The Australian Ballet

Nijinsky and Bakst

When we think of the Ballets Russes, and the exotic glamour that captured the imagination of le tout de Paris in the early years of the 20th century, we think of the star dancers - Nijinsky, Pavlova, Karsavina - but also of the rich designs that transported audiences to faraway lands and impossible dreams of luxury. Diaghilev, the director of the Ballets Russes, commissioned many notable artists, including Picasso and Matisse, but it was Léon Bakst who created the costumes and sets for the company's signature productions, including The Sleeping Princess, Schéhérazade, Le Spectre de la rose and L’Après-midi d’un faune.

Bakst grew up in St Petersburg (as Lev Rozenburg) and saw the original version of The Sleeping Beauty in 1890. "I lived in a magic dream for three hours ... that evening, I believe, my vocation was determined."

John Neumeier, who choreographed Nijinksy (a "biography of the soul"), also designed the sets, costumes and lighting, taking his inspiration from Ballets Russes artists such as Bakst and Benois. His costumes evoke the company's heyday, when the fantastically costumed Nijinsky was acclaimed as the "God of Dance".

While we wait for this epic dance-theatre piece to open, let's enjoy some of Bakst's opulent designs.

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A costume for a bacchante in Narcisse (1911), a ballet by Michel Fokine, which starred Nijinsky, his sister Bronislava Nijinska, and Tamara Karsavina. The mythological theme and the voluptuous state of undress were typical of Ballets Russes productions.

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A costume for L'Oiseau de feu (The Firebird, 1910). This ballet was by Fokine, and set to music by Stravinsky. Anna Pavlova was originally cast as the Firebird, but when she heard the score she described it as "noise" and withdrew. The role went to Karsavina; her appearance in harem pants rather than the traditional tutu caused a sensation.

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Costume for Nijinsky as Iskender in La Péri. The ballet, about a young man who tries to steal the flower of immortality from a fairy, was commissioned by Diaghilev, but Nijinsky never performed the role; Diaghilev didn't consider the proposed ballerina skilled enough for his leading man. It was cancelled, although later revived without Nijinsky. In Bakst's costume sketch you can see his evocation of the famous dancer's features.

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Costume for Harlequin (danced by Nijinsky) in Fokine's Le Carnaval (1910). The ballet was first perfomed in St Petersburg by the Imperial Ballet (Mariinsky Ballet), but it was not until it was danced in Paris by the Ballets Russes, with new costumes by Bakst, that it became a success.

Le Dieu Bleu (1912), by Fokine, and with a scenario by Jean Cocteau, was inspired by Hindu mythology. The part of the Blue God was created for Nijinsky. With its pagan sensuality, hints of violence and fabulous Bakst-designed sets and costumes, it looked set to be another Ballets Russes success, but it flopped - perhaps because of its ho-hum score.

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It wasn't long before Diaghilev and Bakst, once friends and close collaborators, fell out (Diaghilev had a series of these ruptures, including one with his former lover Nijinsky). Bakst continued to design for dancers who had left the Ballets Russes and started their own companies. Here is his design for Anna Pavlova in The Butterfly (1913).

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Another ex Ballets Russes-dancer who stayed friends with Bakst was Ida Rubinstein, who had danced with Nijinsky in Schéhérazade. In 1908, Bakst designed the costume for a projected performance by the Ballets Russes of Salomé, but it was banned before it could be performed. Rubinstein ended up performing the role in a one-off performance of Oscar Wilde's scandalous play, in which she stripped naked during the Dance of the Seven Veils.