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First of all, I am a great charlatan, although one of brilliance; second, I’m a great charmer; third, I’ve great nerve; fourth I’m a man with a great deal of logic and few principles; and fifth, I think I lack talent; but if you like, I think I’ve found my real calling — patronage of the arts. Everything has been given me but money — mais ça viendra. Sergei Diaghilev, in a letter to his stepmother.

Ballets Russes stamp. Source: Wikipedia

Ballets Russes stamp. Source: Wikipedia

The centenary celebrations of the Ballets Russes continue worldwide. Here in London Sadler’s Wells Theatre has a week bookended by them. In the Spirit of Diaghilev having just finished its run, Morphoses now prepares to take over with an opening programme featuring works inspired by the legendary Diaghilev company.

The Ballets Russes’ first appearance at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris on 18 May 1909 marked not only ballet’s ressurection in the West, but also its upgrade to a serious art form, no longer an antique resting on the laurels of the great Romantic era, no longer an appendix to opera. The fact that the Diaghilev troupe had been profoundly affected by political change in Russia made the art they created relevant, topical. Ballet was finally considered “cool”, an art that spoke and was spoken of, that was not afraid to experiment with subject matter and style.

We could go on forever trying to expand on why the “entire ideal of classical ballet in Western Europe and the rest of the world acknowledges a debt to Diaghilev” (from How to Enjoy Ballet, by Mary Clarke and Clement Crisp), trying to imagine what the ballet and, more generally, the arts landscape would be like today had that pivotal Paris season never taken place. Diaghilev’s presence in the West set a chain of key collaborations, incubations and inspirations which were instrumental in the evolution of classical dance. That landscape would have certainly been less vast without him, as we can see in the “family tree” below:

diaghilev

While it would be difficult to draw a comprehensive chart of Diaghilev’s influence on Western ballet, we hope this sketch can give a flavor of the historical importance of this legendary man & his company

Centenary Celebrations:

Exhibitions

  • Diaghilev’s Theater of Marvels, curated by Lynn Garafola (now closed) [link]
  • From Russia with Love – Costumes for the Ballets Russes 1909 – 1933 (ongoing) [link]
  • Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes at the V&A (opening 2010) [link]

Books

  • Diaghilev: A Life, by Sjeng Scheijen. Reviewed by Bee Wilson for The Sunday Times [link]
  • Ballets Russes: the Stockholm Collection. Absolutely wonderful book of archival costumes and designs [link]

On UK TV

  • Ballets Russes related programmes on BBC Three and Four [link]

Sources and Further Information:

  • Wikipedia entry on the Ballets Russes [link]
  • Dancing with the Stars, a review of 3 Ballets Russes related exhibitions by Alexandra Anderson-Spivy [link]
  • Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes: a century of sensation, by Judith Mackrell [link]
  • How to Enjoy Ballet by Mary Clarke and Clement Crisp [link]

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Most professional dancers start their careers rather young and, depending on where they study, the programme/syllabus they follow varies substantively. Here in England, they will probably be following RAD (Royal Academy of Dance). However there are other different methods/schools, each placing emphasis on different aspects of dance. This might result in a dancer having certain abilities and qualities that are more striking and “pop up” when performing certain roles/choreographies. For instance, lookout for extreme bending of the torso “Ashton style” in those dancers trained at the Royal Ballet School.

Given that we are all for knowing more about our favourite hobby, we will  be posting a series of entries on the different schools/methods of ballet. Of course we are not planning to be exhaustive and we should mention that there is more information available from the internet or in educational books.

Agrippina Vaganova in Esmeralda (1910). Copyright by its respective owner (Source: http://www.ballerinagallery.com).

In this post we will focus on the famous Vaganova method, which serves as the main system of instruction in Russia and is widely used in much of Europe and America. It has generated some of the best dancers in the world, admired for their clean lines and the softness of their movements.

Vaganova (pronounced va-GA-nova) training was originally developed by Agrippina Vaganova through her period of teaching in the 1920’s and 30’s in the Leningrad Choreographic School (which is now the Vaganova Ballet Academy in St. Petersburg).

This method originated from Vaganova’s knowledge of the basic curriculum used by the Imperial Ballet School where she trained, fused with the athleticism characteristic of the Italian school and a dash of romanticism borrowed from French ballet.

The training focuses on the upper body and starts from the basic assumption that movement comes from the core. This emphasis on core stability and strength in the back and arm plasticity enables perfect coordination with fluid arms and precision in allegro work.

Vaganova also focuses on the placement of arms (port-de-bras) whilst in motion, as they can assist the dancer while jumping and turning and enhance the beauty of the movement overall. This is why ballerinas from the big Russian companies like the Bolshoi and the Mariinsky, will generally have beautiful lines and port-de-bras, while also displaying tremendous ability for bravura dancing (ie. multiple sky high jumps and dizzying spins).

Vaganova’s teaching method can be found in her book “Basic Principles of Classical Ballet”. Its application depends entirely on individual schools/teachers, as there is no parent organisation in charge to regulate the system. It should be mentioned, however, that the method assumes pupils “tick all the boxes” in terms of physical attributes for a career in ballet (given that in St. Petersburg, students were hand-picked for success, with perfect limbs and turnout). In other words, it might not be the most forgiving method for the non-professional aspirant student.

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The joys of seeing different casts

The other day I got an email from a friend inviting me to see the Royal Ballet’s current production of Giselle. He had been sent a promotional offer to one of the performances and knew that I am a major ballet buff. “Interested?”, he asked. Thanks, I replied, but I am already booked for 6 other performances of this ballet so will probably give this one a miss. He was shocked: “You are going 6 times?! Wow, you must really, REALLY like this ballet!”

Certainly the fact that I do helps (believe me, I wouldn’t sit through Spartacus more than once, yawn!) but the thing that drives me back to the same production more than once is the opportunity to see different dancers and different interpretations of the same role. Great dancers bring their unique gifts to the stage and can make us feel as if we were watching any classic, no matter how overstaged, for the first time.

It is a fact that “the more [ballet]  is seen, the more will be wanted” (How to Enjoy Ballet, by Clement Crisp and Mary Clarke). Once I caught the dance-watching bug I quicky realised that just one taste of each performance wasn’t going to be enough: you book months in advance and then spend weeks looking forward to something that vanishes so quickly before your eyes. Or, as New York City Ballet says (rather more eloquently) somewhere in their website:

“Ballet is as fragile and as magical as a snowflake. It exists only when dancers are dancing and no two performances are ever alike. Blink and the moment melts away. Critics and dance writers extend the window of opportunity to catch these on-stage “miracles of nature”…”

But there are more reasons why you should be spreading your bets: That one cast you picked so carefully gets changed. Some dance  critic whose opinion you trust swears by that other pairing you have never seen and steers you towards a whole new world of possibilities. You hear there’s a new whizkid on the block tackling that fierce role for the first time. The solution? Downgrade your seats (we certainly wouldn’t advise breaking the bank to support your ballet habit) and upgrade the amount of bookings. And always keep an eye out for the castings lottery!

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