Behind the scenes with the Ballets Russes

Even after a century, the characters and performances of the Ballets Russes live on, thanks in part to the paintings and sketches produced by the many great artists associated with it: from the wonderful portraits of dancers, choreographers and ­composers by Léon Bakst, Pablo Picasso and the scene-painter, Elizabeth ­Polunin, to the entertaining and acutely observed caricatures of Jean Cocteau. Now, as part of a forthcoming exhibition, Diaghilev and the Golden Age of the ­Ballets Russes 1909-1929, London’s V&A offers a revealing new record of the company through the previously unpublished photographs taken by one of the ­Ballets Russes’ ­dancers, Stanislas Idzikowski.

Under the leadership of charismatic artistic director Serge Diaghilev, the Ballets Russes transformed classical dance in the early decades of the 20th century. Drawing on the diverse talents of leading avant-garde composers, choreographers, designers and artists, the itinerant company captivated and sometimes shocked audiences across Europe and the ­Americas with its revolutionary productions.

Although not as celebrated as Vaslav Nijinsky, the Polish-born Idzikowski was also a principal, and it is possible that he was recruited to the company in 1915 specifically because Nijinsky had been interned in Hungary as a result of the first world war and was therefore unlikely to be available for a forthcoming US tour. From his first outing Idzikowski danced several of Nijinsky’s roles and he continued to dance Harlequin in Le Carnaval and perform in The Enchanted Princess even after Nijinsky returned.

Idzikowski joined the Ballets Russes just as Léonide ­Massine was embarking on his career as a choreographer, and Massine’s lively character-based choreography suited Idzikowski’s talent perfectly: roles included the Cat in Kikimora, Battista in The Good-Humoured Ladies, the Snob in La Boutique Fantasque, the kite-flying Dandy in Le Tricorne and the pas de deux in Cimarosiana. Cyril Beaumont, dance historian, critic and later Idzikowski’s friend, said of the dancer’s performance as Battista – a role originally planned for Nijinsky – that his gestures radiated “an effervescent humour, and as he dances one is reminded of the glittering bubbles that rise, fall and froth together when champagne is poured into a wine glass”. Idzikowski had a charming boyish personality and was an excellent mime, but he was not, ultimately, a second Nijinsky. He lacked the latter’s exoticism and charisma and his short stature was sometimes a drawback.

Idzikowski’s photograph albums were bought by the V&A at auction in June 2008. It was the images from the 1918 Ballets Russes tour of Spain that initially excited the museum’s interest but the V&A already held important material on Idzikowski in its collections. This includes a model theatre peopled with wooden cut-outs of Idzikowski in most of his roles, which he had made himself, a portrait by Randolph Schwabe showing the dancer in his dressing room applying make-up, and correspondence including a series of postcards sent to Beaumont. In one of these, from 1920, he scribbles exasperatedly, “I am very sorry not to have written to you before, but the new ballets are simply terrible and we are rehearsing every day since we have left London.”

One of the delights of Idzikowski’s photographs is that they give a very human face to the Ballets Russes. Bullfights, Semana Santa and travels to remoter locations by horse and cart feature in the album on Spain. ­Elsewhere there is a series of photographs of dancers posing in costume for Les Sylphides, Aurora’s Wedding and Cimarosiana and performing on the open-air stage during the Fête des Narcisses at Montreux, Switzerland. In Monaco we see the dancers on the promenade and drinking coffee at the Café de Paris. Clues to dating the snaps – rarely are the albums labelled or annotated – come from the changes in fashion. The women are seen in large-brimmed hats around 1920 but these change to cloche hats as the decade progresses.

Idzikowski’s albums range beyond the Ballets Russes. He also mounted family photographs, publicity stills and images of artists he admired. It is a visual diary and together with the postcards that he sent from the tours, offers a vivid insight into the life of a dancer with the Ballets Russes.

At the end of his performing career Idzikowski became a teacher, continuing the work of his own teacher, Enrico Cecchetti, and publishing, with Beaumont, A Manual of the Theory and Practice of Classical Theatrical Dancing. He died in London in 1977.

Jane Pritchard is co-curator of ‘Diaghilev and the Golden Age of the Ballets Russes 1909-1929’, which runs September 25 to January 9, 2011 at the V&A, London SW7,

What’s your view? To comment on this feature please e-mail the FT Weekend Magazine at

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from and redistribute by email or post to the web.