The Original Ballet Russe (originally named Les Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo) was a ballet company established in 1931 by René Blum and Colonel Wassily de Basil as a successor to the Ballets Russes, founded in 1909 by Sergei Diaghilev. The company assumed the new name Original Ballet Russe after a split between de Basil and Blum. De Basil led the renamed company, while Blum and others founded a new company under the name Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. It was a large scale professional ballet company which toured extensively in Europe, Australia and New Zealand, the United States, and Central and South America. It closed down operations in 1947.
Dissolution of Ballets Russes and formation of Ballets Russe de Monte Carlo
The company's name is derived from the Ballets Russes of impresario Sergei Diaghilev. The last season of Diaghilev's Ballets Russes was 1929, during which it toured and performed in both London, England, and Paris, France. During the final season, it produced the new ballets The Prodigal Son and Le Bal. The company performed for the final time in London at the Covent Garden Theatre on July 26, 1929. Diaghliev died of complications from diabetes a month later, on August 19, 1929.
In 1931, with the help from financier Serge Denham, René Blum and Colonel Wassily de Basil formed the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. One of the new company's board members was American businessman Jim Thompson.
Massine and Balanchine join
The company hired Leonide Massine and George Balanchine as choreographers. The majority of the works performed had previously been staged by Diaghilev's company, but other new works were commissioned, such as Jeux d'enfants, with music of George Bizet and sets by Joan Miró. Featured dancers included David Lichine (who soon began choreographing ballets for the company), and the "Baby Ballerinas" Irina Baronova, Tamara Toumanova, and Tatiana Riabouchinska. The company conductor was Efrem Kurtz, who stayed with the company until 1942, touring with them extensively. The company librettist was Boris Kochno. The ballet gave its first performance in Monte Carlo in 1932.
Without consulting Blum, Col. de Basil dropped Balanchine after one year — ostensibly because he thought that audiences preferred the works choreographed by Massine. Librettist Kochno was also let go, while dancer Toumanova left the company when Balanchine was fired.
Col. de Basil and Blum had an acrimonious relationship, which ended in 1934 with Blum breaking up the partnership. Col. de Basil renamed his company Ballets Russes de Colonel W. de Basil.
The company struggled financially in the wake of the Great Depression, and was on the verge of bankruptcy. Sol Hurok, an American, took over the management of the Ballet Russe and brought the company to the United States.
The company splits
In 1937, Massine left, joining with Blum to form their own company, recruiting several dancers from their previous group. However, the ballets which Massine had choreographed while under contract with Col. de Basil were owned by his company. Massine sued de Basil in London to regain the intellectual property rights to his own works. He also sued to claim the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo name. The jury decided that de Basil owned Massine's ballets created between 1932 and 1937, but not those created before 1932. It also ruled that both successor companies could use the name Ballet Russe — but only Massine and Blum's company could be called Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. Col. de Basil renamed his company again, calling it the Covent Garden Russian Ballet and bringing on Michel Fokine as resident choreographer.
Sol Hurok ended up managing Blum and Massine's company as well. The Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and the Original Ballet Russe often performed near each other. Under its new name, the company's first season, starting May 1938, was at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. Massine's Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo had a season at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane a few hundred yards away, and this season was known as the "London Ballet Wars".
After London, Hurok booked both of the companies to perform in New York (with de Basil's company playing the Hollywood Theatre), for a total of fifteen weeks, making it the longest ballet season of New York. Along with management, the two companies also shared dancers. Hurok continued to have the companies perform near each other; he hoped to reunite the companies, but ultimately was unsuccessful. The company then spent some weeks on a "whistle stop" tour of America, sleeping on the special train hired to transport them.
Finally, in 1939, Col. de Basil gave the company its final name, the Original Ballet Russe.
The company toured extensively throughout Europe and Australia, visiting Australia in 1936–37, 1938–39, and 1939–40. During his visit to Australia, de Basil commissioned work from Australians, especially from designers, who included Sidney Nolan and Kathleen and Florence Martin. He also instigated a design competition for an original Australian ballet, which was won by Donald Friend with designs for a ballet based on a fictitious event in the life of Ned Kelly.. A number of dancers stayed in Australia, including Kira Bousloff, who went on to found the West Australian Ballet.
During World War II
Soon after they returned to the United States in 1939, World War II broke out. The company suffered financially, but was able to book an entire cast of dancers on tour to Havana, Cuba, in 1941. Alberto Alonso and his first wife Patricia Denise danced all the principal roles on the Havana tour. The company could not pay the dancers adequately, and some took second jobs in nightclubs to survive. Principal dancers were forced to take roles that were not solos.
While in Cuba, David Lichine and Tatiana Leskova appeared in Conga Pantera at the Cabaret Tropicana. Other dancers included Tamara Grigorieva, Nina Verchinina, Anna Leontieva, Genevieve Moulin, Tatiana Leskova, Anna Volkova, Your Lazowski, Dimitri Romanoff, Roman Jasinski, Paul Petroff, and Oleg Tupin.
In 1947, the Original Ballet Russe gave its last season in London before disbanding. The company was revived in 1951 by family members G. Kirsta and the Grigrievs, after Col. de Basil died. The company proved to be financially unstable, and folded while on tour in Europe in 1952.
In popular culture
A feature documentary about the company, featuring interviews with many of the dancers, was released in 2005, with the title Ballets Russes.
A Thousand Encores: Ballets Russes in Australia was a documentary screened on ABC Television on November 3, 2009, about the company's three visits to Australia between 1936 and 1940. The documentary claims that there is more footage of the Ballet Russes in Australia than anywhere else in the world. Some film was in colour, a rarity for that time.
- David Lichine's Nocturne (set to the music of Rameau)
- Leonide Massine's Les Présages (set to Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 5)
- 14 September — Michel Fokine's Carnaval (set to Robert Schumann's Carnaval, Op. 9), London, UK
- 24 October premiere — Leonide Massine's Choreartium (set to Brahm's Fourth Symphony), Alhambra Theatre, London, UK
- Michel Fokine's Paganini
- 1940 Australia tour
- 1941 Havana tour
- Michael Fokine's Les Sylphides, Le Coq d'Or, Paganini, Prince Igor, Carnaval, Petrushka, Sheherazade, and Le Spectre de la Rose
- Leonide Massine's Symphonie Fantastique, Les Présages, and Le Beau Danube
- Marius Petipa's Le Marriage d’Aurore
- George Balanchine's Cotillon and Balustrade
- Nijinska's Las Cent Baisters