Spaces of otherness and desire: Ballets Russes – artist-animators – ethnographic enquiry

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This article will deconstruct the symbolic practices displayed by the Ballets Russes. In 1910, a small group of exceedingly clever and progressive Russians arrived in Paris to challenge conventional art forms. These included the Ballets Russes impresario Sergei Diaghilev, whose troupe revolutionized the nature of the ballet; the dancer and choreographer Vaclav Nijinsky; the scenic artist Léon Bakst, whose décor changed Paris haute couture and London savoir vivre; and the young Igor Stravinsky, whose music was already being described as marking a most iconic moment in European Modernism. No other group established the Russian presence in Western Europe so emphatically. The previous year, 1909, had seen the Ballets Russes performance of the Polovtsian Dances from Prince Igor, which had the effect of whipping up the Parisians into a state of sheer hysteria. Never before had their senses indulged in such scintillating music, such barbaric hues, and such rebellious gestures; never before was sown the germ of destruction, the spirit of unrest, or the embodiment of lawlessness (Woodcock, 2009, p. 56). No one in the West had seen men dancing like this. The imagined warrior-dancers from the Asian steppes and the tent-and-tribe approach of
the ballet’s decorator, Nicholas Roerich, fuelled the audiences’ fantasies of Russia as a country that was inhabited by barbaric tribes with an innate passion for dancing.
During the years to come, this perception was consolidated by the physical representations of the Oriental Other, as displayed in the so-called Oriental Ballets staged between 1909 and 1912, for which Léon Bakst created the costumes and decoration. These Ballets established in the West a strong association of Russia with the cosmopolitan cities of her Asiatic periphery, rather than the orientation towards European values that had been broadcast by Tsar Peter I. The motivation for such self-presentation has been attributed to the impresario Sergei Diaghilev, who maintained that Western adulation of oriental exoticism on stage was easier to translate into money than Russian folklore. Diaghilev’s argument may have satisfied contemporary journalistic curiosity. But can it stand up as a complete explanation for the correspondence between Ballets Russes’ corporeal characters and scenic display, and Western perceptions of Russia?
This article will challenge the view established among scholars and cultural ambassadors that Diaghilev’s decision to flag Russia’s Oriental Other was a mere PR act aimed at raising funds abroad for his theatrical venture. Departing from Russia’s spectacular appearance on the Western stage in 1909, and from both a historical and a geographical perspective, it will trace an alternative path of Russian self-presentation and self-identification back to the realms of the ancient Silk Route, to classical Byzantium, and the more recent Russian annexation of Turkestan during the
1860s. It will deconstruct the symbolic practices displayed by the dancers and decorators of the Ballets Russes and relate them to the transfer of knowledge initiated by Russian scholars, especially ethnographers, in the last third of the nineteenth century, between Russia’s Christian-dominated centre in Europe and the recently acquired Muslim lands of her oriental periphery in Asia.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationDiversity and Otherness
Subtitle of host publicationTranscultural Insights into Norms, Practices, Negotiations
EditorsLisa Gaupp, Giulia Pelillo-Hestermeyer
Place of PublicationBerlin
PublisherWalter de Gruyter
Number of pages22
ISBN (Electronic)978-3-11-073447-8
Publication statusPublished - 20 Feb 2021

Publication series

NameOpen Cultural Studies
PublisherDe Gruyter
ISSN (Print)2451-3474


  • Russian Modernism in Paris – Oriental Otherness – World of Art Group – Spatial Ambiguity – Russian Ethnographic Enquiry – Foucault – Said – Orientalism


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