Ballets Russes

The Ballets Russes (French: [balɛ ʁys]) was an itinerant ballet company based in Paris that performed between 1909 and 1929 throughout Europe and on tours to North and South America. The company never performed in Russia, where the Revolution disrupted society. After its initial Paris season, the company had no formal ties there.[1]

Originally conceived by impresario Sergei Diaghilev, the Ballets Russes is widely regarded as the most influential ballet company of the 20th century,[2] in part because it promoted ground-breaking artistic collaborations among young choreographers, composers, designers, and dancers, all at the forefront of their several fields. Diaghilev commissioned works from composers such as Igor Stravinsky, Claude Debussy, and Sergei Prokofiev, artists such as Vasily Kandinsky, Alexandre Benois, Pablo Picasso, and Henri Matisse, and costume designers Léon Bakst and Coco Chanel.

The company's productions created a huge sensation, completely reinvigorating the art of performing dance, bringing many visual artists to public attention, and significantly affecting the course of musical composition. It also introduced European and American audiences to tales, music, and design motifs drawn from Russian folklore. The influence of the Ballets Russes lasts to the present day.

Ballets Russes
General information
NameBallets Russes
Year founded1909
Principal venuevarious
Artistic staff
Artistic DirectorSergei Diaghilev
  • Principal
  • Soloist
  • Corps de Ballet
Nijinsky - Poster-2008-17-08.jpeg
Poster by Jean Cocteau for the 1911 Ballet Russe season showing Nijinsky in costume for Le Spectre de la Rose, Paris.


The French plural form of the name, “Ballets Russes,” specifically refers to the company founded by Sergei Diaghilev and active during his lifetime. (In some publicity the company was advertised as Les Ballets Russes de Serge Diaghileff.) In English, the company is now commonly referred to as "the Ballets Russes" (plural, without italics), although in the early part of the 20th century, it was sometimes referred to as “The Russian Ballet” or “Diaghilev’s Russian Ballet.” To add to the confusion, some publicity material spelled the name in the singular.

The names “Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo” and “The Original Ballet Russe” (using the singular) refer to companies that formed after Diaghilev's death in 1929.

History and productions

Sergei Diaghilev 01
Sergei Diaghilev, founder of the Ballets Russes


Sergei Diaghilev, the company's impresario (or "artistic director" in modern terms), was chiefly responsible for its success. He was uniquely prepared for the role; born into a wealthy Russian family of vodka distillers (though they went bankrupt when he was 18), he was accustomed to moving in the upper-class circles that provided the company's patrons and benefactors.

In 1890, he enrolled at the Faculty of Law, St. Petersburg, to prepare for a career in the civil service like many Russian young men of his class.[3] There he was introduced (through his cousin Dmitry Filosofov) to a student clique of artists and intellectuals calling themselves The Nevsky Pickwickians whose most influential member was Alexandre Benois; others included Léon Bakst, Walter Nouvel, and Konstantin Somov.[4]From childhood, Diaghilev had been passionately interested in music. However, his ambition to become a composer was dashed in 1894 when Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov told him he had no talent.[5]

In 1898, several members of The Pickwickians founded the journal Mir iskusstva (World of Art) under the editorship of Diaghilev.[6] As early as 1902, Mir iskusstva included reviews of concerts, operas, and ballets in Russia. The latter were chiefly written by Benois, who exerted considerable influence on Diaghilev's thinking.[7] Mir iskusstva also sponsored exhibitions of Russian art in St. Petersburg, culminating in Diaghilev's important 1905 show of Russian portraiture at the Tauride Palace.[8]

Macke Russisches Ballett 1
Ballet Russes by August Macke, 1912

Frustrated by the extreme conservatism of the Russian art world, Diaghilev organized the groundbreaking Exhibition of Russian Art at the Petit Palais in Paris in 1906, the first major showing of Russian art in the West. Its enormous success created a Parisian fascination with all things Russian. Diaghilev organized a 1907 season of Russian music at the Paris Opéra. In 1908, Diaghilev returned to the Paris Opéra with six performances of Modest Mussorgsky's opera Boris Godunov, starring basso Fyodor Chaliapin. This was Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov's 1908 version (with additional cuts and re-arrangement of the scenes). The performances were a sensation, though the costs of producing grand opera were crippling.


In 1909, Diaghilev presented his first Paris "Saison Russe" devoted exclusively to ballet (although the company did not use the name "Ballets Russes" until the following year). Most of this original company were resident performers at the Imperial Ballet of Saint Petersburg, hired by Diaghilev to perform in Paris during the Imperial Ballet's summer holidays. The first season's repertory featured a variety of works chiefly choreographed by Michel Fokine, including Le Pavillon d'Armide, the Polovtsian Dances (from Prince Igor), Les Sylphides, and Cléopâtre. The season also included Le Festin, a pastiche set by several choreographers (including Fokine) to music by several Russian composers.

Principal productions

The principal productions are shown in the table below.

Year Title Image Composer(s) Choreographer(s) Sets and costumes
1909 Le Pavillon d'Armide Pavillion d'Armide by A. Benois 01 Nikolai Tcherepnin Michel Fokine Alexandre Benois
Prince Igor Choumoff - Adolph Bolm, Polovtsian Dances Alexander Borodin Michel Fokine Nicholas Roerich
Le Festin Nijinsky Le Festin Michel Fokine Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (march from Le Coq d'Or used for processional entry) Konstantin Korovin (sets and costumes)

Léon Bakst (costumes)

Alexandre Benois (costumes)

Ivan Bilibin (costumes)

Mikhail Glinka ("Lezginka" from Ruslan and Ludmilla) Michel Fokine, Marius Petipa
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky ("L'Oiseau d'Or" from The Sleeping Beauty) Marius Petipa
Alexander Glazunov ("Czardas" from Raymonda) Alexander Gorsky
Modest Mussorgsky ("Hopak" from The Fair at Sorochyntsi) Michel Fokine
Mikhail Glinka ("Mazurka" from A Life for the Tsar) Nicolai Goltz, Felix Kchessinsky
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky ("Trepak" from The Nutcracker) Michel Fokine
Alexander Glazunov ("Grand Pas Classique Hongrois" from Raymonda) Marius Petipa
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky ("Finale" of the Second Symphony) Michel Fokine
Les Sylphides Les Sylphides by A.Benois.jpeg Frédéric Chopin (orch. Glazunov, Igor Stravinsky, Alexander Taneyev) Michel Fokine Alexandre Benois
Cléopâtre Cleopatra ballet by Bakst 08 Anton Arensky (additional music by Glazunov, Glinka, Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Sergei Taneyev, Nikolai Tcherepnin) Michel Fokine Léon Bakst
1910 Carnaval Carnaval (Schumann) by L.Bakst 02 Robert Schumann (orch. Arensky, Glazunov, Anatol Liadov, Rimsky-Korsakov, Tcherepnin) Michel Fokine Léon Bakst
Schéhérazade Scheherazade (Rimsky-Korsakov) 01 by L. Bakst Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov Michel Fokine Léon Bakst
Giselle Giselle (A. Benois) 01 Adolphe Adam Jean Coralli, Jules Perrot, Marius Petipa (revival), Michel Fokine (revisions) Alexandre Benois
Les Orientales Anna Pavlova in Oriental Fantasy by L.Bakst Christian Sinding (Rondoletto giocoso, op.32/5) (orch. Igor Stravinsky for "Danse Siamoise")

