The spirit of the Ballets russes — the epitome of interdisciplinarity and modernism — served as a guide for Gabriel Dussurget, the first director of the Festival d’Aix, as he forged the Festival’s artistic identity, favouring in particular the collaboration between painters-set designers and choreographers. In July 2023, an evening event devoted to Stravinsky’s three ballets The Firebird, Petrushka and The Rite of Spring (works initially commissioned by Diaghilev for his company, the Ballets russes) and illustrated by three world-premiere films (by Rebecca Zlotowski, Bertrand Mandico and Evangelia Kranioti) has been programmed four times — thus reconfirming the Festival d'Aix’s position in this rich artistic tradition.
THE FOUNDING OF THE FESTIVAL BASED ON THE BALLETS RUSSES DANCE COMPANY
At the beginning of the twentieth century, the Russian impresario Serge de Diaghilev created the Ballets russes dance company, which toured Europe, including Paris, between 1909 and 1929. The Rite of Spring, a ballet composed by Stravinsky for the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées (1913), is emblematic of this period of artistic fervour, and of a certain alliance proposed by the company between dance, sets and music.
Before he was even thinking about founding a festival in Aix, Gabriel Dussurget recounted the aesthetic shock he had discovered while attending performances in Paris during the interwar years:
The Ballets russes has revealed dance to me; but thanks to [the company] I have also fallen in love with painting.
Le Magicien d’Aix. Mémoires intimes, p. 48
The ideal of a total work of art conveyed by the Ballets russes would thus be reflected in the Festival’s operas.
STAGING AND CHOREOGRAPHING OPERA
The productions performed at the Festival d’Aix as of 1948 bore witness to this concept, which seeks harmony between the set, the costumes and the staging. Without actually initiating this practice of employing painters–set designers, Gabriel Dussurget transposed the practice to opera — a practice to which ballet directors and producers frequently resorted in the first half of the twentieth century. Having founded the Ballet du Théâtre des Champs-Élysées with Roland Petit and Boris Kochno in 1945, Gabriel Dussurget called upon many artists from this network to ask for their involvement.
By asking André Derain, Antoni Clavé, Georges Wakhévitch, Suzanne Lalique and André Masson to paint the canvases to be used as backdrops for all operas produced at the Festival, Gabriel Dussurget kept the spirit of the Ballets russes alive in Aix-en-Provence several decades after its heyday in Paris.
Gabriel Dussurget also called upon artists from the main discipline of the Ballets russes: i.e. dancers. Special attention was paid to the dance interludes of the various operas that graced the stage of the Archevêché: Monteverdi's L’Orfeo (1965) was choreographed by Clotilde Sakharoff (a figure of early-twentieth-century German expressionist dance), while Georges Skibine (the son of Boris Skibine, a dancer in Diaghilev's troupe) worked on the ballets in Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro (1962) and Idomeneo (1963).
Gabriel Dussurget thus applied the approach of the Ballets russes to the world of opera, thereby injecting that world with new life.
IGOR STRAVINSKY AT THE FESTIVAL
The works composed by Stravinsky for the Ballets russes have often been heard at various editions of the Festival, but mainly as concerts.
Petrushka was performed in 1973 by the Orchestre national de l’ORTF (conducted by Jean Martinon) in Le Tholonet; and The Firebird was performed in 1983 at the Pavillon Vendôme, under the baton of Jean-Claude Casadeus conducting the Orchestre national de Lille. The Rite of Spring entered the Festival’s repertoire in 1958 via a concert devoted to Stravinsky conducted by Hans Rosbaud at the head of the Sinfonieorchester des Südwestrundfunks, and has been performed numerous times since — including in 2016, conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen, as part of the Festival’s Stravinsky cycle (2015–2017).
Other Stravinsky works have also been performed as stage versions, such as his ‘Russian choreographic scenes for four pianos' entitled Les Noces, performed twice at the Festival, in 1962 and 1972.
The work was premiered in Paris in 1923 by the Ballets russes, with sets and costumes designed by Natalia Gontcharova (1881–1962), one of the main artists who worked under Diaghilev. The scenography, which remained almost untouched for the revival, transformed the Aix production into a direct tribute to the Ballets russes. Georges Skibine choreographed this production of Les Noces for two dancers (Pierre Lacotte and Hélène Sadovska), thus demonstrating the high degree of aesthetic continuity between the events, which occurred more than thirty years apart. The production featured vocalists Mady Mesplé, Christiane Gayraud, Michel Hamel and André Vessières.
Eventually, but only much later, Stravinsky’s operas — and other related works — found their way onto the Festival’s stages, with The Soldier's Tale (1965), followed by The Rake's Progress (1992 and 2017), The Nightingale (2010), Oedipus Rex (2016).
Therefore, the Ballets Russes evening in 2023 represents a return to the very first performances of Stravinsky’s works at the Festival. The talented and masterful Orchestre de Paris, conducted by Klaus Mäkelä, will achieve the remarkable feat of performing the three ballets in a single concert.
INNOVATIVE PROJECTS FOR THE STAGE
Many projects from the Festival’s subsequent periods have followed this tradition of creating a dialogue between the arts, and of especially focusing on musical and theatrical research, although they have not claimed to be ‘Ballets russes’. In 1961, Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda, madrigals by Monteverdi, were staged and choreographed by Janine Charrat.
In more recent years, other a priori non-theatrical works have come to life at the Festival’s different venues: e.g. Winterreise and Trauernacht (2014); and even more recently, under the direction of Pierre Audi, Requiem (2019) and Resurrection (2022). By choosing to broaden the traditional limits of opera, the Festival d’Aix still questions the porosity between artistic disciplines and advocates for new theatrical forms of total works of art.
The Ballets russes evening, programmed at the Stadium de Vitrolles on 8, 10, 11 and 12 July, pays tribute to the modern spirit of the Ballets russes a century after their initial success in Paris, and to the course that the Festival d’Aix has always pursued: the interdisciplinarity that lies at the very heart of opera.
Anne Le Berre
English translation: Donald Stoudt
FURTHER INFORMATION ABOUT BALLETS RUSSES
Ballets russes is supported by The Art Mentor Foundation Lucerne
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