Commentary Magazine

After Diaghilev

Étonne-moi!” Diaghilev demanded. “Astonish me!” Jean Cocteau obliged—and so did Sergei Prokofiev and Igor Stravinsky, Erik Satie, Pablo Picasso, Léon Bakst, Georges Braque, and a host of others. For twenty years, until his death in 1929, Diaghilev brought avant-garde artists to the world of ballet, bullying and cajoling them into his temperamental little company. Under his direction the first balletic experiments in cubism and surrealism were conducted. He transformed ballet throughout Europe from an opera adjunct to an art form, from a girly show to the cutting edge of experimentation. When L’Après-midi d’un Faune premiered in Paris in 1912, the critical furor confirmed just how far ballet had moved beyond mere entertainment. The first performance of Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps in 1913 aroused an audience demonstration so violent that the dancers feared for their safety (though the music, even more than Nijinsky’s choreography, was responsible for the reaction).

Diaghilev’s enthusiastic if undiscriminating commitment to all that was avant-garde gave his group an impetus that survived his death. In this country and abroad Diaghilev dancers founded companies, staged ballets, trained young pupils to become dancers in the Ballets Russes tradition. George Balanchine, in the true Diaghilev style, tried everything from Broadway musicals to performing elephants until he created, in the New York City Ballet, a blend of classicism and modernism.

Somewhere along the way, however, the glitter and the glamor died. Today’s choreographers and impresarios are no longer as young, hungry, and daring as their predecessors in the 20’s; the audience for ballet, though larger than ever, no longer comes to the theater expecting to encounter experimental art; and the impetuous enthusiasts who once leaped to the defense of the beleaguered artists have left the battlefield (where in any case no battles are raging). The few daring experiments left over from the 60’s already look outdated in the 80’s. Arthur Mitchell, militant creator of the Dance Theater of Harlem, has quietly started accepting white dancers in his formerly all-black company; his own ballets have slipped off programs, to be replaced by excerpts from Swan Lake, and the Corsaire pas de deux. Mikhail Baryshnikov keeps restaging old favorites for the American Ballet Theater, and even the New York City Ballet, the bastion of the austere, “pure dance” ballet, has moved from Stravinsky to Tchaikowsky. The harsh modernism of Peter Martins’s Calcium Light Night has given way to the period ballet, The Magic Flute.

As for the critics and the press, the furious debates that once raged in the pages of Figaro have been replaced by a new set of burning issues, which have little to do with dance itself. Instead we read “Has the Time Come Again to ‘Save’ Ballet?” (New York Times, January 17, 1982); “Will the Pennsylvania Ballet Survive?” (Times, February 7, 1982); “The Danger of Trying to Equate Ballet With Business” (Times, March 14, 1982). Dancers and administrators alike bring their passion to the bargaining table rather than the stage. Equally unmistakable is the move from performing dance to writing about it, from doing to talking. Once the disdained province of enthusiastic amateurs and self-styled balletomanes, writing about dance has become the arena of all that is exciting (and excited) in ballet. The language of the body has been shelved for the lure of the typewriter.



Books on dance proliferate. Among the more ambitious recent titles is Walter Sorell’s Dance in Its Time,1 a massive, full-scale history of the social, political, religious, and cultural context surrounding the rise and decline of dance. The index of this book runs from the Abbey Theater to the Ziegfeld Follies, with stops along the way for Descartes, Palladio, Petrarch, Galileo, Michelangelo, John Donne, and Charles Le Brun, director of the Gobelin tapestry factory. Sorell’s indiscriminate inclusiveness is at once the strength and weakness of his enthusiastic survey. He traces dance from medieval mystery plays to commedia dell’arte; he writes in loving detail about the great masques and spectacles of the Renaissance; he sweeps briskly through the Cartesian method, the quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns, mannerism, and French neoclassicism. Shaker and hasidic pietism share a chapter with Increase Mather’s tract against dancing.

