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Diaghilev and His Geniuses

May-June 2009

<em>The City Square,</em> 1937, a scene design by Natalia Goncharova for <em>Le Coq d’Or</em>

The City Square, 1937, a scene design by Natalia Goncharova for Le Coq d’Or

Courtesy of the Harvard Theatre Collection

Costumes and set design by Robert Edmond Jones ’10 for <em>Till Eulenspiegel,</em> 1916

Costumes and set design by Robert Edmond Jones ’10 for Till Eulenspiegel, 1916

A portrait of Diaghilev in graphite and chalk, by Constantine Korovine

A portrait of Diaghilev in graphite and chalk, by Constantine Korovine

Courtesy of the Harvard Theatre Collection

Vaslav Nijinsky as the Spirit in <em>Le Spectre de la Rose,</em> a 1911 portrait by Jean Cocteau

Vaslav Nijinsky as the Spirit in Le Spectre de la Rose, a 1911 portrait by Jean Cocteau

Courtesy of the Harvard Theatre Collection

A painted porcelain figurine of Nijinsky as Harlequin in <em>Carnaval</em>

A painted porcelain figurine of Nijinsky as Harlequin in Carnaval

Courtesy of the Harvard Theatre Collection

Costume design by Alexandre Benois for <em>Le Pavillon d'Armide,</em> 1909

Costume design by Alexandre Benois for Le Pavillon d'Armide, 1909

Courtesy of the Harvard Theatre Collection

Diaghilev with members of the company, on tour at the train station in Liverpool, England, 1928

Diaghilev with members of the company, on tour at the train station in Liverpool, England, 1928

Courtesy of the Harvard Theatre Collection

A tabulation of performances by Diaghilev's Ballets Russes by Serge Grigoriev, 1909-1929

A tabulation of performances by Diaghilev's Ballets Russes by Serge Grigoriev, 1909-1929

Courtesy of the Harvard Theatre Collection

A ticket to Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, 1929

A ticket to Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, 1929

Courtesy of the Harvard Theatre Collection

Serge Lifar in <em>La Chatte,</em> a 1927 character portrait by Eileen Mayo

Serge Lifar in La Chatte, a 1927 character portrait by Eileen Mayo

Courtesy of the Harvard Theatre Collection

Ida Rubinstein in <em>Scheherazade</em>

Ida Rubinstein in Scheherazade

Courtesy of the Harvard Theatre Collection

Poster for Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, 1922

Poster for Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, 1922

Courtesy of the Harvard Theatre Collection

A 1920 drawing of a scene from <em>Cleopatra</em>, by Ethelbert White

A 1920 drawing of a scene from Cleopatra, by Ethelbert White

Courtesy of the Harvard Theatre Collection

The culturati of Europe in the early twentieth century had a phrase for “cutting edge” developments: “That’s very Ballets Russes.” Indeed, the Ballets Russes, founded and run by the legendary Russian impresario Sergei Diaghilev (1872-1929), were a fountain of energy that launched many of the century’s creative icons. Igor Stravinsky, for example, was not well known when Diaghilev commissioned The Firebird in 1910; Petrouchka followed in 1911, and The Rite of Spring’s 1913 Paris premiere triggered an artistic riot that made both the composer and the ballet famous. Even Pablo Picasso’s reputation grew when Diaghilev engaged him to design Parade (1917), with music by Erik Satie and a scenario by Jean Cocteau.

Vaslav Nijinsky and, less frequently, Anna Pavlova danced for the Ballets Russes; Michel Fokine was the most prominent choreographer. At the center was Diaghilev, “a man of great taste and discernment, as well as personal persuasiveness,” says Fredric Woodbridge Wilson, curator of the Harvard Theatre Collection in Houghton Library. “He was an adventurer who sought out novelty, and delighted in revealing new artists. There was perhaps never quite a parallel circumstance in the history of the arts in which the tastes and personal influence of one person had such an effect on the future of the world of art.”

This enchanted age of dance is the focus of a centennial exhibition by the Theatre Collection, Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, 1909-1929: Twenty Years That Changed the World of Art, opening on April 16 and scheduled to run through August 28 in Pusey Library. The collection, assembled across decades, ranks among the world’s great centers for studying the Ballets Russes, and will have many unique items on display, like an autograph letter from Picasso to Diaghilev regarding Parade.

In mid April, the Theatre Collection and the Office for the Arts are set to convene more than three dozen speakers for a three-day symposium, including New Yorker dance writer Joan Acocella, Diaghilev biographer Joy Melville of London, and Toni Bentley of Los Angeles, an author and former Balanchine dancer who will discuss Ida Rubinstein, the wealthy, beautiful ballerina who broke from Diaghilev to found her own company. (She commissioned and danced Maurice Ravel’s Boléro in 1928.)

Concurrently, the Harvard Dance Center plans to present Dancers’ Viewpointe 9, including scenes from The Rite of Spring newly choreographed by Jaime Blanc of Mexico, and Harvard radio station WHRB expects to air several programs of music associated with Ballets Russes productions. Meanwhile, the nonprofit Brattle Theatre in Harvard Square is set to screen three days' worth of ballet films, including a new Finnish movie, My Madness Is My Love: Impressions of Vaslav Nijinsky; the 1948 Hollywood classic The Red Shoes; and The Mad Genius, a 1931 movie starring John Barrymore, with ballet scenes and characters transparently based on Diaghilev and his circle.