A 1916 poster for the American
tour of Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, designed by Willy Pogány. The poster is one of hundreds of items on display as part of The Harvard Theatre Collection exhibition.

Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, 1909–2009

An exhibition and symposium at The Harvard Theatre Collection:
Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, 1909–1929:
Twenty Years That Changed The World Of Art

April 15–17, 2009

The Russian Ballets of Serge Diaghilev holds a special, even unique, position in the history of the performing arts, in terms of a reawakening of interest in ballet in Europe and America, in bringing Russian culture to the attention of the rest of the western world, and in presenting ballet as an equal partnership of movement, music, and visual design, in which all of the creative participants—composers, designers, and choreographers, as well as the inventors of plots and scenarios—could exert an influence upon the other aspects of their collaborative works.

The paragraph above introduces an exhibition at The Harvard Theatre Collection and an accompanying three-day symposium that marked the centennial of the first performance of Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. I am proud to have been one of the attendees at the thrilling event April 15 to 17.

My visit to Cambridge was a personal delight as well. My daughter is a visiting professor at Harvard. She gave me shelter and helped me navigate Harvard Square and she gave me wonderful companionship.

Among many delights comprising the exhibition—symposium attendees were privileged to attend the opening—are original scenic and costume designs by artists such as Natalia Gontcharova, Alexandre Benois, Léon Bakst, and Pablo Picasso; and manuscripts of orchestral scores by composers Igor Stravinsky, Georges Auric, Manuel de Falla, and others. Documents and letters such as original contracts between Diaghilev and Vaslav Nijinsky, George Balanchine, Léonide Massine, conductors Ernest Ansermet and Pierre Monteaux fascinate, as do contracts between Diaghilev and presenters in the United States concerning the company’s 1916 tour. Notes and choreographic diagrams by choreographers are displayed as well as personal letters, photographs of dancers in costume, and many other items that chronicle twenty years that changed the world of art. The Harvard Theatre Collection’s rich archive provides primary source material for researchers of every period and type of theater.

The symposium was a remarkable assemblage of erudition and clear presentation by scholars in all theater art disciplines. Among the outstanding papers was one on sources used by costume designers and their influence, in turn, on fashion. An analysis of Stravinsky’s composition for Le Sacre du Printemps made lucid the complexities of the masterpiece. All references to Nijinsky’s choreography noted that his three ballets inverted conventions of ballet and presaged experimentation and rule-breaking that we are enjoying today.

Diaghilev’s genius and his foibles were closely examined. It was also noted that music and design he brokered have outlived the choreography he inspired. Many musical scores, especially Stravinsky’s, are now concert pieces; museums regularly display art by Nicholas Roerich, Gontcharova, Anton Pevsner, and other painters; yet much choreography has fallen into oblivion or has had to be reconstructed. One wonders if we value media over the dance it partners.

—Claudia Gitelman, April 2009

Diaghilev has always intrigued me because he was “multimedia” in his approach to theater and because his approach to motion was aesthetic. That is, the ballets produced under his egis (at least some of his works) were choreographed, not out of pre-formed ballet steps but out of muscular action found in the image—a true precursor to Nikolais.

—Ruth Grauert