De Basil’s Ballets Russes has had an uncer tain position in the history of twentieth-cen tury dance. It has often been dismissed as nothing more than a hack company, put together by a fake Russian colonel with a flair for publicity who knew how to milk the Diaghilev legend for all it was worth. A new book by Vicente García-Márquez sets out to correct this view. Despite its dubious reputa tion, de Basil’s company, the author asserts, made contributions of real worth that are often overlooked in the wake of the scandals and intrigues that plagued it during its volatile career.
When Serge Diaghilev died in 1929, it seemed that the glorious era of Russian ballet had come to an end. The company that had brought Nijinsky, Pavlova, Bolm, and Karsavina to Paris, and had introduced the work of choreographers Fokine, Massine, and Balanchine, disbanded; the famous sets by Bakst, Benois, and Picasso were relegated to stor age. Two years later Anna Pavlova, who had left Diaghilev to form her own touring group, died. In the ballet world, there was, as the British critic Arnold Haskell put it, “a terrifying silence.”
But within three years, a former officer in the Russian army, Vassili Grigorievitch Voskrensky—better known as Colonel Wassily de Basil—and Rene Blum, the impresario at the Casino de Monte Carlo, had put to gether a second Ballets Russes. The company not only retained the best of the Diaghilev repertoire (thanks to the prodigious memory of Serge Grigoriev, his regisseur) but was to produce some revolutionary choreography as well as first-rate revivals before it gradually fell into decline, folding six months after the death of Colonel de Basil in 1951.
To emphasize his point, García-Márquez puts the history of de Basil’s company in the context of the repertory. Accompanying his text with fascinating photographs, he evokes the making of the ballets—their music, libretti, choreography, and decor—and the critical reception of each production in painstaking detail. There were twenty-eight new works produced between 1932 and 1948, and García-Márquez’s meticulous recon struction of them, along with recollections of the participants, make you wish you’d been there to see them. Indeed, any one of them would probably make for a far more inter esting evening than much of the new cho reography showing up in ballet companies today.
The works produced by the second Ballets Russes, says García-Márquez, “marked the pivotal beginning of a new artistic freedom and aesthetic expression. They revived the public’s interest in nineteenth-century clas sicism, and also developed the integration of dance and music that had begun with Les Sylphides. Balanchine’s Cotillon and Massine’s Jeux d’Enfants, both created in 1932 with libretti by Kochno, had no literal story and were consistently set in terms of dance. The following year Massine’s Les Présages, set to Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony, opened a new chapter in ballet history as the first sym phonic ballet in the West to explore a new structure, theme, and choreographic syn tax.”
During its twenty years of existence, the troupe was joined by Alexandra Danilova, Alicia Markova, Anton Dolin, and David Lichine (the latter choreographed many bal lets for de Basil, including Graduation Ball and Protee). Artists who designed for it in cluded de Chirico, Miró, Derain, Dufy, and Masson; Stravinsky, Rachmaninoff, and Auric contributed music.
Balanchine, Diaghilev’s last ballet master, who was hired at the start, left after only a few months, despite the enticement of working with his brilliant young discoveries, the famous “baby ballerinas” Irina Baronova, Tamara Toumanova, and Tatiana Riabouchinska. Both he and the librettist Boris Kochno disliked the dictatorial methods of de Basil and Blum, who they felt were more interested in peddling nostalgia than in look ing for new ideas.
“Unfortunately [the company] took its own existence for granted, drawing more and more heavily on the Diaghilev repertoire and giving its young dancers less and less time to assimilate its subtleties,” commented Haskell writing in London. “Let us be quite fair. Economics play their part. Diaghilev could find a backer when driven to the wall, de Basil must play all the year round to keep his large company alive.” De Basil ruled like a dictator—but he did not have Diaghilev’s artistic sensibility and taste. Whereas Diaghi lev gave the public what he wanted, de Basil gave the public what he thought they wanted. The latter’s succès de scandale were of a different order. The company developed a huge following of devoted fans—of the sort who call the dancers by their first names and hang around the stage door looking for auto graphs.
In eight years de Basil changed the com pany’s name six times and he was constantly involved in litigation. The machinations and in-fighting take on the aspect of a farce. By 1939 he was in competition with another Bal let Russe, this one directed by Sergei Denham and Blum, who had left him (de Basil called his company the Original Ballet Russe while Denham named his the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo).
“They started with the Diaghilev capital and goodwill which they succeeded in dis sipating within five years,” wrote Sacheverell Sitwell in 1950. “They quarrelled among themselves, enriched the legal profession, gave a bumper advertisement to the great little Principality, and then split into frag ments each one but a faint echo of the original. In vain one searches for new ideas. And yet there had never been more un developed dancing talents awaiting inspired leadership.”
