In my meager vintage collection of ballet memorabilia,there is an original “Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo” playbill/catalog for the season 1938-1939. Léonide Massine was the artistic director for the company, which was run by S. Hurok at that time.
It’s interesting to see the important role ballet played in entertaining the people in that era. Ballet dancers seemed to be regarded the same way as glamorous movie stars and enjoyed the status of celebrities. In the top right corner of the collage, you can see a picture of Alexandra Danilova sitting next to Salvador Dali; in the picture below, you can see Dali and Henri Matisse in a rehearsal, where Massine was present as well. Some of the big head shots of ballerinas look like those black-and-white portraits of actresses in the golden Hollywood era, while others look a bit like pin-up portraits.
Besides photos of dancers, paintings of costumes and set designs, and synopses of the ballets being performed during the season, there are many advertisements throughout the catalog, selling perfumes, cosmetics, department stores, restaurants, hotels and even apartments. In addition, there are smaller ads of dance schools, books and magazines.
Through the synopses of the ballets, one can discern the high level of creativity and productivity at that period–and prior to that, during the time of the original Ballets Russes of Sergei Diaghilev.
To give you a glimpse of the diversity of the repertoire, here are some of the various numbers listed in the catalog:
- “L’Epreuve d’Amour, or the Chung-Yang and the Mandarin”, a ballet in one act designed by Andre Derain and Michel Fokine in a “chinoiserie” spirit, set against the “pseudo-Chinese” scores of Mozart (once lost but rediscovered in the 1930’s). For a Chinese, this theme is very intriguing and I would really love to see this one being performed today!
- “St. Francis” (American premiere), choreographic legend in one act and five scenes, music by Paul Hindemith, choreography by Léonide Massine.
- “Le Beau Danube,” music by Johann Strauss, story and choreography by Léonide Massine.
- “Les Elfes,” ballet in one act, music by Mendelssohn, choreography by Michel Fokine.
- “Coppelia ou La Fille Aux Yeud D’Email” (Coppelia or the Girl with the Enamel Eyes), ballet in three acts, music by Léo Delibes, choreography by Nicholas Sergueff after Ivanov and Mérante.
- “Icare,” choreographic legend in one act, choreography by Serge Lifar, percussion arrangement by J. E. Szyfer.
- “Don Juan,” choreographic tragi-comedy in three tableaux after G. Angiolini, music by Gluck, new version by Eric Allatini and Michel Fokine.
- “The Seventh Symphony,” music by Beethoven, theme and choreography by Léonide Massine.
Sometimes I’d dream of living in the early 1900’s so I could watch the dancers of Les Ballets Russes perform live, and partake in the excitement of the constant creation of new works for a wide-eyed audience that was not yet blasé.