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Ballet Russe

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Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, circa 1940s


The American romance with ballet of the 1930s and the ballet boom of the 1940s owed more to the Ballet Russe than homegrown classical efforts. Beginning as Colonel Wassily de Basil's Ballets Russes, the company, which subsequently split and changed names, made its first whistle-stopping tour in 1934. Months were spent on the road, bringing glamour and snippets of the classical repertory to audiences in every state. The companies—at one point there were two crisscrossing the country—had wonderful stars, such as Alexandra Danilova and the trio of "baby ballerinas," Irina Baronova, Tatiana Riabouchinska, and Tamara Toumanova, who captured headlines. There was a strong tradition of character acting, and in the ballets of Léonide Massine, which dominated the repertory of the 1930s, a commitment to dramatic values. By the 1940s the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo had become home to numerous Americans, many dancing under Russian names. George Balanchine, who became artistic director in 1944, Americanized the company even further, by featuring dancers like Maria Tallchief who later became the nucleus of the New York City Ballet. Although much diminished as a creative force, the Ballet Russe continued to tour until 1962, when it danced its last performance.

Pictured left: A poster for an appearance by the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo at New York City Center, mid-1940s, on one of the tours that increased appreciation for classical ballet among American audiences. (The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Dance Division.)


Essay by Jack Anderson -- Selected resources