paris étoile, José Martinez, who has made the central role so much his own that it is difficult to imagine it danced by anyone else. It was, however, premiered in London in 1919 with the 23 year-old choreographer, Leonide Massine, dancing the role of the miller himself! The music was by de Falla, and the gorgeous costumes and décor, painted backcloths, by Picasso. It is one of the most outstanding collaborations between composer, designer and choreographer of twentieth century dance.

Paris Opera Ballet: Le Tricorne
Photo: Sebastien Mathe

Highly influenced by the joyful folkdances of Northern Spain, it is nonetheless a comic ballet which tells of the miller’s neglected wife who decides to teach her husband a lesson by flirting with the elderly but wealthy Corregidor. The role of the miller’s wife was interpreted by Marie-Agnès Gillot, not quite at ease in what, after all, is a secondary role next to the elegance and joie de vivre of the young and handsome miller, the splendid Martinez who reveled in each of the complicated, technically difficult Spanish steps. The tricky role of the Corregidor was admirably interpreted by the Paris Opéra assistant ballet-master, Fabrice Bourgeois, who brought his artistic maturity, and corpulence, to the part.

José Martinez in Le Tricorne
Photo: Sebastien Mathe

Stravinsky’s music and Alexandre Benois’ designs for Petrouchka are as fresh and modern today as they were at its premiere in 1911, again in Paris with Nijinsky and Karsavina, at the Theatre du Chatelet. In the ballet, the choreographer, Fokine, moves further and further towards a form of dance theatre which expresses states of mind and feelings.

The action takes place during a Russian funfair. A magician introduces his three puppets, Petrouchka, the Ballerina and the Moor to the curious spectators. But backstage, the puppets come to life and we discover that Petrouchka is in love with the Ballerina, who in turn, loves the Moor. The magician, unwittingly, puts Petrouchka into the Moor’s room, where the latter is being seduced by the Ballerina. What was to happen, happens, and Petrouchka is killed by the Moor in a fit of jealousy.

Paris Opera Ballet:Petrouchka
Photo: Sebastien Mathe

The joyful atmosphere of the milling crowds outside contrasts violently with the cruel drama of solitude unfolding inside the little theatre, and, when danced as superbly as it was by practically the whole Paris Opera cast, it remains one of the most outstanding ballets of the period. It is certainly a work which gives opportunities to many dancers in this superb company, where the strengths no longer lie in the principal dancers but rather in the whole range of the lower as well as the higher ranks.  

Both Daniel Stokes and Simon Valastro were outstanding as the two ostlers, while Sara Kora Dayanova made a delightful street dancer. Clairemarie Osta was an exquisite and totally credible little Ballerina with whom anyone could have been in love , not only the rather grotesque Moor, brilliantly interpreted by Yann Bridard. It was only Benjamin Pech, étoile, dancing the title role for the first time and not fully understanding what it was all about, who gave a disappointing, mannered interpretation of Petrouchka himself, and one can only regret that he should have been filmed in this extraordinary work rather than Jérémie Bélingard, who gave a remarkable performance in the same role in another cast, despite the fact that it was also his first appearance as the doomed puppet. Guest artist, Michael Denard, gave a brief but excellent appearance as the magician.

The Orchestre de l’Opéra National de Paris was admirably conducted by Vello Pahn.

A DVD was made of the programme which was also shown on French television on New Year's Day 2010.
Ballets Russes Exhibition, through 23 May 2010
In honour of the occasion, the Bibliothèque-musée of the Paris Opéra is displaying over one hundred works from its collection of Les Ballets Russes, the first part of which concentrates on Diaghilev himself.

A second part is devoted to Nijinsky and his choreography as well as to designer Leon Bakst. A lavish catalogue illustrated with works by Benois, Bakst, Larionov, Gontcharova, Derain, and Juan Gris is also on sale.


Patricia Boccadoro writes on dance in Europe. She has contributed to The Guardian, The Observer and Dancing Times and was dance consultant to the BBC Omnibus documentary on Rudolf Nureyev. Ms. Boccadoro is the dance editor for

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