Edvard Grieg (Småtroll, op.71/3, from Lyric Pieces, Book X) (orch. Igor Stravinsky for "Variation")

Vaslav Nijinsky ("Danse Siamoise" and "Variation")

Michel Fokine

Konstantin Korovin (sets and costumes)

Léon Bakst (costumes)

L'Oiseau de feu Léon Bakst 001 Igor Stravinsky Michel Fokine Alexander Golovine (sets and costumes)

Léon Bakst (costumes)

1911 Le Spectre de la rose Le Spectre De La Rose by L. Bakst 01 Carl Maria von Weber Michel Fokine Léon Bakst
Narcisse Leon Bakst 002 Nikolai Tcherepnin Michel Fokine Léon Bakst
Sadko Sadko by B.Anisfeld 01 Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov Mikhail Fokine Boris Anisfeld
Petrushka Petrouchka by A. Benois 01 Igor Stravinsky Michel Fokine Alexandre Benois
Swan Lake Swan lake by S.Sudeikin 01 Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky Marius Petipa, Lev Ivanov, Michel Fokine (revisions) Konstantin Korovin (sets)

Alexander Golovin (sets and costumes)

1912 L'après-midi d'un faune L'après-midi d'un faune by L.Bakst 01 Claude Debussy Vaslav Nijinsky Léon Bakst
Daphnis et Chloé Bakst Daphnis et Chloë Set Act II 1912 Maurice Ravel Michel Fokine Léon Bakst
Le Dieu bleu Le Dieu Bleu by Bakst 05 Reynaldo Hahn Michel Fokine Léon Bakst
Thamar Thamar by L.Bakst 01 Mily Balakirev Michel Fokine Léon Bakst
1913 Jeux Jeux by A. Benois 01 Claude Debussy Vaslav Nijinsky Léon Bakst
Le sacre du printemps Roerich Rite of Spring Igor Stravinsky Vaslav Nijinsky Nicholas Roerich
Tragédie de Salomé Florent Schmitt Boris Romanov Sergey Sudeykin
1914 Les Papillons Papillons by L. Bakst 03 Robert Schumann (orch. Nikolai Tcherepnin) Mikhail Fokine Mstislav Doboujinsky
La légende de Joseph La legende de joseph potiphar's wife 1914 Richard Strauss Michel Fokine Léon Bakst
Le coq d'or Golden Cockerel by N. Goncharova 02 Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov Michel Fokine Natalia Goncharova
Le rossignol Solovey by A. Benois 01 Igor Stravinsky Boris Romanov Alexandre Benois
Midas Maximilian Steinberg Michel Fokine Mstislav Doboujinsky
1915 Soleil de Nuit Mikhail Larionov - Midnight sun 01 Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov Léonide Massine Mikhail Larionov
1916 Las Meninas Louis Aubert, Gabriel Fauré (Pavane), Maurice Ravel (Alborada del gracioso), Emmanuel Chabrier (Menuet pompeux) Léonide Massine Josep Maria Sert (costumes)
Kikimora Anatoly Liadov Léonide Massine Mikhail Larionov
Till Eulenspiegel Till Eulenspiegel (1916) 1 Richard Strauss Vaslav Nijinsky Robert Edmond Jones
1917 Feu d'Artifice Igor Stravinsky Giacomo Balla
Les Femmes de Bonne Humeur Les Femmes de bonne humeur 01 by L. Bakst Domenico Scarlatti (orch. Vincenzo Tommasini) Léonide Massine Léon Bakst
Parade Costume design by Pablo Picasso representing skyscrapers and boulevards, for Serge Diaghilev's Ballets Russes performance of Parade at Théâtre du Châtelet, Paris 18 May 1917 Erik Satie Léonide Massine Pablo Picasso
1919 La Boutique fantasque La boutique fantastique by L. Bakst 08 Gioachino Rossini (arr. Ottorino Respighi) Léonide Massine André Derain
El sombrero de tres picos Picasso's costume design for "Le Tricorne" (1919-1920) Manuel de Falla Léonide Massine Pablo Picasso
Les jardins d'Aranjuez (new version of Las Meninas) Louis Aubert, Gabriel Fauré, Maurice Ravel, Emmanuel Chabrier Léonide Massine Josep Maria Sert (costumes)
1920 Le chant du rossignol Igor Stravinsky Léonide Massine Henri Matisse
Pulcinella Picasso's costume design for "Pulcinella" (1920) Igor Stravinsky Léonide Massine Pablo Picasso
Ballet de l'astuce féminine or Cimarosiana Domenico Cimarosa Léonide Massine Josep Maria Sert
Le sacre du printemps (revival) Igor Stravinsky Léonide Massine Nicholas Roerich
1921 Chout Jester ballet by M. Larionov 01 Sergei Prokofiev Léonide Massine Mikhail Larionov
Cuadro Flamenco Traditional Andalusian music (arr. Manuel de Falla) Pablo Picasso
The Sleeping Beauty Sleeping Beauty by L. Bakst 04 Pyotr Tchaikovsky Marius Petipa Léon Bakst
1922 Le Mariage de la Belle au Bois Dormant Pyotr Tchaikovsky Marius Petipa Alexandre Benois (sets and costumes)

Natalia Goncharova (costumes)

