The Ballets Russes performed under the directorship of Sergei Diaghilev in 1909-29 and travelled across Europe. Although many of the dancers came from the Imperial Ballet of St Petersburg, Paris became their favourite home since, just before the Russian Revolution and after, Paris absorbed a large Russian ex-pat community. In time, the younger dancers were trained in Paris, not in St Petersburg. The company featured great choreographers like Michel Fokine, Leonide Massine, Vaslav Nijinsky and George Balanchine.
Why were Ballets Russes designs so fascinating? At least two possibilities were offered. Firstly an intense fascination for Orientalism was the largest influence on stylistic change just before WW1. As eurbanista blog showed in Fashion History: From the Belle Epoque through WW1, the Ballets Russes performed oriental tales, dressed in brightly coloured costumes of exotic Eastern-style design. The most sensuous Orientalist of all, Bakst excited ballet lovers with the exotic costumes and sets he designed for Scheherazade, complete with slaves and harem girls doing unspeakable things. The performances were a whirlwind, so viewers had to watch the movements quickly. Europe was shocked and they loved every minute of it.
Secondly, as The Textile Blog: The Ballets Russes explained, many Europeans saw the Russian Empire as a backward, cultural desert, full of citizens in colourful peasant costumes. The Ballets Russes played up to those images and magnified them a hundred fold. The set designs, costumes, music and dancers were all about vibrant colour. Europe itself was going through a long pastel phase, so they were entranced with Ballets Russes’ strong colour palette, vibrant patterns & sexy appearance. Leon Bakst’s palette of strong oranges, pinks and ultramarines perfectly suited the bold, Russian elements of Igor Stravinsky's music and Michel Fokine's choreography.
Yet French designers could also excite passion for the Russians. The Starry-Eyed Milliner was besotted with the most beautiful exhibit objects, especially costumes designed by French artist Henri Matisse for Le Rossignol. His hand-painted silks and metallic embroidery seemed to embodied Orientalism and Russian feeling very well. And the company specifically recruited other French and Spanish artists, including Braque, Picasso, Chanel, Matisse, Derain, Dalí, Utrillo, Rouault, Laurencin and Gris. A designer had to be gorgeous, not necessarily Russian. Miss Peelpants swooned over these old costumes.
Courtier in Le Rossignol, designed by Henri Matisse, 1920
So before WW1, the Ballets Russes started to open minds to richly coloured and vibrant textiles and costume design. And years later they still do. In an American exhibition in the Wadsworth Atheneum in 2006, designs for Petrushka, Le Spectre de la rose, L'Après-midi d'un faune, and Les Noces were on view. Actual costumes from Diaghilev productions were displayed, including Schéhérazade, Le Dieu Bleu, Le Sacre du Printemps, Le Chant du Rossignol, The Sleeping Princess, and Le Bal. In this Australian display, visitors can see Le Coq d’or, Petrouchka, Nutcracker and Firebird.
Readers might like to see a Russian theatre art collection that was shown in St Petersburg in 2008. Called Russian Theatre and Decorative Art of the 1880s to the 1930s, it was a truly monumental project that displayed 800 watercolours, drawings, theatre posters, engravings and gouaches by 140 artists. The most important works included Lev Bakst’s costume designs for his ballets.