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Ballets Russes

Ballets Russes Collection

Written by Michael Davies
Published date 12 September 2019

Last month, Archives Assistant Mike Davies installed a display showcasing our Ballets Russes collection at Chelsea College of Arts. This was co-curated with our curator at the Archives and Special Collections Centre, Jacqueline Winston-Silk.

Ballets Russes was an avant garde dance company founded in Russia by impresario Sergei Diaghilev. The ballet’s first season opened in Paris in 1909.

It was an important exploration of dance and music that brought Russian folklore to European and American audiences, as well as advancing the careers of many of the dancers, painters, designers and musicians involved in the productions.

It toured extensively, travelling around most of the world during its short 20 year existence. Productions included The Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake, Pulcinella, Le Train Bleu, Prince Igor, and many other widely known and smaller performances.

The costume pieces currently on display at Chelsea College of Arts are mostly from Aurora's Wedding, which premiered in 1922 and was performed over 200 times until 1929.

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Ballets Russes Display, Chelsea College of Arts ©University Archives and Special Collections Centre

Serge Diaghilev

Diaghilev notably worked with composers and artists including Igor Stravinsky, Claude Debussy, Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Coco Chanel and other very influential people in the arts. The designs, colours and overall aesthetic of Ballets Russes influenced the world of theatre, fashion and interior design in the 20th Century, as well as the choreography and stage direction produced by Diaghilev.

Diaghilev had a strong passion for singing, music and composition, and immersed himself in the world of Russian and Western Art during his time living in St. Petersburg, making connections in the field of the arts.

Photograph of Serge Diaghilev. ©Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/ihas.200156298/

After becoming special assistant to the iconic Russian theatrical worker Prince Serge Wolkonsky, director of all Imperial theatres, he soon became the manager of various productions. After leaving this role, Diaghilev began organising large exhibitions of Russian Art, eventually moving an exhibition to the Petit Palais in Paris. Paris was a very prosperous place for Diaghilev and in the course of 2 years he began to produce Russian music and operas at large music halls across Paris. After presenting at the famous Paris Opera, he was invited back to produce ballet as well as opera, and at this time he established Ballets Russes.

Contact j.winstonsilk@arts.ac.uk or archive-enquiries@arts.ac.uk if you are interested in viewing more of the Ballets Russes Collection at the University Archives and Special Collections Centre.