Modern Movement: How The Ballets Russes Revolutionized Dance In the early 1900s, the company shed the tutus and toeshoes and took a radically different approach to dance. A new exhibit at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., explores how the Ballets Russes shocked audiences and married avant-garde music and art.
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Modern Movement: How The Ballets Russes Revolutionized Dance

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Modern Movement: How The Ballets Russes Revolutionized Dance

Modern Movement: How The Ballets Russes Revolutionized Dance

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OK. So, while you're thinking about that one...


MONTAGNE: ...David, let's start from a flurry of feathers to a flurry of tutus and toe shoes. And if that is your idea of ballet, there's a new exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. that will expand your vision. "Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes" shows the revolutionary impact a group of dancers, composers, artists and choreographers made on classical dance at the start of the 20th century.

NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg waltzed over for a look.

SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: Silver and red painted sketches for costumes, gold and pearl-encrusted princely robes, a flat curtain conceived by Picasso - the Russian dance company appears in all its glory in this exhibition. Plus, there's music and films of various ballets.


STAMBERG: This clip shows the most famous and controversial Ballets Russes dance: "The Rite of Spring."

SARAH KENNEL: Now, the young men and women are coupled up, and they're stamping on the ground. It's almost like a prehistoric version of "Riverdance."


STAMBERG: Curator Sarah Kennel says it was scandalous in its day - 1913, so a hundred years old this year. Choreography by Vaslav Nijinsky, music by Igor Stravinsky.

KENNEL: "The Rite of Spring" was something completely different: rhythmically so complex, tonally so difficult.


KENNEL: And then on top of that, Nijinsky's choreography was just baffling to audiences. Here was Nijinsky, one of the greatest dancers in the world, and he was forcing his dancers to stamp, to turn in, to jump up and down. Their movement was so difficult and strange, it was the antithesis of everything that ballet had ever been.

STAMBERG: No tutus? No gracefully lifted legs? No lighter-than-air leaps? Sacre bleu.

KENNEL: There was a riot on opening night. Some people felt that they had been insulted, that they came to the see the ballet, and what they got was mud pie thrown in the face.

STAMBERG: No surprise the original was performed just nine times in Paris. But the buzz delighted the person who was responsible for the entire shocking production. He was an impresario, a producer. What would you call Serge Diaghilev?

KENNEL: We might want to call him a cultural entrepreneur. He was also an opportunist. He had a great nose for talent. He was very well cultured himself. He had extensive training as a musician, but his teacher essentially told him he didn't have enough talent.

STAMBERG: So, in love with the arts, Diaghilev presented Russian artists in concerts and operas in Paris with funding from the czar - for a while, anyway.

KENNEL: The step from opera to ballet happened when suddenly that money was yanked away. And ballet, of course, was much less expensive than opera to produce.

STAMBERG: Fine, do ballet. But Diaghilev wanted to get beyond the imperial court dance traditions, the classical tutus and such.

KENNEL: He had seen Isadora Duncan dance in St. Petersburg.

STAMBERG: Duncan was an American. Her movements were natural, loose, modern.

KENNEL: And that freedom of movement, the idea that movement comes from within the body and is expressed through the entire body - not just hands and feet - was very influential.

STAMBERG: Diaghilev knew some Russian choreographers and dancers were also eager for something new. In 1909, he cabled a theatre manager in France with his pitch.

KENNEL: I'm bringing over the best ballet company in the world, lots of evenings, three performances a night. Get ready.

STAMBERG: By 1911, the company was based in Paris, and touring the world.


STAMBERG: The National Gallery Ballets Russes show is subtitled "When Art Danced with Music," because the most avant-garde artists designed the sets and costumes. Picasso created cubist jackets, Matisse, a tinseled yellow satin robe, Chanel, she did little wool bathing suits for one dance, and was a patron.

The Ballets Russes became the thing to see. And the real magnet, the one who kept the seats full, was a dancer and choreographer named Vaslav Nijinsky.

KENNEL: Where to begin?

STAMBERG: Well, he was gorgeous - blazing dark eyes, fabulous cheekbones, and that body - a major star.

KENNEL: Nijinsky was an incredible talent. He was technically very well-trained. He was incredibly strong. He could jump in the air, seemingly able to stay there. The story is that somebody asked him once: How do you jump so high? And he said: It's simple. You just jump up there and wait a little while.

STAMBERG: Nijinsky was worshipped by men - it was a moment when gay culture became visible in Paris - and by women who got the chance to really look at men and be seduced by what they saw. Slithering sensuously, having his way with a scarf to Debussy's "Afternoon of a Faun," Nijinsky's choreography scandalized Parisians who thought the movements were just wrong.

KENNEL: Some people said, well, he's Russian. He just can't understand our French music.

STAMBERG: Nijinsky spoke with his body and, as dancer and choreographer, created a universal language. Curator Sarah Kennel says Nijinsky and company represented one of the great turning points - not just in ballet, but in modern culture.

KENNEL: The Ballets Russes transformed the future of ballet in the West and really in the world by bringing dancers with great traditional training to look at modern forms of movement, great music, and bringing music and design and dance together into a cohesive whole.

STAMBERG: "Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes 1909 to 1929: When Art Danced with Music" at the National Gallery in Washington through early September. D.C. is its only U.S. venue. Lavish, colorful, seductive, shocking, it's a show that quickens the imagination, not to mention the blood.

I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.


MONTAGNE: And you can see some of the designs for those really spectacular costumes at

It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm David Greene.

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