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Ballet Russe

by Jack Anderson

Ballet Russe: these words, which meant much to American ballet-goers from the early 1930s to the early 1960s, refer to companies that won praise and popularity for their dancers, their repertories, and their immensely appealing performing style.

Over those years, several companies called themselves “Ballet Russe” (or “Ballets Russes”). Two of them grew especially important, and several key figures were directorially involved with both at one time or another: Col. Wassily de Basil (1888-1951), a former Tsarist officer turned impresario; René Blum (1878-1942), a cultivated patron of the arts who became director of the Théâtre de Monte Carlo; Sergei J. Denham (1897-1970), a Russian-born New York banker; Sol Hurok, a shrewd arts promoter; and the choreographers Léonide Massine (1895-1979) and George Balanchine. These men repeatedly collaborated and quarreled, shifted allegiances, and supervised companies, sometimes for complex managerial reasons changing those companies’ names.

By the late 1930s, two distinct companies existed. One, known at its inception in 1932 as Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo, now called itself Original Ballet Russe, and was directed by de Basil. The other, born in 1938 from disputes with de Basil, named itself Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. Denham, Blum, and Massine were important to it at the outset, Denham eventually assuming full control, while Blum, who in 1940 insisted on returning to his beloved France, fell victim to the Nazis and died en route to Auschwitz.    

Both companies resulted from efforts to perpetuate the policies of what was surely the 20th century’s greatest ballet company, the Ballets Russes of Sergei Diaghilev, a visionary director who from 1909 to 1929 encouraged such distinguished composers and designers as Claude Debussy, Igor Stravinsky, Sergei Prokofiev, Pablo Picasso, and Henri Matisse, and some of the century’s finest choreographers, including Massine and Balanchine. While the company mainly performed in Europe, it also twice visited South America and, with mixed success, made two tours of the United States in 1916-17.

Although the first of thesepost-Diaghilev Ballets Russes proved only mildly successful at its debut in 1932, it soon achieved wild popularity, especially in England, where it inspired a fanatical form of fandom known as balletomania, a phenomenon that was repeated on several tours of Australia. The later Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo was equally popular, especially in the United States.

Some dancers shuttled between the companies, depending upon which offered the better contracts. Their rosters included dancers who had been with Diaghilev, including the ethereal British ballerina Alicia Markova, and Alexandra Danilova, the glamorous ballerina of extraordinary theatricality who was said to possess ballet’s most photogenic legs. The companies also developed their own stars, among them three brilliant teen-agers from Russian émigré families introduced to audiences by de Basil and nicknamed the “baby ballerinas”: Tamara Toumanova, Irina Baronova, and Tatiana Riabouchinska. Many of the companies’ male dancers were also acclaimed. Igor Youskevitch, a model of noble bearing, seemed a true prince on stage. Frederic Franklin, a British dancer, was known for his versatility and expert timing. New York City-born Leon Danielian possessed great nimbleness and wit.

The Ballets Russes troupes were never totally “Russe.” From their inception, they included dancers from several nations, and, over the years, an increasing number of Americans. Also from New York City and frequently partnered by Danielian, Ruthanna Boris commanded a stylistic range extending from Russian classics to comic Americana. Another American, Mary Ellen Moylan, was praised for her classical lucidity. Five Native American dancers from Oklahoma were often referred to as the “American Indian Ballerinas”: Rosella Hightower, the sisters Maria and Marjorie Tallchief, Yvonne Chouteau, and Moscelyne Larkin. In 1956, by hiring Raven Wilkinson, Denham’s Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo became the first American touring ballet company to employ a black dancer, a risky undertaking since the Ballet Russe regularly toured the segregated, prejudice-ridden South. Although Wilkinson encountered hostility in certain communities, the company supported her and she persevered until the strain of such touring conditions led her to resign in 1960. Yet, by demonstrating that ballet was not automatically closed to them, her example encouraged other black dancers.

Even the world’s greatest dancers need a worthy repertory, and in their best seasons the two Ballets Russes had that. Because they sprang from the same roots, their repertories were often similar. There were nineteenth-century classics, among them Giselle, Swan Lake, Nutcracker, and Coppélia.  From the Diaghilev repertory came such favorites as Michel Fokine’s Les Sylphides, Petrouchka, and Schéhérazade, and Massine’s Le Tricorne (The Three-Cornered Hat).The companies also produced their own new works. De Basil developed an important choreographer in David Lichine, whose most enduring creation remains Graduation Ball, a jolly comedy about a girls’ school and a boys’ school uniting for end-of-term festivities.   

