First film of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes discovered

Sergei Diaghilev, photograph by Jan de Sterlecki, 1916Sergei Diaghilev, founder and director of the famous Ballets Russes dance company that revolutionized the genre in the second decade of the 20th century, was a notorious control freak. He refused to allow any of his company’s performances to be filmed, so the only moving picture footage we have of Ballets Russes dancers is of individual stars like Vaslav Nijinsky and Anna Pavlova.

Or so we thought. Thanks to a couple of exceptional ballet nerds, Susan Eastwood of the London Ballet Circle and Jane Pritchard, curator of the Victoria & Albert’s Ballets Russes exhibit, a half a minute of Diaghilev’s company dancing in 1928 has been brought to light.

From Jane Pritchard’s blog entry announcing the find:

On Monday evening I did a ‘behind the scenes at the Diaghilev exhibition’ for the London Ballet Circle as a result of which one of their members, Susan Eastwood, contacted me first thing this morning and said she thought she have discovered some film of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes on the internet would I take a look. And yes, I think she is right. It is a curious newsreel with a very garbled catalogue entry. The Pathé catalogue states that the location of event unknown and describes the stage in a park surrounded by trees in an unidentified town in a valley. The dance is described as ‘One female dancer (representing Narcissus?) w/chorus of female dancers; ballerinas who pose while the male soloist dances.’ Well there is absolutely no doubt that this is Montreux in Switzerland during their annual June festival, Fêtes des Narcisses.

Susan spotted this curiosity and did some checking finding her clue in my ‘Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes – An itinerary Part II’ Dance Research 27.2 Winter 2009 which includes an photograph of Les Sylphides being performed at the 1923 Fêtes des Narcisses at Montreux in Switzerland. The title of the clip on the Pathé website of Festival of Narcissus encouraged Susan to contact me. Naturally I called the film up as we spoke and I think we now have to say there is a tiny fragment of film of the actual Ballets Russes.

Ms. Pritchard thinks the footage was filmed from a distance and without Diaghilev’s knowledge at Montreux’s 1928 Festival of Narcissus. The topiary arch you see in the film marks it as the 1928 event. Despite the Pathé catalog description of the lead dancer as female, Pritchard thinks that the lead is in fact a man, Principal Artist Serge Lifar, wearing a wig.

To see the only known footage of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, click here.