From the dizzying profusion of styles and events Sorell’s opinions emerge very firmly: his admiration is reserved above all else for the quality of expressiveness. For him, progress is represented by the triumph of expressiveness over mere technique. Not surprisingly, Sorell hits his stride with the dawn of Romanticism and the phenomenal popularity of the waltz. Discussing the political, social, and moral issues reflected in the craze for the new dance, he fuses the disparate elements of art and politics into real social history. With his discussion of the waltzing motif in Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, Sorell convincingly demonstrates how, for a bourgeois reader, dance could contain and give form to the otherwise antagonistic emotions of attachment, harmony, disharmony, and violence as they arise against the backdrop of an ordered society.



It is in the Romantic era, Sorell suggests, that dance achieved its greatest success as an expression of the times. The quintessential Romantic ballet, Gautier’s Giselle (1841), is an exploration of the painful gaps between desire and reality, or perhaps more accurately between the pleasure of desire and the disillusion of attainment. With typical Romantic dualism the ballet separates into two acts, thematically opposed. The first describes the adventures of young Count Albrecht who disguises himself as a peasant in order to win the heart of Giselle, a village beauty. Their idyll is cut short when his highborn fiancée arrives and reveals his duplicity. Giselle goes mad from grief and dies.

Is Albrecht a cad or an idealist, a victim or a manipulator of social norms? This satisfyingly Romantic question is answered in Act Two, a so-called ballet blanc. Visiting Giselle’s grave by moonlight, the remorseful Albrecht is set upon by the Wilis, ghosts of maidens who have died betrayed. Giselle, transformed from peasant lass into ethereal spirit, attempts to save him from the Wilis’ vengeance; when dawn comes the apparitions vanish and Albrecht is still alive. Thus does the sinful but unconsummated love of Act One lead to the pure passion of grief and expiation in Act Two. The entire ballet follows the dreamlike logic of a Romantic fantasy: Keats’s “The Eve of St. Agnes” or a De Quincey dream vision. The major mechanics are disguise and revelation, and the significant events are entirely internal—deception, self-deception, guilt, and atonement.

With the death of Gautier and the birth of Diaghilev in 1872, the era of Parisian initiative, and of expressiveness, began to wane. The cancan came to Montmartre. The key words in art were science and nature. Loie Fuller dedicated her “Radium Dance” to Marie Curie. Electric lights and other enticing modern stage effects moved the focus from expressiveness to sensational contrivances. Dalcroze’s eurhythmies—an attempt to find the essential harmony of music and movement through rhythm—brought a mechanistic, detached approach to the study of dance, while Isadora Duncan, attacking traditional technique from the other end, championed the cause of spontaneity and self-realization at the expense of training. Dolefully heading his final chapter “On the Cultural Crisis of Our Time,” Sorell notes the first experiments in atonal music and plunges into the tale of the Ballets Russes.

Here Sorell gets carried away by the proliferation of trends in dance and the overwhelming rejection of Romanticism. Thus, to convey the merging of diverse aesthetic concepts in modern dance, Sorell has Diaghilev taking the entire Ballets Russes to Dalcroze eurhythmies classes, and hiring Marie Rambert to train the company in this technique, the better to deal with the complexities of Stravinsky’s Sacre du Printemps.

The picture is tempting but too neat. Bronislava Nijinska, in her recently published Early Memoirs,2 has more convincingly documented the company’s contempt for the eurhythmies fad, remarking that the project to initiate the company in the technique was abandoned after the dancers boycotted the classes. Claude Debussy dismissed Nijinsky’s ballet Jeux by calling it “Dalcrozian,” adding, “I hold M. Dalcroze to be one of the worst enemies of music.”

Sorell’s attempt to make a unified whole of the Denishawn dancers, T.S. Eliot’s poetry, and Sacco and Vanzetti is a more striking example of his reckless appetite for inclusive generalizations. He writes of the 1920’s, “The eternal prejudice of humanity was seasoned by the giddy mentality of a new cashocracy rushing toward an earthshaking stock-market crash.” These efforts at encompassing statements, besides being untrue in themselves, are of dubious relevance to the small, enclosed world of dance. The bridge between the theater and the stock-market is built of more sinuous threads than these.