Mavra Mavra by L. Bakst 01.jpeg Igor Stravinsky Bronislava Nijinska Léopold Survage
Renard Igor Stravinsky Bronislava Nijinska Mikhail Larionov
1923 Les noces Little wedding by N. Goncharova 01 Igor Stravinsky Bronislava Nijinska Natalia Goncharova
1924 Les Tentations de la Bergère, ou l'Amour Vainqueur Costume Design for the Shepherdess, for the Ballet 'Les Tentations de la Bergère, premiered at the Théâtre de Monte Carlo, 1924 MET DP858623 Michel de Montéclair (arr. and orch. Henri Casadesus) Bronislava Nijinska Juan Gris
Le Médecin malgré lui Le Medecin malgre lui by A.Benois 01 Charles Gounod Bronislava Nijinska Alexandre Benois
Les biches Francis Poulenc Bronislava Nijinska Marie Laurencin
Cimarosiana Domenico Cimarosa (orch. Ottorino Respighi) Léonide Massine, Bronislava Nijinska José-María Sert
Les Fâcheux Georges Auric Bronislava Nijinska Georges Braque
Le train bleu Darius Milhaud Bronislava Nijinska Henri Laurens (sets)

Gabrielle Chanel (costumes)

Pablo Picasso (sets)

1925 Zephyr et Flore Vladimir Dukelsky Léonide Massine Georges Braque
Le chant du rossignol (revival) Igor Stravinsky George Balanchine Henri Matisse
Les matelots Georges Auric Léonide Massine Pere Pruna
Barabau Vittorio Rieti George Balanchine Maurice Utrillo
1926 Roméo et Juliette Constant Lambert Bronislava Nijinska Max Ernst (curtain)

Joan Miró (sets and costumes)

Pastorale Georges Auric George Balanchine Pere Pruna
Jack in the Box Erik Satie (orch. Milhaud) George Balanchine André Derain
The Triumph of Neptune Lord Berners George Balanchine Pedro Pruna (costumes)
1927 La chatte Henri Sauguet George Balanchine Naum Gabo
Mercure Erik Satie Léonide Massine Pablo Picasso
Le pas d'acier Sergei Prokofiev Léonide Massine Georges Jacoulov
1928 Ode Nikolai Nabokov Léonide Massine Pavel Tchelitchev
Apollon musagète (Apollo) Ballets Russes - Apollo musagète Igor Stravinsky George Balanchine André Bauschant (scene)

Coco Chanel (costumes)

The Gods Go A-Begging George Frederic Handel George Balanchine Léon Bakst (sets)

Juan Gris (costumes)

1929 Le Bal Vittorio Rieti George Balanchine Giorgio de Chirico
Renard (revival) Igor Stravinsky Serge Lifar Mikhail Larionov
Le fils prodigue Sergei Prokofiev George Balanchine Georges Rouault


Dimitri Rostoff as Malatesta in Francesca da Rimini, Original Ballet Russe, 1940. (6173568085) retouched
Dimitri Rostoff as Malatesta in Francesca da Rimini, Original Ballet Russe, 1940

When Sergei Diaghilev died of diabetes in Venice on 19 August 1929, the Ballets Russes was left with substantial debts. As the Great Depression began, its property was claimed by its creditors and the company of dancers dispersed.

In 1931, Colonel Wassily de Basil (a Russian émigré entrepreneur from Paris) and René Blum (ballet director at the Monte Carlo Opera) founded the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, giving its first performances there in 1932.[9] Diaghilev alumni Léonide Massine and George Balanchine worked as choreographers with the company and Tamara Toumanova was a principal dancer.

Artistic differences led to a split between Blum and de Basil,[10] after which de Basil renamed his company initially "Ballets Russes de Colonel W. de Basil".[11] Blum retained the name "Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo", while de Basil created a new company. In 1938, he called it "The Covent Garden Russian Ballet"[11] and then renamed it the "Original Ballet Russe" in 1939.[11][12]

After World War II began, the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo left Europe and toured extensively in the United States and South America. As dancers retired and left the company, they often founded dance studios in the United States or South America or taught at other former company dancers' studios. With Balanchine's founding of the School of American Ballet, and later the New York City Ballet, many outstanding former Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo dancers went to New York to teach in his school. When they toured the United States, Cyd Charisse, the film actress and dancer, was taken into the cast.

The Original Ballet Russe toured mostly in Europe. Its alumni were influential in teaching classical Russian ballet technique in European schools.

The successor companies were the subject of the 2005 documentary film Ballets Russes.

The dancers

Ballets Russes Apollon 1928
Scene from Apollon musagète, 1928. Dancers: Serge Lifar, Danilova, Chernysheva, Dubrovska, Petrova

The Ballets Russes was noted for the high standard of its dancers, most of whom had been classically trained at the great Imperial schools in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Their high technical standards contributed a great deal to the company's success in Paris, where dance technique had declined markedly since the 1830s.

Principal female dancers included: Anna Pavlova, Tamara Karsavina, Olga Spessivtseva, Mathilde Kschessinska, Ida Rubinstein, Bronislava Nijinska, Lydia Lopokova, Diana Gould and Alicia Markova, among others; many earned international renown with the company. Prima ballerina Xenia Makletzova was dismissed from the company in 1916 and sued by Diaghilev; she countersued for breach of contract, and won $4500 in a Massachusetts court.[13][14]

The Ballets Russes was even more remarkable for raising the status of the male dancer, largely ignored by choreographers and ballet audiences since the early 19th century. Among the male dancers were Michel Fokine, Serge Lifar, Léonide Massine, Anton Dolin, George Balanchine, Valentin Zeglovsky, Theodore Kosloff, Adolph Bolm, and the legendary Vaslav Nijinsky, considered the most popular and talented dancer in the company's history.

After the Russian Revolution of 1917, in later years, younger dancers were taken from those trained in Paris by former Imperial dancers, within the large community of Russian exiles. Recruits were even accepted from America and included a young Ruth Page who joined the troupe in Monte Carlo during 1925.[15][16][17]

The choreographers

The company featured and premiered now-famous (and sometimes notorious) works by the great choreographers Marius Petipa and Michel Fokine, as well as new works by Vaslav Nijinsky, Bronislava Nijinska, Léonide Massine, and the young George Balanchine at the start of his career.

Michel Fokine

The choreography of Michel Fokine was of paramount importance in the initial success of the Ballets Russes. Fokine had graduated from the Imperial Ballet School in Saint Petersburg in 1898, and eventually become First Soloist at the Mariinsky Theater. In 1907, Fokine choreographed his first work for the Imperial Russian Ballet, Le Pavillon d'Armide. In the same year, he created Chopiniana to piano music by the composer Frédéric Chopin as orchestrated by Alexander Glazunov. This was an early example of creating choreography to an existing score rather than to music specifically written for the ballet, a departure from the normal practice at the time.

