Descendants of the Ballet Russes
The New York City Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, and the San Francisco Ballet Company are direct descendants of Diaghilev's Ballets Russes. The oldest of this group is the San Francisco Ballet, founded in 1933. The same year Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo made its first American tour in America.
When one hears the name Ballets Russes they think of one company. However, Diaghilev's Ballets Russes foster the creation of many other companies. Most of these companies used the name Ballets Russes in some form or other.
Diaghilev's ballet company was the premiere ballet company in Europe from 1909 to 1929. Many of his dancers left to start their own companies. Diaghilev hated the competition and didn't want to divide the audiences. He felt that they were traitors, especially when they presented ballets from his repertoire. (There were no copyright laws protecting the choreography because of the lack of an efficient, universally accepted system of dance notation).
The first and most famous defector was Anna Pavlova, who after her performances with Diaghilev in 1909, engaged some of his dancers for her own company, although she and Adolph Bolm and Nicolai Legat had performed many times outside Russia before dancing with the Ballets Russes. Pavlova didn't agree with the new ballets being choreographed for Diaghilev's Ballets Russes. The great impresario wanted to create the Firebird for Pavlova, but she didn't care for the music composed by Igor Stravinsky, and left to form her own company. This gave Tamara Karsavina the opportunity to be the first of many Firebirds to come. Pavlova and Mikhail Mordkin appeared in 1910 at New York City's Metropolitan Opera. By 1910 Anna Pavlova left Russia forever to travel the world spreading the love of ballet with her company. She did this until her untimely death in 1931.
Mordkin left Pavlova's company to from his own All-Star Imperial Russian Ballet. He also used dancers from the Ballets Russes. Mordkin toured America from 1911 to 1912, and in 1926 formed the Mordkin Ballet. In 1939, with Lucia Chase and Richard Pleasant, he founded Ballet Theatre - today, known to us as American Ballet Theatre.
Another deserter was Ida Rubinstein, a very wealthy and beautiful amateur who danced with Diaghilev's ballet, in the role of Fokine's Cleopatra. She also danced the leading role of Zobeide in his Scheherazade. She had no qualms about employing many of the great choreographers from Diaghilev's company. Such as Bronislava Nijinska, Mikhail Fokine, and Leonide Massine.
Adolph Bolm, another Diaghilev dancer, organized Ballet Intime, which toured America from 1918 to 1920. He was the creative force behind the Chicago Opera Ballet and in 1933 founded the San Francisco Opera Ballet. Ballet Theatre called upon Bolm to choreograph ballets for their first season.
Leonide Massine left Diaghilev to dance with some colleagues. He also choreographed shows at the famous Roxy Theatre in New York City from 1927 to 1930.
Vera Nemtchinova and Anton Dolin started their own company in 1927, together with Anatole Obouhkoff, Nemtchinova's husband. No wonder Diaghilev felt hurt. It was his effort that brought all these dancers to the West.
The Ballets Russes remained the major ballet company in the Western World until Diaghilev's death 1929. Because these other companies existed there were places for many of the dancers to find work after the demise of the Ballet Russes.
Two men who joined forces to continue in Diaghilev tradition were Ren Blum, Director of the Monte Carlo Ballet, and Colonel Vassili De Basil, associated with L'Opera a Paris. They hired George Balanchine and Leonide Massine as choreographers and Serge Grigoriev as regissuer-general. Grigoriev had a remarkable ability for remembering ever detail of the Ballets Russes repertoire. Balanchine introduced the three Baby Ballerinas - Tamara Toumanova, Irina Baronova, and Tatiana Riabouchinska. Advertising these three prodigies gained much needed publicity to launch the company.
The repertoire consisted of works from Diaghilev's Company and new works by Balanchine and Massine. After the first year Balanchine was fired, because the audience preferred Diaghilev's repertoire and Massine's ballets. Balanchine went on to organize his own company Les Ballet 1933. Unfortunately his company was not a financial success - lucky for America, because Lincoln Kristien invited Balanchine to start a school in New York, in hope of building a company.
When Ren Blum and Col. De Basil's Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo was about to declare bankruptcy, the American impresario, Sol Hurok took over the management. He booked the company in the USA at the St. James Theatre. Hurok lost a considerable amount of money, but the second season saw a larger audience Hurok thought it was time the ballet took its rightful place in American culture. He booked the company into the Metropolitan Opera House on 39th Street in New York City. The season was a great success. The name was change to the singular Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo.
Because of difficulties between Blum and de Basil, Blum gave up his share of the partnership. Leaving Massine and de Basil to run the company. According to many reports, it was impossible to work with de Basil. Massine left after his contract was fulfilled and returned to Monte Carlo where he formed another company with Ren Blum. Many of de Basil's dancer followed Massine and joined Ren Blum's Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo.
The new company got backing from Julius Fleischmann, of Fleischmann Yeast, who became President. New York Financier Serge Denham served as Vice President. When Massine discovered his ballets belonged to de Basil, he brought a lawsuit in London that captured the imagination of the press. They reported the trail daily. Finally, the court decided de Basil did own the rights. However both companies could use the name Ballet Russe, but de Basil had to drop the "de Monte Carlo."
Hurok also severed his connection with de Basil and became manager for Massine and Blum. Hurok was sure that America public could not support two ballet companies, so he tried to get the companies back together. Meanwhile, de Basil's company called themselves Covent Garden Ballet Russe, Educational Ballet Ltd, and finally the Original Ballet Russe. In 1938 the two companies were performing in London at the same time. De Basil was at Convent Garden and Blum two blocks way at the Dury Lane. Ballet lovers could run back and forth from one theater to the other. And see the ballets of their choice.
Through an all night session the management of the two companies got together to iron out their differences. But at the last moment de Basil said no to the offer.
Hurok, finally became manager of both companies, and arranged for Ballet Russe to play four weeks at the Hollywood Theatre (now called the Mark Hellinger), immediately followed by the Original Ballet Russe. It was the longest ballet season to hit New York City - a solid fifteen weeks!
When World War II started, most of the company remained in the USA, but Ren Blum who stayed in Europe was imprisoned at Auschwitz concentration camp and murdered by the Nazis in 1942. Serge Denham took over the company, when Fleischmann gave up his position. Denham held the position of President until his untimely death by being hit by a bus on Fifth Avenue in 1970.
For years dancers would perform in one company one season and in another one the next. Many dancers left to become members of the newly formed Ballet Theatre, which made a successful debut in 1940. Balanchine's American Ballet was having a difficult time getting a foothold, but was still competition for the other companies.
Marquis George de Cuevas, an American patron of the arts, married to the granddaughter of John D. Rockefeller, and became an important figure in the dance world. Although born in Chile, he acquired the title Marquis from his Spanish father. That and the Rockefeller's money made him a power to be dealt with. He became interested in Ballet while helping to organize the 1939 World Fair. He then founded Ballet Institute and Ballet International in 1943. They made their debut in New York City using many American trained dancers. Texas born Nana Gollner became the first American ballerina to be promoted to Prima Ballerina of a European company. In 1947, de Cuevas created the Grand Ballet de Monte Carlo. The common thread uniting all these companies was Sol Hurok.
(First published March 1997)
Next: Early Ballet