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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Bolshoi Theater Celebrates Genius of Diaghilev

Bolshoi TheaterBallet troupes from Paris, Perm and St. Petersburg will take part in the gala.
One hundred years ago this month, impresario Sergei Diaghilev presided in Paris over the first of his so-called Russian Seasons, the results of which were to cause one of the most profound revolutions ever in the world of dance. Ballet companies everywhere are marking the anniversary this year with festivals and special performances, and Saturday the Bolshoi Theater pays its homage to Diaghilev and the Russian Seasons with a gala program of four Diaghilev-commissioned ballets, performed both by its own dancers and by guest companies from Paris and Perm.

The Russian Seasons were originally designed to bring Russian culture to the attention of the outside world. And that they did. But Diaghilev's principal achievement lay elsewhere. As ballet developed through the 19th century, it was dominated by choreography, with music and stage design mostly playing a subsidiary role. Diaghilev believed in giving equal prominence to all three art forms, engaging such formidable talent as that of Igor Stravinsky, Sergei Prokofiev, Richard Strauss and Francis Poulenc to compose ballet scores and of Lev Bakst, Nataliya Goncharova, Henri Matisse and Georges Braque to design sets and costumes. For choreography, he turned above all to three young natives of Russia, Mikhail Fokin, Leonid Massine and George Balanchine, who eventually came to be ranked among the greatest innovators of 20th-century ballet. And to execute the results he engaged an outstanding company of dancers, one that included such now-legendary figures as Anna Pavlova, Tamara Karsavina and Vatslav Nijinsky.

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Sergei Diaghilev

The Parisian guests at tomorrow night's gala are dancers from the Paris Opera Ballet, in a performance of their own company's production of Balanchine's "Apollo," a ballet originally created for Diaghilev in 1928. Set to a score by Stravinsky, it remains one of the choreographer's most compelling works. Balanchine eventually revised "Apollo" for his own New York City Ballet, and it is presumably in that form that tomorrow night's audience will see it. Among the cast will be two of the Paris Opera Ballet's very brightest stars, Marie-Agnes Gillot and Herve Moreau.

Diaghilev was a native of Perm, born there in 1872, and Perm's Theater of Opera and Ballet honors him with a biannual festival in his name, the most recent of which closed last weekend. As its contribution to the Bolshoi's gala, the theater is bringing two works choreographed by Fokin -- the Polovtsian Dances from Alexander Borodin's opera "Prince Igor," which received a sensational reception at its premiere on opening night of the first Russian Seasons in May 1909, and "Le Spectre de la Rose," created as a showcase for Nijinsky and first performed in 1911 in Monte Carlo.

The Perm company is one of Russia's two or three most important regional ballet troupes. Its high standards of performance can no doubt be traced back in part to the influence of the dancers of St. Petersburg's Kirov (now Mariinsky) Theater, for whom Perm served as a refuge following the German invasion of Russia in 1941.

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Diaghilev used legendary dancers.

The Mariinsky was Diaghilev's principal source of Russian dancers. But one of his most important acquisitions came from the Bolshoi. At a performance there in 1914, Diaghilev spotted a strikingly handsome 18-year-old dancer named Leonid Myasin and immediately offered him a job. Myasin accepted and within little over a year was not only dancing major roles in Diaghilev's company but also choreographing the first of more than 100 ballets he was to create in a career that lasted nearly half a century. At Diaghilev's suggestion, Myasin changed his surname to Massine.

Quite fittingly, therefore, the Bolshoi's contribution to tomorrow night's gala is a Massine ballet, "Le Tricorne," which made its debut with Diaghilev's company at London's Alhambra Theater in July 1919. A one-act farce set in Spain, "Le Tricorne" boasts a hauntingly beautiful score by Spanish composer Manuel de Falla and decor and costumes designed by no less an artist than Pablo Picasso. The Bolshoi's production, which premiered in 2005 as part of an all-Massine triple bill, was staged in Massine's original choreography by his son, Lorca Massine, and precisely reproduces Picasso's original designs.

While the comedy in "Le Tricorne" tends to be a bit thin, it nevertheless offers much to enjoy by way of dance and music. The Bolshoi is taking the work out of mothballs for tomorrow's gala, following an absence from its stage of more than two years. Whatever the result of that may be, the performance will almost certainly be enlivened by the presence of the theater's most versatile ballerina, Maria Aleksandrova, who dances the Miller's Wife, a role to which she brought very special charm and brilliance at the production's premiere four years ago.

"Diaghilev Gala" plays Sat., May 30 at 7 p.m. at the New Stage of the Bolshoi Theater, located at 1 Teatralnaya Ploshchad. Metro Teatralnaya. Tel. 250-7317.