Fokine established an international reputation with his works choreographed during the first four seasons (1909–1912) of the Ballets Russes. These included the Polovtsian Dances (from Prince Igor), Le Pavillon d'Armide (a revival of his 1907 production for the Imperial Russian Ballet), Les Sylphides (a reworking of his earlier Chopiniana), The Firebird, Le Spectre de la Rose, Petrushka, and Daphnis and Chloé . After a longstanding tumultuous relationship with Diaghilev, Fokine left the Ballets Russes at the end of the 1912 season.[18]

Vaslav Nijinsky

Nijinsky in Scheherazade2
Vaslav Nijinsky in Scheherazade

Vaslav Nijinsky had attended the Imperial Ballet School, St. Petersburg since the age of eight. He graduated in 1907 and joined the Imperial Ballet where he immediately began to take starring roles. Diaghilev invited him to join the Ballets Russes for its first Paris season.

In 1912, Diaghilev gave Nijinsky his first opportunity as a choreographer, for his production of L'Après-midi d'un faune to Claude Debussy's symphonic poem Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune. Featuring Nijinsky himself as the Faun, the ballet's frankly erotic nature caused a sensation. The following year, Nijinsky choreographed a new work by Debussy composed expressly for the Ballets Russes, Jeux. Indifferently received by the public, Jeux was eclipsed two weeks later by the premiere of Igor Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring (Le Sacre du printemps), also choreographed by Nijinsky.

Because of mental illness, Nijinsky eventually retired from dance; he was diagnosed with schizophrenia.

Léonide Massine

Léonide Massine was born in Moscow,[19] where he studied both acting and dancing at the Imperial School. On the verge of becoming an actor, Massine was invited by Sergei Diaghilev to join the Ballets Russes, as he was seeking a replacement for Vaslav Nijinsky. Diaghilev encouraged Massine's creativity and his entry into choreography.

Massine's most famous creations for the Ballets Russes were Parade, El sombrero de tres picos, and Pulcinella. In all three of these works, he collaborated with Pablo Picasso, who designed the sets and costumes.

Massine extended Fokine's choreographic innovations, especially those relating to narrative and character. His ballets incorporated both folk dance and demi-charactère dance, a style using classical technique to perform character dance. Massine created contrasts in his choreography, such as synchronized yet individual movement, or small-group dance patterns within the corps de ballet.

Bronislava Nijinska

Bronislava Nijinska was the younger sister of Vaslav Nijinsky. She trained at the Imperial Ballet School in St. Petersburg, joining the Imperial Ballet company in 1908. From 1909, she (like her brother) was a member of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes.

In 1915, Nijinska and her husband fled to Kiev to escape World War I. There, she founded the École de movement, where she trained Ukrainian artists in modern dance. Her most prominent pupil was Serge Lifar (who later joined the Ballets Russes in 1923).

Following the Russian Revolution, Nijinska fled again to Poland, and then, in 1921, re-joined the Ballets Russes in Paris. In 1923, Diaghilev assigned her the choreography of Stravinsky's Les Noces. The result combines elements of her brother's choreography for The Rite of Spring with more traditional aspects of ballet, such as dancing en pointe. The following year, she choreographed three new works for the company: Les biches, Les Fâcheux, and Le train bleu.

George Balanchine

Born Giorgi Melitonovitch Balanchivadze in Saint Petersburg, George Balanchine was trained at the Imperial School of Ballet. His education there was interrupted by the Russian Revolution of 1917. Balanchine graduated in 1921, after the school reopened. He subsequently studied music theory, composition, and advanced piano at the Petrograd Conservatory, graduating in 1923. During this time, he worked with the corps de ballet of the Mariinsky Theater. In 1924, Balanchine (and his first wife, ballerina Tamara Geva) fled to Paris while on tour of Germany with the Soviet State Dancers. He was invited by Sergei Diaghilev to join the Ballets Russes as a choreographer.[20]

The designers

Diaghilev invited the collaboration of contemporary fine artists in the design of sets and costumes. These included Alexandre Benois, Léon Bakst, Nicholas Roerich, Georges Braque, Natalia Goncharova, Mikhail Larionov, Pablo Picasso, Coco Chanel, Henri Matisse, André Derain, Joan Miró, Giorgio de Chirico, Salvador Dalí, Ivan Bilibin, Pavel Tchelitchev, Maurice Utrillo, and Georges Rouault.

Their designs contributed to the groundbreaking excitement of the company's productions. The scandal caused by the premiere performance in Paris of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring has been partly attributed to the provocative aesthetic of the costumes of the Ballets Russes.[21]

Alexandre Benois

Alexandre Benois had been the most influential member of The Nevsky Pickwickians and was one of the original founders (with Bakst and Diaghilev) of Mir iskusstva. His particular interest in ballet as an art form strongly influenced Diaghilev and was seminal in the formation of the Ballets Russes. In addition, Benois contributed scenic and costume designs to several of the company's earlier productions: Le Pavillon d'Armide, portions of Le Festin, and Giselle. Benois also participated with Igor Stravinsky and Michel Fokine in the creation of Petrushka, to which he contributed much of the scenario as well as the stage sets and costumes.

Léon Bakst

Pablo Picasso and scene painters sitting on the front cloth for Parade (Ballets Russes) at the Théâtre du Châtelet, Paris, 1917, Lachmann photographer
Pablo Picasso (wearing a beret) and scene painters sitting on the front cloth for the ballet Parade

Léon Bakst was also an original member of both The Nevsky Pickwickians and Mir iskusstva. He participated as designer in productions of the Ballets Russes from its beginning in 1909 until 1921, creating sets and costumes for Scheherazade, The Firebird, Les Orientales, Le Spectre de la rose, L'Après-midi d'une faune, and Daphnis et Chloé, among other productions.

Pablo Picasso

In 1917, Pablo Picasso designed sets and costumes in the Cubist style for three Diaghilev ballets, all with choreography by Léonide Massine: Parade, El sombrero de tres picos, and Pulcinella.

Natalia Goncharova

Natalia Goncharova was born in 1881 near Tula, Russia. Her art was inspired by Russian folk art, Fauvism, and cubism. She began designing for the Ballets Russes in 1921.

Although the Ballets Russes firmly established the 20th-century tradition of fine art theatre design, the company was not unique in its employment of fine artists. For instance, Savva Mamontov's Private Opera Company had made a policy of employing fine artists, such as Konstantin Korovin and Golovin, who went on to work for the Ballets Russes.

