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An Examination of the Influence of Sergei Diaghilev and Ballet Russe on the Development of Ballet in the Early Twentieth Century

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An Examination of the Influence of Sergei Diaghilev and Ballet Russe on the Development of Ballet in the Early Twentieth Century

Ballet was taking an important place in Western Europe at the beginning and at the middle ages of the Renaissance. When the ballet was monotonus in 19th and 20th century, on the scene came Sergei Diaghilev with his inspiration to show the Russian art to Paris. Two years after performances in Paris, Ballet Russe was founded as an independent ballet company that combined great dancers, choreographers, designers and musicians.

Sergei Diaghilev was born on 31 March 1872 at Selishchenko in Novogorod Province, a south-western region of Russia. His mother, Evgenia Nikolaevna, died at the birth of Diaghilev. His father Pavel Pavlocich Diaghilev, a professional army officer, re-married two years later, so the young boy could grow and not missing a mother in the family. After his graduation from Perm Gymnasium, Diaghilev was enrolled at St Petersburg University Law Faculty in 1890. His passion toward art and music continued developing at his free time, parallel to the law school. At that time he was studying music composition under Rimsky-Korsakov, and taking singing lessons from Antonio Cotogni вЂ" an Italian tenor. After all these classes in the musical field, he was not able to develop a music career, so he focused more on art. Diaghilev was helped by Alexandre Benois and Dmitry Filosofov for developing his art skills. They opened his eyes to the Russian art and after that he began organizing series of art exhibitions in St Petersburg. His first exhibition was in March 1897 and the last one was in the spring of 1906- contemporary Russian art. The works were by artists from St Petersburg’s World of Art group and some selected artists of Moscow’s Thirty-Six group (Kodicek 124).

Sergei Diaghilev was part of the elite in Russia and Europe. His cousin Dmitry Filosofov, with whom he stayed in St Petersburg and traveled across Europe, played an important role in helping to develop Diaghilev as part of his “intelligentsia” group. With the help of Filosofov, Diaghilev joined an elite society: the Society of Self Improvement, which was a group of old friends that were graduated from the May High School and were part of the elite at that time. They were gathering to discuss different issues about culture at the house of the artist Alexandre Benois, who was the founder of this society and an important figure in developing Diaghilev’s experience in the World of Art and the early Ballets Russes (Kodicek 124). As Anne Benois-Tcherkessova explains in her interview for John Drummond book, this small society was gathering in the house of her father where they were discussing issues about art-all kinds of questions about art (103). After a while an idea came to them to create a magazine which was out for several years and let to composing excellent articles. This magazine was created because of Princess Tenischeva and gave many people of high culture the possibility to publish their thoughts on different aspects such as art, philosophy, literature and music. According to Anne Benois neither their magazine, nor their ideas were very popular at that time. It was concerning people from the elite and these ideas were not understandable from the normal people yet. They were considered conservative ideas from artistic point of view. She explains how at the beginning her father was supporting Diaghilev’s ideas but later Diaghilev completely changed; “turned very much towards the painters on the left” (Drummond 103). Another interview with Tamara Karsavina in the J. Drummond book reveals that the new atmosphere in the arts in St Petersburg in the early years of the last century was considered as the renaissance of Russian art- led by Benois and supported by his friend’s circle from the “Inteligentsia” (85). And then they started their journal, Mir Isskustvo, where Diaghilev was an editor. He was working in the area of art and had all the connections with art people through the society that was formed around Benois. All these ideas and knowledge from the art society helped Diaghilev further to develop his ideas and to form a vehicle that would utilize these thoughts for art. This led him to the idea of forming Ballet Russe (Kodicek 144).

A big contribution to forming the ballet Russe was Alexandre Benois. He was the person who enthused Diaghilev for ballet after taking him to a performance of his “Pavillon d’Armide” at the Maryinsky Theatre in 1907. Very excited from the performance, Diaghilev said to him that this artistic Russian ballet should be shown to Europe (Kodicek 87). Hence, this was the original aim of ballet Russe; to introduce the Russian art/trends to Europe (Shipkowski-lecture). Not being a dancer, nor a choreographer, Diaghilev was an impresario, who had the ability to bring together dancers, choreographers, composers, designers and painters. According to an interview with Tamara Karsavina, former prima ballerina in Diaghilev’s company, Diaghilev had all the best that was in the artistic world around him, especially at the beginning. They were all these people who belonged to that group of Mir Isskustvo and were able to collaborate to create a complete performance that united everything: dance, choreography, artistic dÐ"©cor, music, costumes etc. At the beginning, Ballet Russe was not a permanent company, Diaghilev had borrowed dancers from Imperial Russian Ballet for his first presentations in Paris. Ballet Russe became a company in 1911 and stayed one of the most important ballet companies in the history giving new and long-lasting life to the stagnant ballets in Western Europe (Dehnart 1). There were a few reasons of T. Karsavina joining this formation at the beginning. One of them was opening new horizons; something new and controversial. Ballet Russe had influenced many of the trends in fashion and design at that time. After their first performance in Paris, all the intelligentsia in Paris were talking about the performance, the costumes, the music and the “Total Theatre” that Diaghilev created with the help of his professional team. It overturned everything in Western Europe that was almost asleep and tired of the well known old style in ballet.

The success of Ballet Russe did not stop after the death of Sergei Diaghilev in 1929. It was overtaken by Col. Wassily de Basil and later divided into two separate companies. The first company was Basil’s company called the Original ballet Russe, which formed in 1938 and was touring internationally before dissolving in 1948. The second company was called Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, which was lead by Leonide Massine.

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