People of the Ballet Russes

Sergei Diaghilev, founder of the Ballets Russes

Choreographers, musicians, artists, and others formed a cohesive dance company that became the Ballet Russes. Russian ballet would never be the same.

The creation and success of the phenomenon known as the Ballet Russe could not have materialized if not for the efforts of some of Russia’s leading artistic minds during the early 20th century. While the Ballet Russe was originally the idea of one man, Sergei Diaghilev, influential individuals from all creative backgrounds united in a joint effort to make the Ballet Russe an powerful force in the Western world of dance.

People of the Ballet Russes – Sergei Diaghilev

Mastermind, impresario, art enthusiast, and co-founder of the World of Art movement, Sergei Diaghilev proposed the development of a ballet that was, at its center, wholly Russian. Employed by a nobleman in charge of St. Petersburg’s Imperial Theater, Diaghilev chose to stoke the fires of interest in ballet as opposed to its more expensive counterpart, opera. Contacting working artists who subsequently leapt on board the Ballet Russes vehicle, Diaghilev created a team of visionaries who worked together to bring to life the impresario’s vision of Russian ballet. This was the origin of the Ballet Russes.

People of the Ballet Russes – Alexander Benois

Alexander Benois was involved with the World of Art with Diaghilev and was an enthusiastic fan of ballet. Benois saw the ballet as a method to convey the magic behind folk tales to an international audience. A set designer, watercolorist, and law school graduate, Benois was also recognized for his illustrations of Pushkin’s The Bronze Horseman.

People of the Ballet Russes – Igor Stravinsky

A student of Rimsky-Korsakov, Igor Stravinsky was familiar with ballet as a fallen art form in pre-Ballet Russes Russia. However, it was the Ballet Russes that gave him his debut as an important composer with three famous ballets: The Firebird, Petrushka, and The Rite of Spring. Stravinsky broke from the tradition of his forebears by integrating music into his compositions that had been discovered by ethnographers who scoured the countryside studying folk music. His music exposed Westerners to sounds that they had never experienced, because these sounds were ethnographic artifacts of Russian peasant songs.

People of the Ballet Russes – Vaslav Nijinsky

Vaslav Nijinsky was an acclaimed ballet dancer and gifted choreographer. In a 1913 performance of The Rite of Spring, Nijinsky’s choreography so much from traditional ballet performances that the audience was in a frenzy. The movements were based on the Scythian-inspired paintings of Nikolai Roerich.

Other important people of the Ballet Russes include Anna Pavlova, a ballerina; Mikhail Fokine and George Balanchine, choreographers; Leon Bakst, artist and costume designer; and Dmitri Filosofov, Diaghilev’s cousin, among others. The Ballet Russes’ core of dedicated individuals would change as internal conflicts and global politics pulled dancers and artists in different directions. Some, like Diaghilev, would refrain from returning to Russia after the Revolution. Others, like Balanchine, would become instrumental in revolutionizing ballet in other countries.


  1. Figes, Orlando. Natasha’s Dance: A Cultural History of Russia New York: Picador, 2002.
  2. Valliere, Paul. Change and Tradition in Russian Civilization. Westland: Hayden-McNeil Publishing, Inc., 1995.