On a narrower subject, dance on film, Sorell has more cogent things to say. “The viewers . . . no longer see the dancer, they see the camera seeing the dancer . . . it becomes a secondhand event. . . . Reality is rebuilt, reorganized.” Without doubt, choreography has not entirely caught up with the new technique. Choreographers depend heavily on videotape to preserve dances that have gone out of repertory, or to protect copyrights, but it is comparatively rare for a choreographer to work effectively with the camera, thinking in terms not of its limits but of its advantages. Dance on television is all too often a secondhand event, ballet designed for the stage and reconceived for the camera with only minimal adjustments. There are, of course, exceptions: Twyla Tharp, in Making Television Dance, worked imaginatively with videotape, demonstrating the unique possibilities of the television screen, and Martha Graham’s Clytemnestra is extraordinarily powerful on tape. Modern dance may “work” better on the small screen than does ballet. It is intimate, relies usually on small casts, and often derives much of its significance from subtle gestures and expressions.

Sorell rather thoughtlessly condemns the mass media as a self-devouring hydra, “seducing and violating” the dance with the promise of financial reward. In fact, for many small companies across the country television offers the only hope for survival. Just as the legitimate theater is underwritten by television and movies, so dancers can subsidize a losing season of live performance with the fees from a television performance. One episode of Dance in America can bring to a small company touring engagements and a hope of surviving for two or three more seasons.

And so we come to the financially and artistically depressed present. The glorious days of court performances are long gone, and the private bounty that kept the Ballets Russes alive has evaporated. For a time the federal government and the various state arts councils were dispensing large sums, but in the current period of retrenchment these sources can no longer fill the gap between ticket prices and performance costs.

Yet even during the days of the most generous national funding, risky experimentation rarely competed successfully with the proven audience-pleasers like The Nutcracker at Christmas and excerpts from Don Quixote. The condition of American dance more and more resembles the stagnant state of affairs before Diaghilev. As in the days of the Imperial Theater, a few large companies remount crowdpleasers for an affluent audience (now vastly increased) while independent dancers and companies live from performance to performance, always on the edge of bankruptcy.



In this context, Bronislava Nijinska’s memoirs of the early years of the Ballets Russes, mentioned above, are most instructive.

During the first decade of the 20th century, Bronislava Nijinska and her brother Vaslav lived as resident students in’ the Imperial School on Theater Street in St. Petersburg, totally shielded from the events of the outside world. In the self-absorbed life of the dance studios, Nijinska and her fellow students were virtually oblivious to the Russo-Japanese war and the 1905 revolution. Railroad strikes, the hoarding of food, and all the other indications of profound social disorder only came to the students’ awareness when thinning audiences forced the private theaters to close.

The Nijinskys, Polish immigrants in Russia, were theoretically subject to all sorts of suspicion of revolutionary activity, but the young dancers considered themselves completely Russified and disregarded the potential danger. For Nijinska, the truly revolutionary event of this period was Vaslav’s 1906 performance in the Blue Bird pas de deux from Sleeping Beauty. This role, conventionally a pure classical solo, had traditionally been performed with a pair of stiff wings attached to the heavy court-dress that comprised the costume. The eighteen-year-old Nijinsky for the first time reconceived the role as the flight of a bird; wearing a simple, light-weight costume that permitted him to flutter his arms and feet like beating wings, he used his extraordinary elevation to suggest soaring flight. This naturalistic interpretation of a part previously known solely as a conventional gymnastic exercise represented, for Nijinska, a revolutionary breakthrough far more significant than the riots then taking place on the Nevsky Prospect.

The harsh and demanding life of a dancer in the Imperial Theater, with its backbiting and infighting, proved wearisome to the Nijinskys. Diaghilev’s offers of real parts in fascinating new ballets easily outweighed the allure of small roles in outdated star vehicles offered by the Imperial Theater; disregarding the pleas of their dancer-mother, brother and sister joined the Ballets Russes.



