4 Ballets Russes, Mechanical Ballet

The success of the Ballets Russes in the 1910s and 1920s was based on the collaboration of its impresario Serge Diaghilev with composers such as Stravinsky, Prokofiev, and Satie, who turned away from musical conventions, and on the contemporaneous turn of the choreographers away from academic classical dance. Various approaches to dealing with music vied with one another. Michel Fokine choreographed previously existing concertante material: Camille Saint-Saëns in The Dying Swan (1907) or Carl-Maria von Weber in Le spectre de la rose (1911). In his view, dance had to again and again seek a visual correspondence with object, time, and character of the music.[15] Vaslav Nijinsky’s choreography of the premiere of Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps (1913) created a scandal in terms of both dance and in music.[16] With its polytonal, polyrhythmic structure, its dissonances and repetitive motifs, the composition breaks with the academic canon; the same is true for the dance with its angular movements on flat foot. The Sacre became one of the most frequently choreographed music pieces of the twentieth century.[17] A recent scientific attempt to explain this popularity argues on the basis of the model of mirror neurons with the direct physical impact of the reaction to acoustic and visual rhythms, which is especially strong in the case of Sacre.[18] Léonide Massine developed the symphonic ballet, beginning in 1933 with Les Présages to Tchaikovsky’s fifth symphony, as an interpretation of symphonic works, a form of music previously considered undanceable. Serge Lifar argued against this in 1935: ballet can dispense with music entirely.[19] On the whole, the Ballets Russes created ballet as a Gesamtkunstwerk, which emerges in the collaboration between choreographers, writers, and visual artists. The independence of each sector is preserved in the production process; only thematic consultations take place. This results in heterogeneous, artistically rich pieces that leave each discipline its scope and not infrequently ultimately present the choreographer with stylistic decisions.

In the 1920s and 1930s, Bauhaus artist Oskar Schlemmer called several of his stage productions ballets, for which the term Mechanical Ballet is also conventional. Referring to his cooperation with Paul Hindemith for the Triadic Ballet, Schlemmer noted that there is something doll-like about the dancers that conforms to what is music-box-like about the music or … creates a unity corresponding to the term style.[20] He claimed that a symphonic character was intended to the extent that the individual dances assumed the musical terms in their titles.[21] Visually, the Triadic Ballet is dominated by the sculptural and alienating effect of the costumes and masks, in which principles of movement, such as the pirouette of the ballerina in the stiff plate skirt, are pictorially frozen.


Timelines:1900 – 1950
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