Behind the Scenes at the Ballets Russes: Stories from a Silver Age by Michael Meylac (Translated by Rosanna Kelly) - review by Rupert Christiansen

Rupert Christiansen

The Show Goes On

Behind the Scenes at the Ballets Russes: Stories from a Silver Age


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The evocative name Ballets Russes is generally associated with the company the impresario Serge Diaghilev created and managed between 1909 and 1929. Much has been written about its transformative impact and the creative figures it commissioned and nurtured; it is no exaggeration to claim that European culture today would look very different without its achievements.

Much less, however, is known about its diaspora – the epigones who continued to trade on its name for some thirty years after Diaghilev’s demise. Although their collective creative record does not equal his, it is impressive nonetheless, embracing choreographers such as Michel Fokine, George Balanchine, Bronislava Nijinska and Léonide Massine, and dancers such as Alexandra Danilova, Tamara Toumanova, Irina Baronova and Tatiana Riabouchinska, Frederic Franklin, George Zoritch and Serge Lifar.

Interest in this fascinating but obscure chapter in 20th-century cultural history was awakened by the superb 2005 documentary film Ballets Russes, which drew heavily on the memories of survivors, almost all in their late eighties or nineties but still marvellously clear-headed and perceptive. Now comes this valuable supplementary collection of interviews with important participants, today mostly dead, assiduously conducted by Michael Meylac over a period of many years and fluently translated by Rosanna Kelly.

The background story is labyrinthine. Following Diaghilev’s death, his bankrupt troupe dispersed and most of his stock of scenery and costumes was destroyed. Some members settled in London, Ninette de Valois among them, while others emigrated to the USA, establishing new styles and companies.

In 1932 others from the original company reassembled under the banner of Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo, jointly managed by René Blum (brother of the French prime minister Léon) and the White Russian impresario Colonel Wassily de Basil. Four years later, Blum and de Basil split acrimoniously, spawning two companies with confusingly similar names and principles but divided loyalties.

What subsequently ensued was endless toing and froing among their personnel, as well as a series of ferocious intrigues and rivalries and a long-running lawsuit. Things came to a head in 1938, when both companies performed in London simultaneously. Blum usually had the edge: crucially, the productive and fashionable if tricky Massine sided with him, skimming off the star attractions, Toumanova and Danilova.

Both companies struggled on through the war, performing mostly in the Americas. Blum’s Ballet Russe survived until 1948, latterly under the management of the Russian banker Serge Denham after Blum had withdrawn (he later perished in Auschwitz). De Basil’s Original Ballet Russe survived until 1952, and is loosely the model for the Ballet Lermontov in Powell and Pressburger’s masterly film The Red Shoes. Just to confuse matters further, a splinter company also claiming to be the true inheritor of the Diaghilev legacy was briefly set up in Monaco in the late 1940s by Lifar, who proved to be a perfidious Nazi collaborator; it was soon subsumed into the Grand Ballet du Marquis de Cuevas, which survived into the 1960s with Nureyev, who defected in 1961, one of its last luminaries.

Uniting all these later iterations of the Ballets Russes was a concentration on new short-form work, almost always infused with some element of narrative or character. The now-revered repertory of 19th-century classics did not much interest them and Balanchine’s more abstract creations did not find favour either: ‘those are not ballets, but gymnastics’, Zoritch sniffed; ‘he repudiated the spiritual side of dance’, echoed Anatoly Joukowsky.

These dancers craved some dramatic composition to perform and this is where the astonishingly prolific and instinctively theatrical Massine scored, even if his abrasive and devious personality made him chilling at close quarters. Sadly, little of his work survives today, but the occasional revivals of his massive Choreartium, set to Brahms’s Fourth Symphony, reveal him to have been a choreographer of great expressive power and originality.

Without public subsidy during a time of economic depression, the companies trod a financial tightrope: at some level, all the dancers were in it for love rather than money. ‘Everyone laughed a lot’, Danilova recalled of whistle-stop tours of South America, where they slept in flea-ridden hotels. ‘Sometimes we even got paid’, Baronova remembered wryly of her years with de Basil. A heroic esprit de corps was the glue: despite all the infighting, everyone knew that the show would only go on by dint of collective effort.

Some of the figures quoted here are plainly more reliable than others. Franklin had no scores to settle and the sharpest of memories; Toumanova, on the other hand – a luscious beauty who went on to enjoy a minor career in film – emerges as a monstrous egotist and mythomaniac: she proclaimed quite bluntly that she ‘danced like nobody had ever danced before’.

The longevity of ballet dancers means that a couple of the contributors to this book are still with us, including Tatiana Leskova (now 95) and Nini Theilade (now 102), who recalls how Toumanova’s nightmare of a mother sneaked into a dressing room and cut a rival’s costume to shreds in order to prevent her going on stage.

Superb illustrations grace this book, which will be of enormous interest to balletomanes and considerable scholarly value to dance historians.

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