The composers and conductors

For his new productions, Diaghilev commissioned the foremost composers of the 20th century, including: Debussy, Milhaud, Poulenc, Prokofiev, Ravel, Satie, Respighi, Stravinsky, de Falla, and Strauss. He was also responsible for commissioning the first two significant British-composed ballets: Romeo and Juliet (composed in 1925 by nineteen-year-old Constant Lambert) and The Triumph of Neptune (composed in 1926 by Lord Berners).

The impresario also engaged conductors who were or became eminent in their field during the 20th century, including Pierre Monteux (1911–16 and 1924), Ernest Ansermet (1915–23), Edward Clark (1919–20) and Roger Désormière (1925–29).[22]

Igor Stravinsky

Diaghilev hired the young Stravinsky at a time when he was virtually unknown to compose the music for The Firebird, after the composer Anatoly Lyadov proved unreliable, and this was instrumental in launching Stravinsky's career in Europe and the United States of America.

Stravinsky's early ballet scores were the subject of much discussion. The Firebird (1910) was seen as an astonishingly accomplished work for such a young artist (Debussy is said to have remarked drily: "Well, you've got to start somewhere!"). Many contemporary audiences found Petrushka (1911) to be almost unbearably dissonant and confused. The Rite of Spring (1913) nearly caused an audience riot. It stunned people because of its willful rhythms and aggressive dynamics. The audience's negative reaction to it is now regarded as a theatrical scandal as notorious as the failed runs of Richard Wagner's Tannhäuser at Paris in 1861 and Jean-Georges Noverre's Les Fêtes Chinoises in London on the eve of the Seven Years' War. However, Stravinsky's early ballet scores are now widely considered masterpieces of the genre.[23]

Film of a performance

Diaghilev always maintained that no camera could ever do justice to the artistry of his dancers, and it was long believed there was no film legacy of the Ballets Russes. However, in 2011 a 30-second newsreel film of a performance in Montreux, Switzerland, in June 1928 came to light. The ballet was Les Sylphides and the lead dancer was identified as Serge Lifar.[24]

Centennial exhibitions and celebrations

Russia-2000-stamp-Sergei Diaghilev
Russian stamp: Sergei Diaghilev

Paris, 2008: In September 2008, on the eve of the 100th anniversary of the creation of the Ballets Russes, Sotheby's announced the staging of an exceptional exhibition of works lent mainly by French, British and Russian private collectors, museums and foundations. Some 150 paintings, designs, costumes, theatre decors, drawings, sculptures, photographs, manuscripts, and programs were exhibited in Paris, retracing the key moments in the history of the Ballets Russes. On display were costumes designed by André Derain (La Boutique fantasque, 1919) and Henri Matisse (Le chant du rossignol, 1920), and Léon Bakst.

Posters recalling the surge of creativity that surrounded the Ballets Russes included Pablo Picasso's iconic image of the Chinese Conjuror for the audacious production of Parade and Jean Cocteau's poster for Le Spectre de la rose. Costumes and stage designs presented included works by Alexander Benois, for Le Pavillon d'Armide and Petrushka; Léon Bakst, for La Péri and Le Dieu bleu; Mikhail Larionov, for Le Soleil à Minuit; and Natalia Goncharova, for The Firebird (1925 version). The exhibition also included important contemporary artists, whose works reflected the visual heritage of the Ballets Russes – notably an installation made of colorfully painted paper by the renowned Belgian artist Isabelle de Borchgrave, and items from the Imperial Porcelain Factory in St. Petersburg.[25]

Monte-Carlo, 2009: In May, in Monaco, two postage stamps "Centenary of Ballets Russians of Diaghilev" went out, created by Georgy Shishkin.

London, 2010–11: London's Victoria and Albert Museum presented a special exhibition entitled Diaghilev and the Golden Age of the Ballets Russes, 1909–1929 at the V&A South Kensington between 5 September 2010 and 9 January 2011.

Canberra, 2010–11: An exhibition of the company's costumes held by the National Gallery of Australia was held from 10 December 2010 – 1 May 2011 at the Gallery in Canberra. Entitled Ballets Russes: The Art of Costume, it included 150 costumes and accessories from 34 productions from 1909 to 1939; one third of the costumes had not been seen since they were last worn on stage. Along with costumes by Natalia Goncharova, Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, André Derain, Georges Braque, André Masson and Giorgio de Chirico, the exhibition also featured photographs, film, music and artists’ drawings.[26]

Washington, DC, 2013: Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes, 1909–1929: When Art Danced with Music. National Gallery of Art, East Building Mezzanine. 12 May— 2 September 2013. Organized by the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, in collaboration with the National Gallery of Art, Washington.[1]

Stockholm, 2014–2015: Sleeping Beauties – Dreams and Costumes. The Dance Museum in Stockholm owns about 250 original costumes from the Ballets Russes, in this exhibition about fifty of them are shown. (


