Diaghilev and The Birth of the Creative Class:

image of ballet dancers in the Rite of Spring

The Nashville Ballet presents The Rite of Spring

I wrote this a few weeks ago for a pickup writing gig; but I’m not sure they will use it.  I’ll let you know.  😀

It’s a rainy night on the streets of Paris on May 13th, 1913, and the world seems only a heartbeat away from a modern utopia.  Electric lamps glow in the misty fog while motor-cars rumble by. And in a corner café, a table is crowded with four men in thick conversation.  A sharp-nosed man with spectacles is heard above the din “You know nothing of Music!”  “I know that it’s absolutely not possible!” says another. “It’s never been done?” asks a man with the opulent hat, “then by all means, it should be attempted.” While fourth man sketches away in a notebook.  The men order another round of drinks and conversation continues into the morning, fueled by coffee, cocktails and cigarettes.

The next evening the sharp-nosed man is pounding his feet on the floor as he sits at a piano and yells, “ONE-TWO-three four five six seven eight nine!” at a room of people on the verge of making history…

Three weeks later, on May 29, those four men would cause a riot in Paris and change art forever.  The sharp-nosed (and sharp tongued, it would seem) Igor Stravinsky, the opulent impresario Sergei Diaghilev, the ethnologist and designer Nicholas Roerich, and the dancer-turned choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky presented a new ballet.  This new work, a ballet entitled Le Sacre du Printemps (“the Rite of Spring”) centered on a ceremonial human sacrifice in primitive, pagan Russia. It proved to be a vanguard in professional artistry and laid the groundwork for the emergence of a modern creative class.  The choreography was innovative with violent angles, turned-in feet and movement that oriented in the pelvis foreshadowed modern dance. The orchestral score, full of rich dissonances and driving rhythms is still studied in music conservatories around the world and was named by Aaron Copland as “the single greatest achievement in the 20th Century.”   Roerich’s painstakingly researched, historically accurate production and costume designs inaugurated a vision of authenticity that has never left the performing arts. This new work moved Diaghilev’s ensemble to preeminence on the world stage.

On the evening of the premiere, fist-fights broke out in the audience, and the local police had to be called to regain order.  The composer Stravinsky remembers “ I found Diaghilev flicking the house lights in a last effort to quiet the hall…while Nijinsky stood on a chair and shouted the counts to the dancers who could no longer hear the orchestra over the audience.”  The production proved to be ahead of its time- written over the course of three years by letter across continents: Diaghilev and Nijinksy in Paris and London, Stravinsky in Switzerland, and Roerich in Russia.  Stravinsky attended his first rehearsal only two weeks before the premiere.  The design was collaborative: Stravinsky first pitched his idea for a ballet to Roerich in 1910.  Roerich was well known as a painter, and had spent years studying primitive pre-Christian Russia.  Diaghilev commissioned Nijinsky’s choreography, but Nijinksky didn’t start work until he received Roerich’s completed set and costume designs.  Every aspect of the work initiated shockwaves that are still reverberating in their fields:  the idea of dances being oriented around the individual rather than the corps de ballet; the idea of weaving complex contemporary music from ancient folk tunes, the idea of costumes and sets depicting an authentic time and place, and even the idea of a arts organization willfully pushing artistic boundaries without oversight from government censors.

Indeed every aspect of the presenting organization, The Ballets Russes (“Russian Ballet” in French) broke new ground.  The first ballet company independent of the state.  The first to credit “production designer” in the program. The first to treat choreography as a commissioned piece of art, and in the process invent the profession of choreography.  And please understand, these are not ballets as you may imagine them… 90 piece orchestras, 100 piece choirs, 100 dancers and 200 extras, this was the grand-daddy of all megachurch easter pagaents.  Even the compensation was innovative; rather than receive a subsistence salary with a guarantee of lifelong pension from the state, the dancers and creative staff were paid nearly a year’s salary per production, but freelanced for the rest of their lives, in an arrangement that looks a lot like our modern film and event production industries. Those that worked continuously made a fortune and became the first generation of wealthy professional artisans in the 20th century–Nijinsky in particular.

The ballet company Le Ballets Russes went on to collaborate with a who’s who of artists: Sergei Prokofiev, Richard Strauss, Claude Debussy, Manuel De Falla and Eric Satie wrote music. Pablo Picasso, Henry Matise and Salvador Dali designed sets and costumes, and the productions were written by the likes of James Joyce, Marcel Proust, Salvador Dali, and Jean Cocteau.  Oh, and in the dance chorus? The young George Balanchine who would later found the New York City Ballet.

Between 1909 and 1929 the Ballets Russes became the first independent commercial ballet and opera company, with engagements in Paris, New York, London and Buenos Aires.  A precursor to events like Circue du Soleil or U2’s 360 tour, Ballets Russes managed to employ the foremost artists of its day, and revolutionized both modern art and production design in the process.


Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. Lynn Garafola.

And the Rest is Noise. Alex Ross