Written by Maureen Maryanski, Reference Librarian for the Printed Collections.
Last week the New-York Historical Society proudly opened its new installation of Pablo Picasso’s “Le Tricorne” drop curtain, formerly located in the hallway of the Four Seasons Restaurant until its removal and conservation late last year. This impressive 20 foot square curtain was commissioned as part of the set design for the Spanish-themed ballet The Three-Cornered Hat (El sombrero de tres picos or Le Tricorne), choreographed by Leonide Massine (1896-1979) to music by Manuel de Falla (1876-1946) for the renowned Ballets Russes.
Founded in 1909 by impresario and art patron Sergei Diaghilev (1872-1929), the Ballets Russes is recognized as the most influential and distinguished ballet company of the twentieth-century. A bastion of modernism in art, Diaghliev sought with his Ballets Russes to innovate and create the new, while also bringing Russian culture and folklore to Europe. As he wrote in 1909, “I need a ballet and a Russian one—the first Russian ballet, since there is no such thing” (Homans 301).
The Ballets Russes revolutionized dance by returning to prominence the danseur (male dancer), as well as cultivating young Russian dance and choreographic talent from such luminaries as Michel Fokine (1880-1942), Anna Pavlova (1881-1931), Vaslav Nijinsky (1890-1950), and George Balanchine (1904-1983). The fostering of “artistic unity and harmonious cooperation” was also a tenet of the Ballets Russes, as collaborations between choreographers, composers, and artists created theatrical masterpieces and experiments, many of which have been immortalized in contemporary accounts, photographs, and modern re-stagings and reconstructions. As The New York Times stated on January 16, 1916, “The arts of painting and decoration and of music go hand in hand with choreographic art.”
Three years before Picasso designed the costumes and sets for The Three-Cornered Hat, the Ballets Russes embarked on their only American tours in 1916 and 1917, premiering at the Century Theatre in New York on January 17, 1916. In the N-YHS Library, we are fortunate to have a copy of the souvenir program published by the Metropolitan Ballet Company . This lavish publication provides an itinerary of the tour, synopses of the ballets performed, beautifully reproduced set and costume designs, and photographs of dancers in character. Below are a selection of these images, with brief annotations about the ballets, dancers, choreographers, composers, and artists.
Russian artist Leon Bakst (1866-1924) was a close collaborator of the Ballets Russes, designing and painting scenery and costumes for several ballets, but as this program states, Scheherazade has long been considered his masterpiece. The ballet recounts the prelude to the Arabian Nights in which a sultan tests the fidelity of his favorite wife and all ends in “a mass slaughter of lovers and faithless wives” (Homans 302).
One of Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) and Michel Fokine’s collaborations, Petrouchka is set at a Russian fairground and features a love triangle between life size puppets: a ballerina, a Moor, and the forlorn, grotesque Petrouchka. Vaslav Nijinsky’s portrayal of the title character was acclaimed for its brilliance and heart-wrenching soulfulness. Enrico Cecchetti, the Italian ballet master and founder of the Cecchetti method, portrayed the “old necromancer,” manager of the puppet show. In 1976 a performance was staged by Bronislava Nijinska for Rudolf Nureyev (1938-1993) and the Paris Opera Ballet.
Nijinsky’s experimental first ballet for the Ballets Russes, L’Apres-midi d’un faune (The Afternoon of a Faun) tells the story of a faun aroused by the sight of a nymph undressing by a stream. Featuring angular, two-dimensional movement, Nijinsky’s attempt to create a new language movement around the ballet’s theme gives the impression that the dancers are flat figures taken from Ancient Greek pottery. L’Apres-midi d’un faune gained notoriety for the scandalous erotic act at the conclusion of this 11-minute ballet. In 1981, Nureyev performed the work with the Joffrey Ballet.
Jennifer Homans. Apollo’s Angels: A History of Ballet. New York: Random House, 2010.