At a time when ballet was reduced to pretty spectacle, and modern dancers were striking out on their own to create a new dance language, a few talented innovators knew ballet had the potential to rejuvenate. Premiering in 1909, the Ballets Russes gave ballet a bigger shake-up than anyone could have anticipated.

Nijinsky as the Faun

Where ballet had waned in popularity in Europe, Russia had incubated it, nurturing talented dancers and choreographers who by the 1900’s wanted to convey real emotion and meaning within the framework of classical ballet. Diaghilev, for whom the term ‘impressario’ was invented, gave them the forum they needed by combining some of the finest Russian dancers of the day like Anna Pavlova and Vaslav Nijinsky with innovative choreographers like Mikhail Fokine, and transplanting them to Europe, free of the strict Imperial atmosphere. Working with and modern composers like Stravinsky, and modern artists like Leon Bakst for set and costume design, every aspect of the Ballets Russes challenged the preconceived ideals of classical dance.

These ballets were expressive, and rejected both the standard 3-act structure and use of the corps-de-ballet. Petroushka, for example, is divided into 4 parts, The Firebird into two, and both ballets are about fifty minutes long. For all their innovation, however, it was the dancers who brought life to the ballets, dancing with superb technical ability but also expressive power. Anna Pavlova danced with passion and fire. Vaslav Nijinsky seemed to hover in the air as he leaped, and portrayed characters with true emotional depth. European audiences had seen nothing like them before.

Before long, Nijinsky would turn his talents to choreography. For his two more famous ballets, L’Apres Midi d’une Faune (Afternoon of a Faun) and Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring) he found inspiration in ancient Greek art. The simplicity and rigidity of the figures influenced his movements which today still look unusual – side-on with weighted postures and asymmetrical gestures. The classically-trained dancers found it difficult. The lightness of ballet was replaced with a barefoot heaviness and they struggled to keep their feet parallel. The short ballets took hundreds of rehearsals to get right. Difficult music required the dancers to count aloud throughout; Nijinsky even resorted to stamping his feet offstage to keep the dancers in time with each other.

For Nijinsky emotion was the originator of movement, not aesthetic – another departure from traditional ballet. Nijinsky he wanted to create “for the ordinary viewer a jolting and emotional experience”. But it was so new, so shocking, that the audience revolted.

L’Apres Midi d’une Faune was first performed in the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris on May 29, 1912. The unballet-ness of the ballet was difficult enough for the audience to take, but the sexual references led to outrage. The plot is simple: a faune plays with seven maidens. When they leave one drops her scarf, which he picks up, spreads on the ground and lowers himself onto, a movement many considered obscene and mimicking of masturbation. Newspaper Le Figaro condemned the ‘vile movements of erotic bestiality’.

Sacre created an even bigger scandal. It lasted only six performances, premiering at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées on 29 May 1913. Stravinsky’s discordant experimental music was unlike anything audiences were accustomed to. The plot, an unflinching portrayal of sacrifice in pagan Russia, was unpalatable. Everything about the choreography was raw, harsh. The movement was reduced, stripped bare of flourish; more like gesture springing from emotion. It contained repetitive motions of walking and stamping in order to evoke the primitive setting and reflect the score.

Many took the ballet to be a mockery of art. Its opening night in Paris caused a near-riot, which began even before the curtain was raised, during the opening music. The audience jeered and whistled and catcalled so loudly they drowned out the orchestra. Fights broke out. The orchestra played on despite having things thrown at them. The dancers danced on despite the sounds of both the orchestra and Nijinsky off-stage keeping time being drowned out by the rioting audience. The police were called in. Some critics called it “coarse” and “brutal” while others were intrigued.

To Diaghilev scandal meant tickets. Indeed the second night sold out. Scandal gave his company greater publicity and in turn greater profits. But while the Ballets Russes enjoyed continued success Sacre did not and they never performed it again. Over the years it has been revived and re-choreographed many times all over the world. Despite the initial revulsion, Stravinsky’s score, and the themes of ritual and sacrifice have kept drawing choreographers and audiences back.

Nijinsky was dismissed from the company in 1913. Though he choreographed again his work never attained quite the same infamy. The Ballets Russes had made their mark on Europe. Movement had become released from the restrictions of Classical ballet and in turn become more expressive. Ballet had returned as a relevant art form in Europe.