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Western classical dance enters the modernity of the 20th century: The Ballets russes and the Ballets suédois


Yvette Chauviré

Fokine, Michel (France)


Le spectre de la rose

Fokine, Michel (France)


L'après-midi d'un faune

Nijinsky, Vaslav (France)


Le Sacre du Printemps

Nijinsky, Vaslav (France)



Massine, Léonide (France)

Maison de la danse 2008 - Director : Picq, Charles

Choreographer(s) : Massine, Léonide (Russian Federation)

Video producer : Maison de la Danse

Integral video available at Maison de la danse de Lyon

Take a look at this work in the video library


Börlin, Jean (France)

Western classical dance enters the modernity of the 20th century: The Ballets russes and the Ballets suédois

Maison de la danse 2019

Author : Céline Roux

en fr


In 1909, in Russia, the Ballets russes came into being under the initiative of Serge Diaghilev, a producer with a dream: to export Russian culture worldwide and to create an art developing a close link between music, decorative design and dance. The ballet themes were extremely diverse. Also, he composed a variety of programmes for dance evenings where tradition rubbed shoulders with innovations. While working temporarily between London, Paris, Monte Carlo and Rome, the troupe never ceased to perform throughout the world. From 1909 to 1929, surrounded by exceptional artists, adoring and searching out avant-garde projects, Diaghilev brought classical dance into a new era: that of the 20th century!


The Dying Swan - Mikhail Fokine

In 1907, Mikhail Fokine choreographed The Dying Swan on the 13th movement of Camille Saint-Saëns’s Carnaval des animaux (Carnival of the Animals, in English). This ballet, lasting only a few minutes, was written for an exceptional interpreter: Anna Pavlova. She embodies the elegance and fear of the injured bird who ceaselessly seeks to fly away only to collapse to the ground again ad infinitum. In the extract presented here, Yvette Chauviré transmits her interpretation of this dance to Dominique Khalfouni. 

The danced vocabulary is limited. The repetition acts as a composition pattern with the menées on pointes and the rippling arm movements. Fokine left ample freedom to Anna Pavlova who developed the interpretation of the role. The falls to the ground and the breaks in La Pavlova’s back and nape are missing from Yvette Chauviré’s interpretation, who preferred the multiple inclinations and extensions of the bust, together with a few deep pliés on pointes to embody the subject. Thus the modern ballerina was born! 

Le Spectre de la Rose - Mikhail Fokine

Created in 1911, Le Spectre de la Rose (The Spirit of the Rose, in English) is inspired by one of Théophile Gauthier’s poems. Favouring an expressive art, Mikhail Fokine invents a body language, gestures in connection with each subject treated. Here the theme is simple and romantic: back from her first ball, a young girl falls asleep with a rose in her hand which, in her dream, turns into a person. However, the challenge was considerable for Fokine: how to find the right gestures for this man-flower! 

In this extract, which is Pierre Lacotte’s version for the Opéra de Paris, Mathias Heymann as a man-flower explains the gestural features of the role. The masculine character is developed in the lower body with astonishing technical feats: big leaps, leg work and batterie steps, interminable spins and large space occupancy. The evanescence of the rose is embodied in the bust with an airy upper body, conducive to multiple delicate rippling arm movements. The spirit was born from this choreographic alchemy that a young dancer was then to embody to perfection: Vaslav Nijinsky!


L’Après-midi d’un Faune - Vaslav Nijinsky

In 1912, Diaghilev entrusted the dancer Vaslav Nijinsky and the set designer Léon Bakst with a new creation based on a poem by Mallarmé and a composition by Debussy. Just like Fokine, Nijinsky conducted research to find gestures responding to this ancient and mythological theme. In particular, he drew inspiration from his visits to the Louvre and from the study of the attitudes of characters painted on vases from Greek Antiquity.

