Stung by criticism from the Paris critics who claimed he produced well-danced ballets with exotic décors and costumes but with no comparable innovative music component, Diaghilev turned to the young composer Igor Stravinsky. The Firebird was Stravinsky’s first commission from the Ballets Russes and proved to be the catalyst that began Stravinsky’s ascent to international acclaim. Considered to be one of Michel Fokine’s best choreographies and one of Diaghilev’s most successful collaborative efforts, The Firebird was a triumph with Paris audiences. (The Firebird: music by Igor Stravinsky; libretto by Michel Fokine; sets and costumes by Aleksandr Golovin, with additional costumes by Léon Bakst; choreography by Michel Fokine; premiere on June 25, 1910, Théâtre National de l’Opéra, Paris.)
With its exotic and colorful décor and cast of harem wives and slaves, Schéhérazade was considered the epitome of Diaghilev’s Orientalism. It became one of the most popular ballets produced by the Ballets Russes and was performed more than five hundred times between 1910 and 1929. The original cast of Schéhérazade included Ida Rubinstein, Vaslav Nijinsky, Enrico Cecchetti, and Bronislava Nijinska. (Schéhérazade: music by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov; libretto by Léon Bakst, Alexandre Benois, and Michel Fokine, after the first tale of The Thousand and One Nights; sets and costumes by Léon Bakst; choreography by Michel Fokine; premiere on June 4, 1910, Théâtre National de l’Opéra, Paris.)
Russian scenery and costume designer, Léon Bakst was one of the principal members of Diaghilev’s original circle of artists, writers, and musicians. After the first performance of the Ballets Russes in 1909, Bakst continued to be one of Diaghilev’s primary collaborators. He created the costumes or scenery for nineteen Ballets Russes productions—more than any other artist—including Le Festin, Le Carnaval, Le Spectre de la Rose, L’Après-Midi d’un Faune, Jeux, and The Sleeping Princess.
Bronislava Nijinska was one of the most remarkable figures in the development of twentieth-century choreography. Nijinska’s work reflected a pioneering combination of classical ballet and choreographic innovation. She joined the Ballets Russes as a dancer in 1909 and was made a principal dancer the next year. Between 1921 and 1924, Nijinska was ballet mistress and chief choreographer for the Ballets Russes. During her tenure with the company she choreographed nine ballets and numerous operas for Diaghilev.
Vaslav Nijinsky joined the Ballets Russes as a dancer in 1909 and soon became an international star. Among the many artists associated with the Ballets Russes, only Nijinsky became a celebrity and a legend. As a dancer, he was admired for his outstanding ballet technique and dramatic onstage presence.
Vaslav Nijinsky and his sister Bronislava Nijinska (1891–1972) are two of the most significant dance celebrities of the twentieth century. Born into a family of dancers, both graduated from the Imperial Ballet School in Saint Petersburg and contributed to the success of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes as dancers and choreographers.
After completing his secondary school studies in Perm, Russia, Serge Diaghilev traveled throughout Europe and developed his interest in visual arts. With artists Léon Bakst (1866–1924) and Alexandre Benois (1870–1960), he cofounded the journal Mir iskusstva (The World of Art) in 1898. In 1906, Diaghilev arranged an exhibition of Russian art in Paris and organized a festival of Russian music at the Théâtre National de l’Opéra the next year. In 1908, Diaghilev returned to Paris to present six performances of Modest Mussorgsky’s opera Boris Godunov—the opera’s first performance outside Russia.