  1. ^ Garafola (1998), p. vii.
  2. ^ "Diaghilev's Golden Age of the Ballets Russes dazzles London with V&A display". Culture24. 2011-01-09. Retrieved 2013-05-08.
  3. ^ Garofala (1998), p. 150
  4. ^ Garofala (1998), p. 150.
  5. ^ Garofala (1998), p. 438, n. 7.
  6. ^ Garofala (1998), p. 151.
  7. ^ Morrison, Simon. "The 'World of Art' and Music," in [Mir Iskusstva]: Russia's Age of Elegance. Palace Editions. Omaha, Minneapolis, and Princeton, 2005. p. 38.
  8. ^ Guroff, Greg. "Introduction" in [Mir Iskusstva]: Russia's Age of Elegance. Palace Editions. Omaha, Minneapolis, and Princeton, 2005. p. 14.
  9. ^ Amanda. "Ballets Russes", The Age (17 July 2005)
  10. ^ Homans, Jennifer. "René Blum: Life of a Dance Master," New York Times (July 8, 2011).
  11. ^ a b c "Les Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo". The Oxford Dictionary of Dance. 2004. Retrieved 2010-03-28.
  12. ^ Tennant, Victoria (2014). Irina Baronova and the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo. University of Chicago Press. p. 21. ISBN 978-0-226-16716-9. Retrieved 14 June 2016.
  13. ^ Vanessa Banni-Viñas, "Correcting a Ballerina's Story: The Truth behind Makletzova v. Diaghileff" American Journal of Legal History 53(3)(July 2013): 353-361.
  14. ^ Xenia P. Makletzova v. Sergei Diaghileff, 227 Mass. 100, March 13 1917 — May 25 1917, Suffolk County MA.
  15. ^ Ruth Page - Early Architect of the American Ballet a biographical essay by Joellen A. Meglin on
  16. ^ Ruth Page's Obituary in The New York Times 9 April 1991 on
  17. ^ New York Public Library Archives - Ruth Page Collection 1918-70 at the New York Public Library for the Perfroming Arts - Jerome Robbins Dance Division, New York City, USA on
  18. ^ Walsh (2000), p. 180.
  19. ^ "Leonide Massine". American Ballet Theatre. Archived from the original on 13 December 2010. Retrieved 17 January 2011.
  20. ^ Horowitz, Joseph. Artists in Exile: How Refugees from Twentieth-Century War and Revolution Transformed the American Performing Arts, New York: Harper Collins, 2008.
  21. ^ Albert, Jane (2010-12-11). "Inside the dress circle". The Sydney Morning Herald, "Spectrum" section. p. 2.
  22. ^ Buckle, Richard. Diaghilev. Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London, 1979.
  23. ^ Thomas Kelly (1999). "Igor Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring"". Washington D.C.: National Public Radio.
  24. ^ Maev Kennedy, "Ballets Russes brought back to life on film", The Guardian, 1 February 2011.Retrieved 10 January 2014
  25. ^ "Dancing into Glory: The Golden Age of the Ballets Russes". Retrieved 26 February 2011.
  26. ^ Bell, Robert, ed. (2010). Ballets Russes: the art of costume. Thames & Hudson UK and University of Washington Press, USA. ISBN 978-0-642-54157-4.
  • Gosudarstvennyĭ russkiĭ muzeĭ; Foundation for International Arts and Education; Joslyn Art Museum; Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum; Princeton University Art Museum (2005). Mir iskusstva: Russia's Age of Elegance. St. Petersburg, Russia; Omaha, NE; Minneapolis, MN; Princeton, NJ: Palace Editions. ISBN 9780967845135. OCLC 60593691.
  • Anderson, Jack (1992). Ballet and Modern Dance: A Concise History. New Jersey: Princeton Book Company.
  • Garafola, Lynn (1999). The Ballet Russe and its World. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
  • Garafola, Lynn (1998). Diaghilev's Ballets Russes. New York: Da Capo Press.
  • Purvis, Alston (2009). The Ballets Russes and the Art of Design. New York: The Monacelli Press.

Further reading

External links

Ballets Russes
Ballets Russes Centennial and other exhibitions
Successor companies
Alicia Markova

Dame Alicia Markova DBE (1 December 1910 – 2 December 2004) was an English ballerina and a choreographer, director and teacher of classical ballet. Most noted for her career with Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes and touring internationally, she was widely considered to be one of the greatest classical ballet dancers of the twentieth century. She was the first British dancer to become the principal dancer of a ballet company and, with Dame Margot Fonteyn, is one of only two English dancers to be recognised as a prima ballerina assoluta. Markova was a founder dancer of the Rambert Dance Company, The Royal Ballet and American Ballet Theatre, and was co-founder and director of the English National Ballet.

Anton Dolin

Sir Anton Dolin (27 July 1904 – 25 November 1983) was an English ballet dancer and choreographer.

Ballet Russe de Monte-Carlo

The company Les Ballets Russes de Monte-Carlo (note the plural) was formed in 1932 after the death of Diaghilev and the demise of Ballets Russes. Its director was Wassily de Basil (usually referred to as Colonel W. de Basil), and its artistic director was René Blum. They fell out in 1936 and the company split. The part which de Basil retained went through two name changes before becoming the Original Ballet Russe. Blum founded Les Ballets de Monte Carlo, which changed its name to Ballet Russe de Monte-Carlo (note the singular) when Léonide Massine became artistic director in 1938. It operated under this name until it disbanded some 20 years later.The Ballet Russe de Monte-Carlo featured such dancers as Frederic Franklin, Alexandra Danilova, Maria Tallchief, Nicholas Magallanes, Tamara Toumanova, George Zoritch, Alicia Alonso , Yvonne Joyce Craig, Nina Novak, Raven Wilkinson, Meredith Baylis, Cyd Charisse, Marc Platt, Irina Baronova, and Leon Danielian. The company's resident choreographer was Massine; it also featured the choreography of Michel Fokine, Bronislava Nijinska, Frederick Ashton, George Balanchine, Agnes de Mille, Ruth Page and Valerie Bettis.

The Ballet Russe de Monte-Carlo toured chiefly in the United States after World War II began. The company introduced audiences to ballet in cities and towns across the country, in many places where people had never seen classical dance. The company's principal dancers performed with other companies, and founded dance schools and companies of their own across the United States and Europe. They taught the Russian ballet traditions to generations of Americans and Europeans.

Ballets Russes (film)

Ballets Russes is an American 2005 feature documentary about the dancers of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. It was directed by Dayna Goldfine and Dan Geller, and featured Irina Baronova, Alicia Markova, George Zoritch, and Tatiana Riabouchinska, among others. It was narrated by Marian Seldes. It is distributed by Zeitgeist Films.


Josephslegende (The Legend of Joseph), Op. 63, is a ballet in one act for the Ballets Russes based on the story of Potiphar's Wife, with a libretto by Hofmannsthal and Kessler and music by Richard Strauss. Composed in 1912–14, it premiered at the Paris Opera on 14 May 1914.

Les Sylphides

Les Sylphides (French: [le silfid]) is a short, non-narrative ballet blanc. Its original choreography was by Michel Fokine, with music by Frédéric Chopin orchestrated by Alexander Glazunov. Glazunov had already set some of the music in 1892 as a purely orchestral suite, under the title Chopiniana, Op. 46. In that form, it was introduced to the public in December 1893, conducted by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov.

The ballet, described as a "romantic reverie", is frequently cited as the first ballet to be simply about mood and dance. Les Sylphides has no plot but instead consists of several white-clad sylphs dancing in the moonlight with the "poet" or "young man" dressed in white tights and a black tunic.

Lydia Lopokova

Lydia Lopokova, Baroness Keynes (born Lidia Vasilyevna Lopukhova, Russian: Ли́дия Васи́льевна Лопухо́ва; 21 October 1892 – 8 June 1981) was a Russian ballerina famous during the early 20th century.

Lopokova was born into a family of ballet dancers, and trained at the Imperial Ballet School. She toured with the Ballets Russes in 1910, and moved to the United States soon after.