Many major works were by Massine, including, for the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, Gaîté Parisienne, a romp set in a Parisian caféthat soon became one of the most popular comic ballets of its time. Others, the so-called “symphonic ballets,” proved controversial for both the de Basil and Denham companies. These were large-scale productions, several of an allegorical nature, danced to major symphonies: Les Présages (Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5) and Rouge et Noir (Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 1) depicted forces that can shape human destiny, while Seventh Symphony (Beethoven) concerned the creation and destruction of the world. Some puritanical music lovers pronounced it blasphemous to dance to such exalted scores (an objection not raised today about revivals of these ballets), while dance lovers applauded them for their impressive choreographic patterns.

A few Balanchine ballets also provoked controversy. Concerto Barocco (Bach), Ballet Imperial (Tchaikovsky), and Danses Concertantes (Stravinsky) were each distinct in mood, yet devoid of narrative and even explicit themes. Such abstract ballets, as they were known, puzzled dancegoers used to choreographic stories. Balanchine did more than eliminate plots. When the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo staged Concerto Barocco in 1945, Eugene Berman, its designer, complained about the way his design sketches had been theatrically realized. Therefore, the company danced Barocco in black tunics against a plain backdrop, initiating the now-common practice of performing abstract ballets with the simplest designs possible, permitting choreography to stand out with the utmost clarity.

The Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo scored a success in 1942 with Rodeo, a lively comedy by Agnes de Mille about romance on a ranch, to a rousing score by Aaron Copland. Although small American troupes had previously danced Americana ballets, what made Rodeo historically significant was the fact that a world-class company demonstrated that ballet, though born in the courts of Europe, was not inherently a European art: there could be major American ballets, as well as major American ballet dancers.

Both the Original Ballet Russe and Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo helped ballet flourish in America by constantly touring -- and on a scale that probably no company would attempt today: for instance, during the 1949-50 season the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo gave 191 performances in 86 cities. The dancers’ daily schedule in both troupes was grueling, involving rising early to catch a train (or, in later years, a bus), which would usually arrive in the next scheduled town during the afternoon, when the dancers would hurriedly unpack at their hotel and rush to the theater for a warm-up followed by a performance, and then search for a restaurant open late, return to the hotel, and collapse into bed. If this was a one-night stand, as countless performances were, the same schedule would be repeated the next day. But, at the time,that was a dancer’s life.

During World War II, the paths of the two companies diverged. The Original Ballet Russe spent long seasons in Australia and South America, doing much to generate interest in ballet in both places, and in the process enduring tropical heat and Andean snows before returning to New York in 1946. Because of its travails, New Yorkers found that its dancers looked tired and its productions shabby, opinions shared by audiences on a subsequent European tour. Moreover, Col. de Basil started running out of money and growing out of touch with new balletic developments. The Original gave its final performance in 1952.

The Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo continued crisscrossing America until economic hardships also caused Denham to pinch pennies and simplify the scale of productions. He, too, appeared unable to develop fresh choreographic talents, and his company disbanded in 1962.

Yet, in good times and bad, the Ballets Russes danced whole-heartedly in a vivid manner that allowed each performer to be a distinct individual on stage without distorting the basic style of the choreography. The Ballets Russes made an impression – an indelible one that led many Americans to study ballet and many more to keep seeing it. And, after retiring, a remarkable number of Ballets Russes dancers settled across America to found schools and regional companies, thereby furthering the art they loved. In the dances, the dancers and the audiences they inspired, the Ballets Russes lives on.                                              

Jack Anderson is a dance historian and poet who writes on dance for the New York Times, The Dancing Times of London, and online at www.nytheatre-wire.com. He has  published seven books of dance history and criticism, including The One and Only: The Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, Ballet and Modern Dance: a Concise History, Art Without Boundaries: The World of Modern Dance, and Choreography Observed, as well as ten books of poetry.


Selected Resources for Further Research

Books and Articles

Anderson, Jack. The One and Only: The Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. New York: Dance Horizons, 1981.

Chazin-Bennahum, Judith. René Blum and the Ballets Russes: In Search of a Lost Life. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.

García-Márquez, Vicente. The Ballets Russes: Colonel de Basil’s Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo 1932-1952. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990.

Sorley Walker, Kathrine. De Basil’s Ballets  Russes.  New York: Atheneum, 1983.      

Moving Image

Ballets Russes. Produced and directed by Dayna Goldfine & Dan Geller. New York: Zeitgeist Films/Zeitgeist Video, c2006. 

Gaité Parisienne. Filmed and edited by Victor Jessen. Pleasantville, N.Y. : Video Artists International, c2006.(Filmed at multiple performances during the 1940s.)

Seventh Symphony, movements 1-3. Produced by John Mueller.  Originally filmed in 1938, synchronized music track added 1981. Available on film at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, onsite use only.


The Harvard Theatre Collection holds scrapbooks, designs, and other materials relating to the Ballet Russe:


The Library of Congress holds the Serge Grigoriev/Ballet Russe archive:


The Jerome Robbins Dance Division of the New York Public Library holds the Gabriel Astruc-Serge Diaghilev Collection and many other materials relating to the Ballet Russe: