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Diaghilev, Nijinsky and Stravinsky
© Public Domain

Vaslav Nijinsky wrote in his diaries: “Diaghilev cannot live without Stravinsky, and Stravinsky cannot live without Diaghilev. They understand each other”. They are like two torrents of water flowing downhill, each with its own expressive vigour, but both capable of coming together in a common confluence: a revolutionary spirit, uncompromising in the stylistic designs of the work and ideologically enthusiastic in its own creed.

Is the ballet The Rite of Spring (1913) the most representative of the integration of this creative phenomenon into the stage dramaturgy of the Ballets Russes? The answer could be yes, given the cultural explosion of its ritual sacrifice, its primitive rhythms composed from harmonic atonality, its feet in the forced introversion of the limbs, defying the canon, as well as the magnet that its fusion of music and narrative fusion holds for others that rewrite that which has already been told. These characteristics seem to channel the gaze of any critical discourse, given the transcendence of its premiere in a Paris that was extinguishing the splendour of the Belle Époque and approaching the decadence of the World Wars. Perhaps this is why Bronislava Nijinska's 1923 ballet Les Noces is not considered so suggestive, in order to polemicise its ascription to contemporaneity, but the fact is that Nijinsky's work is not the only example by which to identify the composer's close links with the world of choreography and, therefore, with Diaghilev. Perhaps it is time, then, to pass the baton to other referents, in order to increase the signage that points to the creative resonance of a collaboration built around dance.

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Revival production at Mariinsky Theatre of The Rite of Spring by Millicent Hodson
© Natasha Razina | State Academic Mariinsky Theatre

In the great diversity of studies published on both figures, the dependence of the success of the two artists is attributed to one or the other in a pendulum-like manner, like an irresolvable fantasy that delineates something clear: the aesthetic brilliance of their time. Serge Diaghilev (1872-1929) has gone down in history as a visionary, capable of focusing his gaze on the most suitable interaction between artists of all disciplines, in order to collectively generate an aesthetic transformation of ballet. On the way to proposing something close to a Wagnerian work of total art, Diaghilev's Ballets Russes represented the opening to a modernity that was developing alongside the birth of American modern dance. Stravinsky himself recounts in his memoirs the fresh, intellectual genius, exceptional inventiveness and overflowing passion of the impresario towards the constitution of a creative plurality, which has been the oasis of the inspiring action of the sublime.

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Mikhail Fokine and Tamara Karsavina in The Firebird
© Public Domain

Diaghilev seeks to make visible the fantastic fiction and the sordid everyday life of Russian nationalism, the colourful theatricality of Greco-Latin iconography, or the architectural abstraction of sound turned into image. To do this, he brings together other celebrities, masters of the choreographic movement: Michel Fokine, Vaslav Nijinsky, Bronislava Nijinska, Léonide Massine and George Balanchine, individuals with a marked aesthetic temperament, artists in the craft of choreography and given the responsibility for turning Stravinsky's music into physical gesture.

In this diverse setting, the songs of a mythical being, similar to the phoenix, are cloistered by a prince who dreams of the liberation of a beautiful princess. In his feat, the flutterings of his programmatic accent, in a reproduction of the so-called 'Rimsky-Korsakov scale', energise the magical artificiality of the score. This is The Firebird (1909-10), Stravinsky's first full-length ballet for the company, with choreography by Mikhail Fokine, set design by Alexander Golovin and costumes by Golovin and Léon Bakst. The brilliant poetry of the harmony shows a melodic line supported by the chromatic tritone, with the same character with which the bird beats on its wingtips, audacious in the animal incarnation of the one who dominates the burning flames. The movement is both folkloric and organic, in keeping with the representation of a Russian folk tale which, moreover, will be forgotten when Maurice Béjart rewrites the ballet in 1970. This shows the dramaturgical preponderance that Stravinsky's music has over the other elements of the choreography. The magical spirit of the score is preserved, but its direction is modified, as is the case with The Rite of spring, whose meaning is transformed with each viewing.

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Model by Léon Bakst for the character of Tamara Karsavina in The Firebird, 1910
© Public Domain

Next, a puppet theatre in the manner of the Italian commedia dell'arte conquers the stage with Petrushka (1910-11), also by Fokine. The travelling stalls represent a fairground full of circus characters, giving freer movement to the corps de ballet. In the staging by Alexandre Benois of this carnival atmosphere, elements of Stanislavski technique were used in the portrayal of roles. The popular airs of the orchestral composition round off the dramaturgy and Debussy complemented Stravinsky on the vibrancy of its tonal colours: "It is full of a kind of sonic magic, a mysterious transformation of the mechanical souls that become human through a magic spell, which so far only you see to know."

In this context, the fantastical is conjoined with popular songs in a juxtaposition between tradition and modernity, by the care with which the composer wraps himself with the national flag. Hence, Petrushka, The Rite of Spring and Les Noces constitute the clearest expression of Russian heritage, which is an unchangeable part of Stravinsky's make-up.

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Bronislava Nijinska, Mikhail Fokine and Ludmila Schollar ei Petrushka
© Public Domain

We know that The Rite is a mythical piece built from the recreation of ancestral rituals, conquered by atonal dissonances and physical breakup. The harmonic contrasts identify each of the scenes in the story of the great rite of spring that has hypnotised the great choreographers of history, Pina Bausch, Martha Graham and Sasha Waltz amongst others. While the premiere deserves to some extent the level of attention it has been given, that attention may have drowned out other important milestones in dance, such as Debussy's harmonically transgressive and disturbing score for Jeux (1913), accompanied by the erotic eloquence of Nijinsky's choreography, with homosexual undertones; or Stravinsky's opera-ballet Le Rossignol (1914), about which little has been written.

The instrumentation of the wedding ritual in The Rite of Spring morphed completely in the course of its composition, which began in 1914, culminating in its defining characteristic of primitive savagery. Les Noces is relevant because of its idiosyncratic simplicity, from the narrative and ideological exposition of its plot, in the representation of everyday feminine life, as well as in the aesthetic evolution modelled on the physical gesture.

The Russian mysticism of these pieces gives way to the neoclassicism of Léonide Massine's Pulcinella (1920), based on earlier scores by Giambattista Pergolesi, marking a major stylistic shift. The vocal lines of the original opera are preserved in a piece composed for a small chamber orchestra. The dancers' masks increase the abstraction of the gesture, transferring its language to the rest of the body, which is masked with designs by Picasso. And the taste for vocal as well as melodic imitation, in this case of Tchaikovsky, is repeated in the ballet Le Baiser de la fée (1928), as a structural and tonal borrowing, choreographed by Balanchine.

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Rehearsal Les Noces en Monte Carlo in 1923 with Bronislava Nijinska
© Public Domain

The symbolism of divine introspection arrives with Apollon musagète or Apollo (1928), a fruitful nexus of Stravinsky's collaboration with George Balanchine. The clean lines, characteristic of his style, lead to a work of Greek inspiration, followed by Orpheus (1946) and Agon (1957), both dating from after Diaghilev's death in Venice in 1929. Apollo the resumption of a trilogy of mythical ballets and was premiered in the United States, marking the start of Stravinsky's American stage. The recovery of musical classicism is rooted in this sensual ballet, delving into the technical nuances of classical ballet, homogeneous in its solemn austerity. Consciousness appears purified through the battle between the Apollonian and Dionysian dichotomy, like an ordered delirium of Jungian philosophy.

Stravinsky thus makes rhythm graphic and gesture sonorous, through a stylistic revolution motivated by the progressivism of his choreographic sounds. His language was supported in his professional growth by Diaghilev, until he reached an autonomous modernism, alien to the original Russian psyche. It is remarkable how the environment that the impresario created around his heterogeneous company was fruitful for Stravinsky, as it was for the rest of the artists who worked with them. In fact, thanks to this friendly relationship, as described by the composer himself, his genius is safeguarded in the most effusive danced incarnation. Stravinsky (1936) says: "a deep friendship based on a reciprocal affection that was proof against the difference of views or tastes which could not but arise from time to time in such a long period". The dissimilarity of creative ideas of which he speaks in this quotation is to be welcomed. It must surely be with delight that Terpsichore embraces his musical poetry.


Colomé, Delfín (2007): Pensar la danza, Madrid, Turner.

Gloag, Kenneth (2003): “Russian rites: Petroushka, The Rite of Spring and Les Noces”, en Cross, Jonathan (Ed.) (2003): The Cambridge to Stravinsky, United Kingdom, Cambridge University Press: 79-97.

Cross, Jonathan (2003): The Cambridge Companion to Stravinsky, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Joseph, Charles M. (2002): Stravinsky & Balanchine. A Journey of invention, Connecticut, Yale University.

Nijinsky, Vaslav (2003): Diario, traducción de Helena-Diana Moradell, Barcelona, Acantilado.

Scheijen, Sjeng (2009): Diaghilev. A Life, traducción de Jane Hedley-Prôle y S. J. Leinbach, Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Stravinsky, Igor (1936): Stravinsky: an autobiography, New York, Simon and Schuster.

Goodall, Howard (2011): “La música y los ballets rusos”, en Pritchard, Jane (Ed.) (2011): Los ballets Rusos de Diaghilev, 1909-1929. Cuando el arte baila con la música, traducción María Luisa Balseiro, Barcelona, Turner Publicaciones: 149-158.

Translated from Spanish by David Karlin