When the Ballet Russes Came to England

by KathleenDuffy

Sergei Diaghilev’s great Russian ballet company, Ballet Russes, performed in England more often than in any other European country. They always caused a complete sensation!

The 1914 world war left the Ballet Russes in dire financial straits (nothing new!) . They flitted between Europe and America trying to earn a decent living. Stranded and penniless in neutral Spain in 1918, Sir Oswald Stoll, who owned the London Coliseum (then a music hall) offered Diaghilev a season of variety.

Diaghilev had misgivings, but was forced to accept.

It was, however, a shrewd move. The Ballet Russes’ performances in England, which included the great dancer, Vaslav Nijinsky, were received with enthusiasm and warmth by audiences everywhere.

Ballet Russes' First Season

Their first season in London included the Coronation Gala for King George V at Covent Garden Opera House. Unusually, the auditorium lights remained on and the glittering jewellery of the imperial audience proved a distraction for the dancers. In particular, the dancers were dazzled by the beard of a Rajah, which was interwoven with pearls and emeralds.

The repertoire for this first season included Cleopatra, Szherazade, Carnivale, and Spectre of the Rose, which was an audience favourite. Such a new riot of colour and movement, not to mention sheer exoticism of the Russian dancers, enthralled the audiences at Covent Garden.

Before this, ballet companies were hardly ever seen in opera houses in their own right. They usually performed in theatres alongside variety acts.

Pretty Jewellery Inspired by The Ballet

Ideal gifts for a ballet-lover.

The Changing Face of Ballet

Class barriers begin to dissolve

Eventually ballet audiences that would be recognisable today began to emerge from these Coliseum engagements. Ballet was no longer the reserve of the rich. Tickets were cheap and performances were twice daily. Workers and students became devoted fans of the Ballet Russes, and artistic bohemians, including Cecil Beaton, were enthralled.

But meanwhile Nijinsky, Diaghilev’s lover, had married and Diaghilev was furious and humiliated.  He sacked Nijinsky and took on Leonide Massine in his place. Massine was not only given Nijinsky's roles, but became principal choreographer.

Massine was heavily influenced by Cubism, Futurism and silent films - Chaplin in particular – which audiences at the Coliseum could fully relate to.

Costume Design For the Red Sultan, from 'Sheherazad'

Costume Design For the Red Sultan, from Sheherazad

After seven months at the Coliseum and a season in Manchester, Stoll produced a season consisting exclusively of ballet, at the Alhambra Theatre in Leicester Square (now a cinema). Amongst the productions was The Three Cornered Hat by Massine, designed and painted by Picasso who, at that period in his career, was regarded merely as one of the company.

The new productions, including Spectre of the Rose, were taken to provincial towns such as Liverpool, Bournemouth, Leicester, Leeds, Birmingham and Sheffield. The Ballet Russes was a resounding success.

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Creating the Exotic Russians

...from Finsbury Park !

Whilst in England, Diaghilev recruited a number of English and Irish dancers whom he regarded as very musical. However, he was adamant that they had to take on Russian names in keeping with the exoticism that he had nurtured so carefully.

Thus, not only did Hilda Mullins from Essex become the celebrated Russian dancer, Lydia Sokolova, but Alicia Marks from Finsbury Park, London became Alicia Markova.

Financial Failure and Flight!

Not everything Diaghilev produced was successful. He invested everything he had into a new production based on the music of Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty, renamed The Sleeping Princess.

Despite the wonderful music and the costumes designed by Leon Bakst, the production failed to engage the public which regarded the ballet as old-fashioned and too long. The Alhambra stage was far too small – the Sleeping Princess’s forest snapped in two when it tried to grow!

The result of this failure was that Diaghilev lost all his money and was forced to flee to Europe. His dancers were left unpaid and on long-term leave.

The Ballet Bounces Back!

Eventually however, Diaghilev reformed his great company with, in 1924, the addition of George Balanchine, a young dancer who had, according to Diaghilev, escaped from Russia and whom Diaghilev discovered working in London.

With Balanchine a new era of innovative, classic productions began for the Ballet Russes, including a shorter version of The Sleeping Princess. Later, Balanchine would form the great New York City Ballet.

Death in Venice

Diaghilev died in Venice in 1929. He had always feared water and was convinced he would die drowning. As a compromise he died in a city built on water.

 His visits to England with his Ballet Russes were extremely important for the development of English ballet.

From the void left by his death there would emerge the Rambert Dance Company, English National Ballet and The Royal Ballet – all formed by dancers who had worked in England with Diaghilev and his astonishing, colourful, romantic, avant-garde Ballet Russes.


  • "The Ballet Russes in England", Tuesday, 23 Feb 2010, 11:30 on BBC Radio 4.

Books about Diaghilev, Nijinsky and the Ballet Russes

Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes

This book is an historic record of the Diaghilev era.It contains a foreword THE ORIGINS OF THE BALLET RUSSES by Alexandre Benois one of the designers of the company. Included ar...

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Biography of one of the central figures in the cultural life and tastes of his time.

View on Amazon

The Diary of Vaslav Nijinsky

In his prime, Vaslav Nijinsky (1889-1950) was the most celebrated man in Western ballet--a virtuoso and a dramatic dancer such as European and American audiences had never seen ...

View on Amazon

Updated: 04/04/2014, KathleenDuffy
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KathleenDuffy on 03/05/2013

Thank you so much. That's so encouraging!

Mira on 03/05/2013

What a wonderful article! Keep 'em coming! :)

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