Lopokova married the renowned English economist John Maynard Keynes in 1925, and was also known as the Lady Keynes. She largely disappeared from public view after Keynes's death in 1946, and spent her remaining years in Sussex.

Léon Bakst

Léon Bakst (Russian: Леон (Лев) Николаевич Бакст, Leon (Lev) Nikolaevich Bakst) – born as Leyb-Khaim Izrailevich (later Samoylovich) Rosenberg, Лейб-Хаим Израилевич (Самойлович) Розенберг (27 January (8 February) 1866 – 28 December 1924) was a Russian painter and scene and costume designer. He was a member of the Sergei Diaghilev circle and the Ballets Russes, for which he designed exotic, richly coloured sets and costumes.

Léonide Massine

Leonid Fyodorovich Myasin (Russian: Леони́д Фёдорович Мя́син), better known in the West by the French transliteration as Léonide Massine (9 August [O.S. 28 July] 1896 – 15 March 1979), was a Russian choreographer and ballet dancer. Massine created the world's first symphonic ballet, Les Présages, and many others in the same vein. Besides his "symphonic ballets," Massine choreographed many other popular works during his long career, some of which were serious and dramatic, and others lighthearted and romantic. He created some of his most famous roles in his own comic works, among them the Can-Can Dancer in La Boutique fantasque (1919), the Hussar in Le Beau Danube (1924), and, perhaps best known of all, the Peruvian in Gaîté Parisienne (1938). Today his oeuvre is represented by his son Theodor Massine.

Michel Fokine

Michael Fokine (French transliteration Michel Fokine; English transliteration Mikhail Fokin; Russian: Михаи́л Миха́йлович Фо́кин, Mikhaíl Mikháylovich Fokín) (23 April [O.S. 11 April] 1880 – 22 August 1942) was a groundbreaking Russian choreographer and dancer.

Original Ballet Russe

The Original Ballet Russe (originally named Les Ballets Russes de Monte-Carlo) was a ballet company established in 1931 by René Blum and Colonel Wassily de Basil as a successor to the Ballets Russes, founded in 1909 by Sergei Diaghilev. The company assumed the new name Original Ballet Russe after a split between de Basil and Blum. De Basil led the renamed company, while Blum and others founded a new company under the name Ballet Russe de Monte-Carlo. It was a large scale professional ballet company which toured extensively in Europe, Australia and New Zealand, the United States, and Central and South America. It closed down operations in 1947.

Parade (ballet)

Parade is a ballet with music by Erik Satie and a one-act scenario by Jean Cocteau. The ballet was composed in 1916–17 for Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes. The ballet premiered on Friday, May 18, 1917 at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris, with costumes and sets designed by Pablo Picasso, choreography by Léonide Massine (who danced), and the orchestra conducted by Ernest Ansermet.

Picasso and the Ballets Russes

Pablo Picasso and the Ballets Russes collaborated on several productions. Pablo Picasso's Cubist sets and costumes were used by Sergei Diaghilev in the Ballets Russes's Parade (1917, choreography: Léonide Massine), Le Tricorne (The Three-Cornered Hat) (1919, choreography: Massine), Pulcinella (1920, choreographer: Massine), and Cuadro Flamenco (1921, choreography: Spanish folk dancers). Picasso also drew a sketch with pen on paper of La Boutique fantasque (La course), (1919, choreography: Massine). and designed the drop curtain for Le Train Bleu (1924, choreography: Bronislava Nijinska), based on his painting, Two Women Running on the Beach (The Race), 1922.

The idea for the set design of Parade came from the decorations at a small vaudeville theater in Rome as well as the décor of the Teatro dei Piccoli, a marionette theater. The original model was crafted in a cardboard box. Picasso realized immediately that he liked using vivid colors for his sets and costumes because they registered so well with the audience. While the sets, costumes and music by Erik Satie were well received by critics, the ballet in general was panned when it first premiered and played for only two performances. When it was revived in 1920, however, Diaghilev said, "Parade is my best bottle of wine. I do not like to open it too often."

Picasso's sets and costumes for the Ballets Russes are now considered symbols of "the progressive art of their time, and [they] have only become more celebrated and better appreciated over the past century." Nevertheless, according to his biographer, John Richardson, "Picasso's Cubist followers were horrified that their hero should desert them for the chic, elitist Ballets Russes." It was the onset of World War I that prompted him to leave Paris and live in Rome, where the Ballets Russes rehearsed. He also was recovering from two failed love affairs at this time. Soon after he arrived in Rome, however, he met ballerina Olga Khokhlova, and married her in 1918. He remained married to her until her death in 1955, although they separated by the late 1920s. He also became friends with Massine while in Rome; they were both interested in Spanish themes, women, and modern art. Picasso also became friends with Igor Stravinsky during this time, though he found Diaghilev to be possessive and did not become close to him. Picasso was even quoted as saying that he "felt a desperate need to travel back to the land of human beings" after spending time with Diaghilev. Diaghilev, however, valued Picasso's work, and the drop curtain he created for Le Train Bleu - the painting of which was completed not by Picasso, but by Prince Alexander Schervashidze - was deemed so impressive that Diaghilev used it as the logo for the Ballets Russes.The writer Jean Cocteau, who introduced Picasso to Diaghilev, wrote the scenario for Parade, and was Picasso’s neighbor in Rome said, "Picasso amazes me every day, to live near him is a lesson in nobility and hard work ... A badly drawn figure of Picasso is the result of endless well-drawn figures he erases, corrects, covers over, and which serves him as a foundation. In opposition to all schools he seems to end his work with a sketch." Additionally, Guillaume Apollinaire, who wrote the program notes for Parade, described Picasso's designs as "a kind of surrealism" three years before Surrealism developed as an art movement in Paris.

René Blum (ballet)

René Blum (13 March 1878 – September 1942) was a French theatrical impresario. He was the founder of the Ballet de l'Opéra at Monte Carlo and was the younger brother of the Socialist Prime Minister of France, Léon Blum.

Russian ballet

Russian ballet (French: Ballet russe) is a form of ballet characteristic of or originating from Russia.

Sergei Diaghilev

Sergei Pavlovich Diaghilev (; Russian: Серге́й Па́влович Дя́гилев, IPA: [sʲɪˈrɡʲej ˈpavɫovʲɪtɕ ˈdʲæɡʲɪlʲɪf]; 31 March [O.S. 19 March] 1872 – 19 August 1929), usually referred to outside Russia as Serge Diaghilev, was a Russian art critic, patron, ballet impresario and founder of the Ballets Russes, from which many famous dancers and choreographers would arise.

