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The modern flair of Ballet Russes

Published March 20, 2009 9:21 am

Dance » Ballet West joins international celebration of innovative 20th-century work that rocked the arts world
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2009, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

The explosion of the Ballets Russes upon the Paris arts scene in the early 20th-century shocked and delighted the city. Capitalizing on the Parisian audiences love for the new and exotic, the innovative company attracted many of the age's greatest artists and musicians, heralding dramatic new directions for artistic expression.

In retrospect, the creative revolution that coalesced around the Ballets Russes seems almost inevitable, given that it happened at a hinge-point in history. And the tremors it created still vibrate today around the world.

The dawn of the 20th-century was a time of crumbling monarchies, sweeping revolutions and cataclysmic wars that rent the fabric of human history. Yet even as the labor pains of the modern age's birth were at their most excruciating, exciting inventions offered surprising new means of travel, communication and entertainment. The impulse to break from the past was never stronger

It was natural, then, that artists would seek bold new avenues for expression. The Ballets Russes, spearheaded by the forward-thinking impresario Sergei Diaghilev, became a focal point for the vibrant art of a world forced to reinvent itself.

"There was such a convergence in Paris of artists in all mediums," said Adams Sklute, Ballet West's artistic director, "painters, sculptors, musicians, writers -- in theater, and opera and ballet, too. It really was a remarkable time period in France, where it all came together in this amazing, collaborative way."

Diaghilev envisioned a new kind of ballet -- a visceral, athletic art form seamlessly interwoven with the sounds of dynamic new music and the visual punch of modern art. The dancers, musicians and artists rose to a common standard: They were the best of the best.

"Never before had great artists of this magnitude created sets and costumes," Sklute said. "New composers, like Stravinsky, Poulenc, Debussy and Ravel were creating music for the ballet, and artists like Picasso and Matisse were involved. These were amazing collaborations. It redefined how ballet was going to look, and how we, as people in the 21st century, would experience it."

Diaghilev began working his magic with the Ballets Russes, a traveling company composed mainly of Russian dancers, in 1909, making 2009 its 100-year anniversary.

Sklute's idea of catapulting Ballet West into the center of the worldwide centennial celebration has paid off well. It's the sort of savvy move that master-impresario Diaghilev would likely approve. "We've been written up twice in The New York Times about presenting this, and we have people coming from around the world to see the show because of how important these works are, and how relevant they remain today," Sklute said. "These are not time capsules. They are as spectacular and moving as they were 100 years ago when they were created -- like any great piece of art."

Each of the three works Sklute selected were chosen because of the particular insights they offer into the Ballets Russes mystique.

"The Prodigal Son" is one of George Balanchine's earliest works, made when America's future ballet icon was a 24-year-old Russian dancer in Paris. "It's a remarkable telling of the Biblical parable of the rash young son who leaves the safety of home," Sklute said. "It is so moving and profound that the ending of 'The Prodigal Son' never ceases to make me cry. It's the most touching ending of any ballet, ever."

When the ballet was re-staged by Balanchine at New York City Ballet in 1950, Lew Christensen, brother of Ballet West co-founder Willam Christensen, danced the role of The Prodigal. The Ballets Russes legacy was seminal for Ballet West, and for ballet companies around the world.

"Polovetsian Dances" "set Paris on fire," Sklute said. "The Borodin score is spectacular. It's based on folk dance, and is elemental and thrilling. You feel the energy as warriors bound across the stage with bows and arrows and beautiful maidens, in yards and yards of silk chiffon, everywhere."

Alexander Borodin's music for the ballet was later adapted for the Broadway musical "Kismet," and includes the well-known theme for the song "Stranger in Paradise."

"Les Biches" is Bronislava Nijinska's take on the chic flappers of the 1920s, and is known as the first ballet with a feminist mind-set. Unlike the grand story ballets of previous centuries, this one was set in the time period in which it premiered -- another break with tradition. The score, by Francis Poulence, is a Frenchman's take on American jazz.

Ballet West soloist Kate Crews, who plays The Hostess in "Les Biches," said her character is tasked with performing difficult leaps while managing a feather boa, long string of pearls, cigarette-holder and a detached, "above-it-all" attitude.

