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New life for a beloved ballet

Decades after its demise, the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo is winning fresh attention for its contributions to American dance and culture.


© St. Petersburg Times, published September 29, 2002

Decades after its demise, the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo is winning fresh attention for its contributions to American dance and culture.

Gigantic hampers of costumes and scenery arriving by rail; fluffy white tutus dangling from trees to dry; Army tents set up as dressing rooms for bevies of ballerinas. For 30 years, these were among the signs that the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo had come to town.

From 1938 through 1962, the American touring dance company with the exotic name brought high art to communities large and small, even places other touring companies disdained. The dancers might have been wearied by constant travel, and over the years the costumes and repertoire began to look a little tired. But that hardly diminished the excitement that arose whenever this traveling repository of European culture, dance, music and painting played to a new audience.

In March 1942, the ballet's visit merited nearly a full-page spread in the St. Petersburg Times, complete with photos of dancers named Irina Semochenko and Kari Karnakoski. One audience member was reported to marvel, "Gee, you sure gotta keep in shape to do all that high jumpin.' "

Now, the company's contributions to the arts in America are being revisited by dance and art scholars. In June 2000, New Orleans hosted a four-day Ballets Russes symposium that became a lovefest for the elderly dancers and balletomanes who had remained loyal to the company's past.

In October, the Cincinnati Ballet will celebrate its 40th anniversary with a program featuring three Ballet Russe ballets and an homage to Frederick Franklin. At 88, the choreographer, stager and dancer continues to be a premier authority on Ballet Russe lore.

The Cincinnati Art Museum will join the festivities with a display of more than 100 designs for costumes and sets from the 1938-44 seasons, including works by Boris Aronson and Salvador Dali.

Long-forgotten and artistically valuable scenery and stage sets that were once stored in Quonset huts and wet basements at Butler University in Indianapolis have been rediscovered. The massive drops, painted by Matisse, Benois and Dali, are part of a projected exhibition in Chicago in 2005, says Stephan Laurent, chairman of Butler's dance department.

Locally, the name Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo was again in the news when St. Petersburg gallery owner Jennifer Bahssin was sued by Butler over Ballet Russe memorabilia in which the university claims a proprietary interest.

But what was the Ballet Russe, and why has it continued to exert an influence over the dance and art world for more than 90 years?

As the name implies, the company had its roots in Russia. In 1909, Sergei Diaghilev, a Russian emigre and cultural impresario, gathered Russian and French dancers into the original Ballets Russes, which premiered in Paris. Occasionally touring in the United States from 1916, Diaghilev brought together a galaxy of visual, musical and performing talent. At one time, dancers Vaslav Nijinsky and Anna Pavlova, composers Igor Stravinsky and Claude Debussy, choreographers Leonide Massine and George Balanchine, and artists Dali, Pablo Picasso and Giorgio de Chirico created for Diaghilev's company.

World War I caused a near-fatal rupture. Nijinsky was hospitalized for mental illness. Pavlova started a touring group (when she wasn't making ends meet performing with vaudeville troupes). Other artists scattered in a diaspora that seemed at first catastrophic but was to flower into a worldwide awakening to classical theater.

After Diaghilev's death in 1929, two rival companies were spun off. Each clung to the name Ballet Russe. One eventually toured exclusively in Europe and Australia; the other, adding to the name the city where the troupe had spent its summer seasons, became Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and set out for the United States.

In those early days, though some American audiences were unsure of what they were getting, they seemed to want it anyway. A New York Times dance critic wrote of reports of callers to the box office asking, "What language is tonight's performance in?" Yet, despite prudery over women in short skirts and men in tights, performances sold out, and the annual appearance of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo became a highlight for towns across the nation.

What elevated the 1938-44 company to levels barely imaginable to today's touring companies was its dedication to the authenticity of its past and the creativity of its present. And it had style. Even during World War II, train-car loads of scenery, trunks of tutus and slippers, a full orchestra and 80 or 90 dancers dressed elegantly in gloves and heels would disembark onto train platforms while press flashbulbs popped at their arrival.

During those years, Leonide Massine created period masterpieces that felt nostalgic even when they were new, such as Gaite Parisienne and Le Beau Danube. George Balanchine, who married Maria Tallchief while with Ballet Russe, choreographed the streamlined, plotless pieces that were to become his hallmark. Agnes de Mille created Rodeo to Aaron Copland's score.

But seeds that had been sown when dance leapt the Atlantic were bearing fruit. In 1940, Ballet Theatre, later called the American Ballet Theatre, was formed, playing up its American roots and encouraging dancers to keep their names rather than "Russianize" them, as was common in Ballet Russe.

Balanchine's Ballet Society was becoming the New York City Ballet. There, story lines and costumes were not as important as the dance itself. And slowly, Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo began to look very dated.

Though the company didn't perform its last ballet until 1962, the preceding decade of one-night stands had been little more than a tribute to all that Ballet Russe had been before. Though the dancing remained first class, the repertoire had become almost quaint.

By then, audiences occasionally laughed at Scheherazade. They were not so amazed when the toys came to life in the Nutcracker. After a series of financial setbacks, including a dancer's union strike, the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo packed away its dancing shoes for the last time in Brooklyn, N.Y. Yet for generations of ballet lovers, its afterglow remains worthy of celebration and remembrance.

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