The Prodigal Son (ballet)

The Prodigal Son, or Le Fils prodigue, Op. 46 (Russian: Блудный сын) is a ballet created for Diaghilev's Ballets Russes by George Balanchine to music by Sergei Prokofiev (1928–29). The libretto, based on the parable in the Gospel of Luke, was by Boris Kochno, who added a good deal of drama and emphasized the theme of sin and redemption ending with the Prodigal Son's return.

Susan Au writes in Ballet and Modern Dance that the ballet was the last of the Diaghilev era, choreographed the year the great impresario died. She continues: "Adapted from the biblical story, it opens with the prodigal's rebellious departure from home and his seduction by the beautiful but treacherous siren, whose followers rob him. Wretched and remorseful, he drags himself back to his forgiving father."

Vaslav Nijinsky

Vaslav Nijinsky (also Vatslav; Russian: Ва́цлав Фоми́ч Нижи́нский; Russian: [ˈvatsɫəf fəˈmʲitɕ nʲɪˈʐɨnskʲɪj]; Polish: Wacław Niżyński; 12 March 1889/1890 – 8 April 1950) was a ballet dancer and choreographer cited as the greatest male dancer of the early 20th century. Born in Kiev to Polish parents, Nijinsky grew up in Imperial Russia but considered himself to be Polish. He was celebrated for his virtuosity and for the depth and intensity of his characterizations. He could dance en pointe, a rare skill among male dancers at the time and was admired for his seemingly gravity-defying leaps.

Nijinsky was introduced to dance by his parents, who were senior dancers with the travelling Setov opera company, and his early childhood was spent touring with the company. His older brother Stanislav and younger sister Bronislava "Bronia" Nijinska also became dancers; Bronia also became a choreographer, working closely with him for much of his career. At age nine Nijinsky was accepted at the Imperial Ballet School (now known as the Mariinsky School) in St. Petersburg, the pre-eminent ballet school in the world. In 1907, he graduated and became a member of the Imperial Ballet, starting at the rank of coryphée instead of in the corps de ballet, already taking starring roles.

In 1909 he joined the Ballets Russes, a new ballet company started by Sergei Diaghilev. The impresario took the Russian ballets to Paris, where high-quality productions such as those of the Imperial Ballet were not known. Nijinsky became the company's star male dancer, causing an enormous stir amongst audiences whenever he performed. In ordinary life he appeared unremarkable and was withdrawn in conversation. Diaghilev and Nijinsky became lovers; the Ballets Russes gave Nijinsky the chance to expand his art and experiment with dance and choreography; he created new directions for male dancers while becoming internationally famous.

In 1912 Nijinsky began choreographing original ballets, including L'après-midi d'un faune (1912) to music by Claude Debussy, Jeux (1913), and Till Eulenspiegel (1916). At the premiere of Le Sacre du Printemps (1913) in Paris, with music by Igor Stravinsky, fights broke out in the audience between those who loved and hated this startling new style of ballet and music. Faune caused controversy because of its sexually suggestive final scene. Nijinsky originally conceived Jeux as a flirtatious interaction among three males, although Diaghilev insisted it be danced by one male and two females. In 1913, Nijinsky married Hungarian Romola de Pulszky while on tour with the company in South America. The marriage caused a break with Diaghilev, who soon dismissed Nijinsky from the company. The couple had two daughters together, Kyra and Tamara Nijinska.

With no alternative employer available, Nijinsky tried to form his own company, but this was not a success. He was interned in Budapest, Hungary during World War I, under house arrest until 1916. He was finally permitted to leave after intervention by Diaghilev and international leaders; he was allowed to go to New York for an American tour. Calls for his release had been made by Alfonso XIII of Spain and President Wilson at the urging of Otto Kahn. Nijinsky became increasingly mentally unstable with the stresses of having to manage tours himself and deprived of opportunities to dance. After a tour of South America in 1917, and due to travel difficulties imposed by the war, the family settled in St. Moritz, Switzerland. His mental condition deteriorated; he was diagnosed with schizophrenia in 1919 and committed to a mental asylum. For the next 30 years he was in and out of institutions, never dancing in public again.

Wassily de Basil

Wassily de Basil (16 September 1888 – 27 July 1951), usually referred to as Colonel W. de Basil, was a Russian ballet impresario.

De Basil was born Vassily Grigorievich Voskresensky in Kaunas, Lithuania, in 1888 (his year of birth is given variously as 1880 or 1886.) He is said to have been a colonel in the Cossack army, although his claim to the title "Colonel" is disputed. De Basil was demobilised from the army in 1919 and worked as an entrepreneur in Paris.

Following the death of Sergei Diaghilev in 1929, the members of his Ballets Russes went in many directions. In 1929-1930 de Basil's ballet troupe acted together with Aleksey Tsereteli’s opera troupe.De Basil and René Blum, ballet director at the Monte Carlo Opera, along with financier Serge Denham, founded the Ballets Russes de Monte-Carlo in 1931. The ballet gave its first performance in Monte Carlo in 1932.

Blum and de Basil did not agree artistically, leading to a 1934 split, after which de Basil hooked up with financier Sol Hurok. Col. de Basil initially renamed the company Ballets Russes de Colonel W. de Basil.In 1937, René Blum and former Ballets Russes choreographer Léonide Massine organized a new ballet company and lured away some of de Basil's dancers. In addition, Massine sued de Basil in London to regain the intellectual property rights to his own works. He also sued to claim the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo name. The jury decided that de Basil owned Massine's ballets created between 1932 and 1937, but not those created before 1932. It also ruled that both successor companies could use the name Ballet Russe — but only Massine & Blum's company could be called Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. Col. de Basil renamed his company again, as the Covent Garden Russian Ballet. In 1939, he gave the company its final name, the Original Ballet Russe.

De Basil brought the Original Ballet Russe on a tour of Australia in 1939–1940., travelling there aboard the P&O ocean liner RMS Maloja in September 1938. He had earlier organised tours to Australia in 1936–1937 and 1938–1939, although he did not travel with the company. During his visit to Australia, de Basil commissioned work from Australians, especially from designers, who included Sidney Nolan and Kathleen and Florence Martin. He also instigated a design competition for an original Australian ballet, which was won by Donald Friend with designs for a ballet based on a fictitious event in the life of Ned Kelly.

He directed Ballets Russes companies, which performed under a variety of different names, until his death in Nice in 1951.

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