"I love the character," Crews said. "I love having to be so athletic, but having the challenge of not letting the audience see the difficulty."

Crews became a focal point for Ballet West's rising visibility in the arts world when Dance magazine chose a photo of her, as The Hostess, for its February cover celebrating the international Diaghilev centennial. Crews, a nine-year veteran at Ballet West, is pleased that the Utah company is basking in national limelight as a result of the Ballets Russes program.

"I've seen ups and downs and lefts and rights with this company," she said. "And it was a very wise decision on Adam's part to help put Ballet West in the spotlight with this repertoire so we could be part of this centennial. It causes other companies, and the dance world, to look at us."

Crews goes farther, suggesting that Ballet West is on the brink of an important moment in its history, just as the Ballets Russes was in 1909. "We are going through a great moment of change --- a rebirth," Crews said, "and this is just the tip of the iceberg. We're back, we're new, and there is a lot of talent here -- a lot of fresh ideas."

Treasures of the Ballets Russes

Ballet West's new program marks the 100th anniversary of the 1909 performances of the Ballets Russes, a Parisian ballet company that revolutionized the arts world by bringing together many of the finest composers, artists, choreographers and dancers of the early 20th-century.

The program features Bronislava Nijinska's "Les Biches," George Balanchine's "The Prodigal Son" and Michel Fokine's "Polovtsian Dances from 'Prince Igor.'" The Utah Chamber Orchestra accompanies, conducted by Terence Kern.

Salt Lake City performances are March 27, 28 and April 1-4 at 7:30 p.m. with 2 p.m. matinee April 4 at Capitol Theater, 50 W. 200 South, Salt Lake City. Tickets, $18-$72, available at 801-355-ARTS or http://www.arttix.org.

Ogden performances are April 7 and 8 at 7 p.m. in the Browning Center on the Weber State University campus. Tickets $18-$39, available by calling 801-399-9214. Students tickets can be purchased for $8 (limit is two) up until March 31 by visiting the Browning Center box office in person.

Warm-Ups discussions, free to ticket-holders, begin one hour before each performance and offer insights from the Ballet West artistic staff.

Related events

The Ballets Russes centennial provided a catalyst for a local festival celebrating the influential company and the creative minds it attracted. All remaining events are at the Salt Lake Main Library, 201 E. 400 South, Salt Lake City.

March 24, 7 p.m. » Discussion of A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway's memoir of Paris in the 1920s, led by author Christopher Renstrom at the City Library, 210 E. 400 South.

March 26, 7 p.m. » Lecture on "Ballets Russes and the rest of the world" with Regina Zarhina, assistant professor in the University of Utah ballet department.

March 31, 7 p.m. » Avant-Garde Poetry Salon, featuring selections by artists of the Ballets Russes and local authors.

About the Ballets Russes

The Ballets Russes set the arts world afire in the early 20th-century through revolutionary choreography and bold collaborations with prominent composers and visual artists. The company was led by the talented impresario Sergei Diaghilev and featured exceptional dancers, most of them Russian.

Many of the Ballet Russes' most famous -- and infamous -- productions germinated in Paris, then the center of artistic revolutions in music, art and dance. Ballets such as "Rite of Spring" and "Prelude to 'An Afternoon of a Faun'" shocked audiences with revolutionary choreography and visual design, and overt sensuality.

Under Diaghilev's guidance, the art of ballet was reinvented as a current, dramatic art form that provided inspiration for a remarkable collection of choreographers, composers, dancers and artists, and their influence is still felt today. Their ranks included the following:

Dancers and Choreographers » Vaslav Nijinsky and his sister Bronislava NijinskaLeonide Massine, Anna Pavlova, Marius Petipa, Michel Fokine and the young George Balanchine, who went on to found New York City Ballet and become the father of ballet in the United States.

Composers » Igor Stravinsky, Sergei Prokofiev, Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel, Francis Poulenc, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Erik Satie, and Alexander Borodin.

Artists » Leaders of the Impressionist and Expressionist movements found inspiration in the Ballet Russes' innovations, and collaborated on visual aspects of productions. Among them were Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, Henri Matisse, Georges Rouault and Salvador Dali.