Diaghilev's Ballet Russes - Costume and Set Designers

by KathleenDuffy

Despite the dramatic impact of the dancers of the Ballet Russes , Diaghilev regarded his set and costume designers as the true stars of his innovative ballet company.

Sergei Diaghilev’s frequent trips to Europe from Russia exposed him to new artistic concepts. He, in turn, through operatic ventures and art exhibitions, brought Russian culture to the European scene.

These cultural exchanges, together with both European and Russian political upheavals, were creating a crucible of new ideas. The Russian artistic avant-garde struggled to shrug off the stifling conformity of traditionalism. Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, which never performed in Russia itself, would blend the elements of revolutionary music, dance and painting into an astonishing tour de force, altering the course of theatrical dance history.

Of the many artists involved at some point with Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, the most important included Leon Bakst, Alexandre Benois, Natalia Goncharova, Mikhail Larionov, and Pablo Picasso.

All these exceptional talents were deeply committed to finding modern ways of representing the theatrical experience, not merely as an unfolding narrative but an integrated tapestry of art, music and dance that celebrated the rhythm of life.

Set Designs by Bakst for Scherezade
Set Designs by Bakst for Scherezade

Leon Bakst is arguably the most well-known designer involved with the Ballets Russes.

In Paris in 1910 the costumes and sets designed for Scherezade by the highly regarded Russian easel painter caused a sensation. They were expensive, richly embellished, oriental-style silks in strong colours that had rarely been seen in the theatre before.

Bakst's revealing designs became the subject of much scandal, gossip and desire. As a result, the painter/designer became an overnight success. His costume designs were commissioned and worn by Parisian society women and prices for his artwork soared.

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Benois' Set Design for 'Petrouchka@
Benois' Set Design for 'Petrouchka@

A deeply cultured man, Alexandre Benois was able to draw on his experience as Scenic Director of the Marinsky Theatre, St Petersburg, in his work for Diaghilev. His immense store of artistic and historical knowledge mixing Russian folk style with elements of the French Rococo would make for ground-breaking design.

Benois’ greatest contribution to the Ballets Russes was arguably his set and costume designs for the ballet, Petrushka, with music by Stravinsky with whom he collaborated on the libretto. The colours employed were deep and vibrant, like paintings by Matisse. He also created outstanding sets for the ballets Giselle and Les Sylphides.

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Natalia Goncharova - Self Portrait
Natalia Goncharova - Self Portrait

The years of the First World War presented Diaghilev with opportunities for experimenting with various new art forms. Theatre closures meant more time to experiment with dance and create new concepts, integrating Primitivism, Cubism, Futurism and Constructivism into the heart of the ballet.

In 1915 Russian artists Natalia Goncharova and Mikhail Larionov worked with Diaghilev in Switzerland. Goncharova, an artist who reflected Russia’s dual cultural legacies, Asian and European, had in 1913 designed the ballet, The Golden Cockerel, for Diaghilev using her own abstract expressionist paintings as direct inspiration. However, Goncharova’s ambitious designs for the third act were never fully realised. Diaghilev’s caution was due to audience riots that had broken out in Paris on the opening night of his Firebird ballet.

Now Diaghilev asked them to design a number of contemporary ballets, one of which, Liturgie, was based on the Russian Orthodox service.

You can see many of the costumes designed by Goncharova for the Ballet Russes here.

Mickhail Larionov’s designs for Chout were the most ambitious to come out of the war years, but this work did not open until 1921. He collaborated with Goncharova on a number of experimental ballet creations which were not fully performed until after the war, including Les Noces and Russian Stories.

Books About Ballet Russes Design


Pablo Picasso (1881-1973)

In 1917 Diaghilev premiered a ballet called Parade which was a collaboration between Picasso, Satie and Cocteau. This ballet is often regarded as the beginning of Modernism.

With Picasso’s vibrant designs incorporating a circus theme, his cardboard costumes, the sounds of typewriters and machinery,the production seemed like the ideal entertainment for a war-weary public.

A Glimpse of Picasso's Set Designs for 'Parade'

Charmed at first by Picasso's cheerful stage curtain, they were apalled at the ten foot high cubist characters that appeared on stage. Diaghilev, always ten steps ahead of the critics, was forced to drop Parade.

The influence of the Ballets Russes is immeasurable. But it would probably be beyond the means of most companies to recreate such lavish performances today in their entirety.  But  in 2012 the English National Ballet at the London Coliseum hosted a wonderful season of  some of the most memorable ballets of  the Ballet Russes with carefully reproduced stage sets and costumes from the original designs.

This series of ballets confirmed to a modern audience that  the designers of the Ballets Russes created a spectacular new theatrical experience, the repercussions of which still influence the world of dance.


  • 'Picturing  Movement' by Sjeng Scheijen in Art Quarterly (Winter 2009)
  • Nijinsky by Richard Buckle (Phoenix, 1998)
  • 'Painting: Picasso's Theatre Period' Time Magazine      on line August 13, 1965.


Copyright: K Duffy

Updated: 05/16/2013, KathleenDuffy
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