He thus invented a dance where bodies are twisted, a position that is not natural and is far removed from the alignment of classical dance. This is very clear in the bodies of Nicolas le Riche and Emilie Cosette, who play the faun and the senior nymph in this revival by the Opéra de Paris. Moreover, he choreographed in corridors, from stage right to stage left, depicting a living bas-relief. No big leaps but barefooted walks. No real link between musical rhythm and dance: Nijinsky relies on the melodic line as though he were deploying a timeless ancient landscape… 

The audience was disappointed and, above all, shocked by the ugliness, animality and eroticism of the faun. The “Nijinsky scandal” was born!

The Rite of Spring  - Vaslav Nijinsky

1913: a pagan rite is staged. That of a primitive Russian tribe sacrificing a virgin to the god of nature in order to ensure the rebirth of spring. Music and dance have a sole aim: show the primitive nature of human kind and the power of Earth!

In this new 2009 version, Millicent Hodson, in keeping with Nijinsky and for the Ballets de Monte Carlo company, takes pains to allow for Nijinsky’s choices in addressing the theme: feet turned inwards, anchoring in the ground, stiff limbs, bent back, sternum leaning forward, and so on.

The last dance. The dance of the Chosen One. The dance of the young girl sacrificed, enclosed in the ritual circle of the community, is without concession. Both the audience and the dancers were outraged: the audience as they did not understand what they were seeing and hearing, the dancers as they saw there a negation of their skills!

Parade - Léonide Massine

Revived for Europa danse in 2008, Parade is the work of 4 geniuses of their time: Jean Cocteau, Léonide Massine, Pablo Picasso and Erik Satie! Created during the First World War, this ballet fulfilled Diaghilev’s desire to change his aesthetic universe. Jean Cocteau offered him a realistic universe: that of a fairground theatre with acrobats, a Chinese magician, a little American girl, managers, and even a horse! Massine developed a realistic gestural art in keeping with Picasso’s proposals. Satie was not to be outdone and used for the musical creation a certain number of noises emanating from lottery wheels, tap dance shoes, typewriters, not to mention rattles and other gun shots. Everything then appeared almost surreal, and every dancer was freed or constrained, according to their costume, for their own movements. The managers had very few gestural possibilities…. Two dancers made up the horse… Realism rubbed shoulders with a cubist spirit! 

Relâche - Jean Börlin

2014: 90 years after it was first created, Petter Jacobsson and Thomas Caley revived Relâche for the Ballet de Lorraine, thereby paying tribute to the work of the Ballets suédois and their choreographer Jean Börlin. Presented as an “instantaneous ballet in 2 acts and 1 cinematographic intermission”, it is above all the work of the visual artist Francis Picabia. The settings of the two acts play on the movements of light.  

In 1924, to make sure that the spectators remained seated during the intermission, René Clair’s film Entr'acte was shown. A puzzle of grotesque scenes: Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp playing chess, superimpositions of images, a funeral, a female dancer filmed from below, a bearded woman disguised as Satie…

For the dance, the choreographer Jean Börlin plays on a variety of movement registers: everyday gestures, danced patterns of cabarets, ballroom dances and classical dance. Everything appears disjointed, outlandish, in fact rather a Dada spirit!

More information


Holder of a doctorate in the history of art, Céline Roux is an independent researcher. Specialising in the performative practices of the French choreographic field, she is in particular the author of Danse(s) performative(s) (L’Harmattan, 2007) and Pratiques performatives / Corps critiques # 1-10 (2007-2016) (L’Harmattan, 2016). A lecturer, trainer and teacher, she works in a variety of higher education contexts as well as coaching dancers. She also collaborates in the artistic projects of contemporary dancers-choreographers, whether for artist archives, the production of critical texts and editorial projects or dramaturgic coaching. She has contributed to a number of digital projects for the sharing of choreographic culture such as Alongside her activities in/for/around choreographic art, she has practiced hatha yoga in France and in India for several years.


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Céline Roux

Maison de la Danse


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