Nijinska’s description of the 1909 Ballets Russes season celebrates the camaraderie of a group of young dancers who for the first time found themselves performing outside the protection of the august Imperial Theater. The response of the audience could not be prearranged—the Imperial had claques to guarantee applause for its performances—and there was no room for politicking and maneuvering for parts within the company. “We all tried to help each other, pointing out mistakes as we noticed them, and together finding ways to correct them. . . .”

For the Russian dancers this sense of camaraderie intensified as the group met hostile or skeptical audiences in one European capital after another. Outside of St. Petersburg and Moscow, Russian ballet was as poorly regarded as were other Russian arts. It was Diaghilev, Benois, Bakst, Fokine, Stravinsky, and Nijinsky who met this skepticism head-on by creating a legitimately Russian ballet.

Petrouchka, still in the repertory today, was one of the first and most successful collaborations by Stravinsky, Fokine, and Benois. Nijinska’s absorbing analysis of that ballet stresses her own efforts to capture the purely Russian character of the work (she, the half-assimilated Polish immigrant). The mise-en-scène is that of a Russian town on a Fair Day, with a puppeteer, street dancers, tambourine players, and other entertainments for a rowdy crowd. Nijinska sternly instructed the Parisian walk-ons to rearrange their elegant headdresses and scarves to resemble more closely the dowdy kerchiefs of peasants on holiday. Her own role was that of a puppet called the Ballerina Doll. Tamara Karsavina, the first to dance the role, had conceived it as a dainty French porcelain figure, and performed it with ballerina elegance. By contrast, Nijinska imagined the doll as a hand-crafted puppet, a plebeian toy with hands like wooden paddles, legs sewn to the body, moving only at the joints with an expressionless face and wide-open, unblinking eyes.

The rejection of elegance for realism became the hallmark of the new company. The dancers repudiated the Russian imperial tradition in which performers were required only to “keep a line straight or a circle round: preserve the groupings: execute the basic pas [steps],” and in which applause was reserved for the highest jumps, or the greatest number of pirouettes, interpolated into the part by the star.

One of Diaghilev’s major innovations was to return control of the ballet to the choreographer. In the Ballets Russes every detail, from scenery and costume to makeup and hairstyle, was designed very strictly, as much a part of the ballet as the steps or the music, and no detail could be altered without the consent of the designer. Whereas in the Imperial Theater the ballerinas ignored the style of a particular work and altered steps to suit their own taste, Diaghilev’s brilliantly designed and meticulously choreographed ballets focused the performer’s attention on the role itself, and hence on the most faithful way of expressing it. The true dancer, Nijinska argues, studies a role to learn the composer’s and choreographer’s intention, and thus incorporates it into her consciousness; within those limits she imbues the part with her own deeply personal interpretation of it.



This issue continues to vex dancers and choreographers to the present day. American dancers, universally acknowledged to possess extraordinary techniques, have just as universally abandoned any effort at dancing their roles with any personal awareness of character. In international competitions, young American dancers are criticized for the monotone style with which they dance their pas de deux: the lyrical Swan Lake, the fiery Don Quixote, and the bravura Corsaire all look alike. The dancers are brilliantly accomplished technically, and easily achieve feats of gymnastic complexity. But neither the Romantic expressivism admired by Sorell nor the personal consciousness of role required by Nijinska is much in evidence. And meanwhile there is a dearth of appropriate choreography.

Technique improves and audiences grow; but there is a creative malaise in American dance. Over the last couple of decades, enormous quantities of federal money have stimulated ballet companies to develop ever more ambitious budgets and programs. Little semi-professional groups of students and housewives have joined the National Association of Regional Ballet in record numbers. Students have been taught the correct positions of feet, arms, and head, and have moved directly into performance at an early age. Sadly, the results on the whole have been mediocre and unimaginative.

The inevitable backlash is already here, as both public and private financing has started to drop. Where is Diaghilev now that we need him? Probably completing his MBA in fund-raising and direct-mail marketing; that is where the creative heart of ballet today still beats.


1 Doubleday, 469 pp., $19.95.

2 Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 546 pp., $22.50.

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