Certainly, much of what Sitwell says holds true—and by the end, even the dancing had deteriorated. But in its first five or six years the company saw the production of some remarkable works. García-Márquez is par ticularly interesting about Leonide Massine, who created three new symphonic ballets to music by Tchaikovsky, Brahms, and Berlioz before he split from de Basil in 1938. (His departure initiated a whole series of lawsuits over copyright to his works.)
“When the Ballets Russes danced Massine’s ballets,” writes García-Márquez, “the feeling of improvisation was palpable and the air of spontaneity brought each performance to special life. Each gesture seemed to be hap pening for the first time, with a complete naturalness and sincerity. This is one of the reasons why modern revivals of Massine’s works are often deemed ineffective. In the Ballets Russes performances, every solo role was taken by a personality. In an interview for French television ... Massine was asked if his works were not performed anymore because they were démodé. His answer: ‘Certainly not. There are no more dancers who could perform them.’”
Indeed, finding young dancers today who can act at all is a difficult task. Many are tech nically prodigious but few are capable of pro jecting emotion in those ballets that require it. In Symphonie fantastique, choreographed in 1936 to music by Berlioz and with sets by Bérard, Massine had one of his greatest roles as the young romantic musician, who is both protagonist and narrator of the action. “Attempting to convey Berlioz’s candid ex position of his emotional life, Massine tried to make visible in his performance the roman tic qualities of the music, not by means of ex aggerated facial expressions but by the inten sity of his performance, which allowed him to dominate the stage even while remaining practically motionless. This power was felt by all who worked with him.”
The dancers contributed to the develop ment of the characters they played, working on them like actors (Stanislavski was a major influence on Massine). He placed them in roles that best suited them, giving them the freedom to make the role their own. His main interest was to develop each character as an expression of personal gesture (in the symphonies, especially in the Brahms, he stressed the formation of groups).
Nijinska choreographed Les Cent Baisers in 1935, to music by d’Erlanger and with a libretto by Boris Kochno after a fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen. Her choreog raphy followed a middle course between Massine’s and Balanchine’s. García-Márquez quotes Baronova: “There was not much ex perimentation, as [there had been] with Mas sine. Her choreography always seemed to flow spontaneously. Even when she was im provising, she always projected the convic tion that she knew her ultimate goals, for she was precise and direct in her explanations.” And Baronova adds the wonderful detail that became a legend among dancers who worked with Nijinska, “She smoked con tinuously with a cigarette holder, wore trousers and incredibly white kid gloves be cause she disliked touching a sweaty body.”
Fokine returned in 1937 to revive Les Sylphides with Riabouchinska, whose version of the Prelude became world-famous. Fokine was extraordinarily demanding of his dancers. Riabouchinska recalled that at one point in this ballet she had “to bourree back wards—in a cambre” [i.e., arched] position —from upstage to center stage, with arms softly coming to the side….Then, almost by accident, by surprise, to turn to take the last pose before rushing off.”
Fokine was equally hard on conductors. One evening, during a rehearsal of Prince Igor, he became so annoyed by Sir Thomas Beecham’s tempo that he started to clap time. When the angry conductor walked off, Fokine stepped to the podium and instructed the orchestra, “from number twelve, please.”
Balanchine returned as guest choreog rapher during the American tour of 1940-41, the first and last time since his departure in 1932. Balustrade, set to Stravinsky’s Violin Concerto and with a set by Tchelitchev, was a milestone in his development, as Cotillon had been nearly a decade earlier. As García-Márquez writes, “It inaugurated the forties, a prolific decade during which he was to es tablish definite stylistic preferences and choreographic syntax.” Edwin Denby called the style of this ballet “direct new clas sicism.” (Later Balanchine did a new ballet to the same score, called simply Stravinsky Violin Concerto).
There may have been no Diaghilev to guide and supervise it, but de Basil’s company ex tended the frontiers of ballet, particularly in America, where in spite of the presence of Fokine and other Russian masters, it had been reduced to a standing barely above that of the music hall. It was essentially Balan chine, brought over by Lincoln Kirstein in 1933 (the same year the company had its first big American success), who made American ballet what it is today, but the Ballets Russes brought Diaghilev’s legacy to the United States, and educated the public through months of one-night stands across the country. And as García-Márquez points out, the tradition of ballet is handed over from teacher to pupil. Many of the dancers from de Basil’s Ballets Russes are still teaching today, keeping a tradition alive, half a century after the death of Diaghilev.
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