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By Patricia Boccadoro

PARIS, 14 JANUARY 2010 — On May 18th, 1909, Serge Diaghilev’s Les Ballets Russes made its debut at the Theatre du Chatelet in Paris with Fokine’s Le Pavillon d’Armide, where a young, unknown dancer, Vaslav Nijinsky, brought to life the grand spectacle of eighteenth century Versailles. This was followed by the sensational Polovtsian Dances from Prince Igor, again with choreography by Fokine and culminated with the showpiece Le Festin, which included the Bluebird pas de deux from Sleeping Beauty and highlights from Raymonda. The evening was a triumph!

The company performed regularly in Paris, eventually moving to Monte Carlo, and over the next two decades, totally revolutionised dance in Western Europe. Diaghilev, the genius impresario, surrounded himself with the greatest avant-garde talents of the time, bringing together the best dancers, choreographers, composers, painters and decorators whose impact on European ballet was enormous and irreversible. The emphasis that Diaghilev placed on original music, designs and choreography changed the way ballet was looked at, and this season, companies around Europe are celebrating the centenary of their arrival here.

The list of composers working with the Ballets Russes was impressive. It included Ravel, Debussy, Strauss, Prokofiev and Satie, but most of all, there was Igor Stravinsky, one of the greatest composers for dance in the 20th century, whose music would become an intrinsic part of so many of the troupe's masterpieces. The unknown 27 year old sprang to fame overnight with his music for The Firebird, the first of the two ballets filmed live at the Mariinsky Theatre in Saint Petersburg last year and just released on DVD by Bel Air Classiques.

Commissioned by Diaghilev, Stravinsky composed a ballet inspired by an old Russian legend where the Prince Ivan Tsarevitch captures a wondrous bird from a tree of golden apples growing in the enchanted garden of the evil Kashchei. In exchange for its freedom, the bird gives the prince one of its brilliant feathers, telling him that it would come to help him if ever he were in need. Later, Ivan calls for the Firebird who helps him free the beautiful princess with whom he is in love, and who has been imprisoned by Kashchei and his monsters.

Interestingly, Anna Pavlova refused to dance the leading role, judging the futuristic music "incomprehensible," and it was Tamara Karsavina who created the part at the Paris Opéra on June 25th, 1910. It was the musician’s first great ballet, and since the creation of the original choreography by Fokine, it has been danced by Sadler’s Wells, by Maly Theatre Ballet, by the Bolshoi and by the Kirov in Saint Petersburg, the city where Diaghilev created the Ballets Russes. It has also inspired innumerable new versions, not least by Balanchine, Robbins, Lifar, Cranko, Béjart, Neumeier, Tetley, Scholtz, and more recently, by Christopher Wheeldon for Boston Ballet.

However, it is the second of the DVD’s ballets, The Rite of Spring, with its clashing tonalities and violent, irregular rhythms, together with the primitivism of the Vaslav Nijinsky’s choreography — a deliberate inversion of classical dance with the pigeon-toed dancers — which remains the most emblematic collaboration between Stravinsky and the Ballets Russes.

It tells of a great pagan ritual where, in the composer’s own words, "wise elders are seated in a circle and are observing the dance before death of the girl whom they are offering as a sacrifice to the god of Spring." The work provoked such a scandal at the Theatre des Champs-Elysées on its first performance in 1913 that it was withdrawn from the Ballets Russes repertoire after only eight performances, and despite countless versions by other choreographers, audiences had to wait for over seventy years to see the original ballet, reconstructed by dance historians Millicent Hodson and Kenneth Archer in 1987. It is one of the most important dances pieces of the 20th century and a foundation of contemporary dance. Not only is the work, with the superb set and costume designs by Nicholas Roerich, one of the most popular works in the Paris Opéra Ballet repertoire, but it continues to inspire choreographers around the world.

The film of these two highly colourful, totally gorgeous works — performed with intensity and precision by the dancers of the Mariinsky Theatre — catches all the excitement surrounding these legendary ballets. The DVD also includes a 38-minute documentary on the Ballets Russes and an interview with Millicent Hodson and Kenneth Archer. It is fascinating to watch and, moreover, brilliantly accompanied by the Mariinsky Orchestra conducted by Valery Gergiev, a man renowned for his interpretation of Stravinsky’s work. Musically, the DVD is as stunning to listen to as it is to watch.

Stravinsky and the Ballets Russes: The Firebird / Le Sacre du Printemps (2009)
Mariinsky Theatre
Valery Gergiev, conductor
DVD: 1 disc
Bel Air Classiques (October 2009)
Language: English
Subtitles: English, French
Run Time: 85 minutes

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

Related Culturekiosque Archives

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Book Review: The Ballets Russes and Its World

Vive Les Ballets Russes! Thierry Malandain and Ballet Biarritz

Kirov Ballet's Saison Russe: A Window Into Ballet History

Interview: Valery Gergiev at The White Nights Festival

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