The Man and the Myth

By Sarah Grundmeyer


Russians have for so many years been notorious for their talents in music, visual arts, and dance. Ballet in Russia, which was called by Aleksandr Pushkin "the flight of the soul", has been the ideal to which the rest of the world aspires. The Russian ballet school and technique (named for the great Aggripina Vaganova) took the virtuosity of the Italians and the polish of the French and created a Russian-flavored style with great emphasis on emotions. Because of their excellent training, Russian dancers are highly skilled in both classical and character techniques. The ballet dancer is a true artist, constantly expressing the beauty of the human soul (Slonimsky, 1947).


Russia and the rest of the world was made to realize the prowess of Russian ballet through the efforts of Sergei Diaghilev and his dance company, the Ballets Russes. Diaghilev was born in Novgorod on March 19, 1872. He was brought up in St. Petersburg by rich parents who fostered in young Seryozha a love of all of the arts. While still in his twenties, Diaghilev received backing from Princess M.K. Tenishev and Saava Mamontov, both famous patrons of the arts, to publish the World of Art", a magazine which was intended to promote modern movements in music, art, and dance, as well as expose the richness of Russian arts to the average citizen. Already editor of "The World of Art", Diaghilev undertook another endeavor, this time as director of a ballet company. The Ballets Russes was solely responsible for bringing Russian ballet to the west. The company gave its first performance in Paris on May 19, 1909. The season was overwhelmingly successful, and by 1911, the Diaghilev ballet was firmly established in the ballet world (Haskell, 1968).


Perhaps the most memorable performance of the Ballets Russes occurred during the 1912 season. Vaslav Nizhinsky, a dashing young principal, debuted his first choreographic endeavor that year. Danced to the music of the revolutionary composer Igor Stravinsky, "The Rites of Spring" was a balletic version of a pagan rite and ritual sacrifice. This ballet, which premiered in front of the notoriously free-thinking  French audience, was greeted with shouts and resulted in a riot in the theater (Percival, 1971).


Sergei Diaghilev died in 1929 after nearly 20 years of life as the Tsar of the international ballet community. His collaborators seemed unwilling to maintain his company. The Ballets Russes epitomized the achievements of ballet at its best, its ability to thrill an audience, as well as ballet's power to excite. Diaghilev brought Russian music, art, and dance to the forefront of the art world (Slonimsky, 1947). He founded a new kind of ballet company that revolutionized the way dance was presented internationally. Diaghilev succeeded because of his collection of superb soloists such as Anna Pavlova, Tamara Karsavina, and Vaslav Nizhinsky, as well as his extremely varied and exotic repertory (Haskell, 1968).


Perhaps the final word on Sergei Diaghilev should be had by Tamara Karsavina, one of his prized ballerinas: "To honor his memory only as the creator and soul of the Ballets Russes is to appreciate him in part only. He was the anthology of the epoch remarkable for the vitality and rapid maturing of his artists. He was the sum and substance of his time" (Percival, 1971).



1.    Haskell, Arnold L BALLETS RUSSES: THE AGE OF DIAGHILEV. London, 1968.

2.   Percival, John. THE WORLD OF DIAGHILEV. Harmony Books, New York. 1971.

3.   Slonimsky, Jud. THE SOVIET BALLET. Philosophical Library, New York 1947.



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