Alexandre Benois (1870-1960). Le Pavillon d’Armide, Costume design for King, Queen, and Servants, 1909. Watercolor, ink, and pencil. Howard D. Rothschild collection on Ballets Russes of Serge Diaghilev. pf MS Thr 414.4 (31). Bequest, 1989.
HOLLIS Catalog Entry. Finding Aid.

The Ballets Russes of Serge Diaghilev claims a special position, even a unique one, 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 authors of scenarios—exerted an influence upon other aspects of their collaborative works.  While this was an enterprise that appealed especially to privileged and cultured populations in the largest cities, it exerted an influence on the future of ballet that extended far beyond those cities and endured beyond the impressive immediate accom­plish­ment of having presented some seventy individual ballets that were created and performed through the collab­ora­tion of many of the significant artists of the early years of the twentieth century.

Serge Diaghilev was responsible for bringing together and providing important opportunities to such emerging creative artists of that time as Igor Stravinsky, Francis Poulenc, Serge Prokofiev, Jean Cocteau, Pablo Picasso, Giorgio de Chirico, and Joan Miró, as well as to a number of leading Russian painters, including Léon Bakst, Alexandre Benois, Nicholas Roerich, Alexander Golovine, Natalia Gon­charova, and Mikhail Larionov.  Many of the greatest Russian dancers, among them Vaslav Nijinsky, Michel Fokine, Adolph Bolm, Tamara Kar­savina, and Anna Pavlova, danced for Diaghilev; and he fostered the careers of many more dancers who were nurtured under the auspices of the Ballets Russes. It was Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, perhaps more than any other company, who was responsible for bringing back the prominence of the male dancer and for seizing upon the sensual possibilities of ballet.  In him, management and admini­stration were elevated to a creative art.

Especially in its earlier years, the Ballets Russes was grounded in Russian culture: amid a number of modernist, advanced works, Diaghilev brought out ballets based on traditional Russian themes, created by Russian-born artists, com­posers, and choreographers, and performed by dancers trained in Russia. Diaghilev also revived a number of representative ballets and operas from the nineteenth-century Russian tradition. The Ballets Russes began on a small scale: the first season consisted only of a few weeks in Paris, with no immediate expectation of permanency; and the second season, limited to Paris and brief appearances in two other cities, was nearly as brief. It was the third season, in 1911, that brought the Ballets Russes to London, where it truly caught fire; from that time, performing now under Diaghilev’s own name, the company was eagerly followed and enthusiast­ically reported, as it grew in size, in repertory, in prestige, and in fashion.

It could be said that in Diaghilev the role of the producer or impresario had become much like that of a curator. The Ballets Russes represented Diaghilev’s own aesthetic convictions and realized his own artistic intentions. Those personal con­victions and predilections were not permanent and un­changing, and they reflect­ed to some extent political and societal realities over those twenty turbulent and eventful years. But 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.

The Exhibition

The year 2009 was the centenary of the founding of the Ballets Russes. “The World of Art,” the phrase chosen for the exhibition’s title, is not only a broad declaration of the impact and influence of the Ballets Russes, but it is in fact a translation of the title of a periodical in support of modern art, “Mir Iskusstva,” which Diaghilev edited in St. Petersburg, and which first brought him recognition.

The exhibition pays tribute to Diaghilev as a genius among impresarios and entre­preneurs, to the repertory of ballets that were created under his super­vision, and to the creators and performers whose collaboration brought them about. This exhibition also brings to life the beauty and impact of the celebrated works that resulted from the historic collaborative enterprise of the Ballets Russes.

The exhibition was organized by the late Fredric Woodbridge Wilson, Curator of the Harvard Theatre Collection from 1996 to 2010. Its more than 200 original documents and art works are drawn from the holdings of Houghton Library’s Harvard Theatre Collection. It is intended that this exhibition should narrate—however episodically—the history of Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, the creation of the individual ballets, and the life of Diaghilev; and to convey to its audience some sense of why this artistic undertaking was uniquely celebrated in its time.

Within the setting of a large research library, one that is freely available to and used by a worldwide community of scholars, our exhibitions have a separ­ate and parallel purpose. That purpose is to show, as persuasively as possible, the value of primary sources—manuscripts, art work, photographs, programs, and many other types of material—for historical research. In an exhibition on a subject upon which the Harvard Theatre Collec­tion contains such a wealth of material from which to draw, as in the present instance, we hope to show the possibilities for research that are uniquely available in the largest collections, in which items that were separately acquired, and which are often very different in their nature, can complement, supple­ment, and inform one another—photograph with design, design with letter, letter with manuscript, manuscript with portrait, and so on. To foster future histor­ical research, or stage produc­tion, or artistic creativity, is the first purpose of collections like this one, and public exhibitions are often a most effective way to bring their holdings to the notice of those who are best able to make productive use of them.

Exhibition Acknowledgements and Credits

This exhibition is a collaborative and cooperative effort. The exhibition was researched, organized and written by Fredric Woodbridge Wilson, the late Curator of the Harvard Theatre Collection. Ric was generously assisted in the research and writing by Diana Limbach and Iris M. Fanger. He was also assisted in research by Irina Klyagin. Pamela Madsen and Thomas Horrocks edited Ric’s work and Luke Dennis prepared it for this digital format. Harvard College Library Imaging Services contributed the digitization and photography.

Collection Donors

We are most grateful to the many donors of collections and individual collection items that have been drawn upon in this exhibition, and for the funds that have been endowed by individual donors, which have been used to purchase items that are also shown in the exhibition. These donors and funds are acknowledged in the captions and labels that are associated with the individual items in the exhibition. Among the collections that have been included in the exhibition are the following:

The Howard D. Rothschild collection on Ballets Russes of Serge Diaghilev
The Frederick R. Koch Collection
The Stravinsky-Diaghilev Foundation Collection
The George Chaffée Collection
The Paul Stiga Collection
The A. J. and Tess Pischl Collection
The Carl Taggersell Collection
The John M. and Ruth N. Ward Collection
The George Balanchine Archive

Funding and Support

The exhibition was supported by the fol­low­­ing endowed funds in the Harvard Theatre Collection:
The Howard D. Rothschild Fund for the Ballets Russes of Serge Diaghilev
The Beatrice, Benjamin, and Richard Bader Fund for the Visual Arts of the Theatre
The Edmond de Rothschild Foundation Fund for Dance
The Parmenia Migel Ekstrom Memorial Fund for Dance
The Walter Terry Memorial Fund for Dance
The John Kasdan Fund for Dance

As well as a special gift from Mr. Melvin R. Seiden.