Leon Bakst

July 21, 2009

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I’m a not-so-closet ballet devotee. I’m amazed by the strength dancers have, and the incredible grace and control they have over their bodies. This interest coupled perfectly with my love of Russian history to allow me to discover the designs of Leon Bakst, one of the major set and costume designers for the Ballets Russes.

I first discovered Bakst while spending the summer studying Russian in St. Petersburg. During the White Nights Festival, theatre, opera and ballet tickets are ridiculously cheap. I took the opportunity to glut myself on culture, attending a different perfomance every night and emerging afterwards into a magical world where the sun still blazed overhead at eleven pm. The atmosphere combined perfectly into an aura of fairytale. I made a lot of ballet converts that summer. In the middle of this, I found myself talking to one of my Russian teachers about my theatre-going experiences. She replied that I must, then, know about the Ballets Russes. When I confessed my ignorance, she shook her head impatiently, frog-marched me to the library and thrust a book on the subject into my hand. The book fell open at the illustration above and I fell in love.

Bakst’s work is redolent of the magic of the theatre for me. It carries all the imaginative, folkloric qualities that so seduced me the first time I went to a performance as a child. Looking at his work makes me think of a peek into the Arabian nights or a book of Russian fairy tales, rich and over-the-top with precisely the right amount of fantasy and humour. Added to all of that is the incredible lushness of his colours and the amount of detail he went in to with his designs. I could go on about him– and the Ballet Russes in general, for tha matter– at greater length, but I’ll stop here and let the designs speak for themselves.

Above image: Nijinsky, for L’Apres-Midi d’un Faune

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Costume design for Tamara Karsavina in The Fire-bird

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The Fire-Bird

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Le Dieu Bleu, Bayadere with Peacock.

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Le Dieu Bleu, the Bride.

bakst 9Le Sultan Samarcande

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Le Sultan Vindicatif

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Narcisse Bacchante

bakst 11Sadko

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from Scheherazade

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from Scheherazade

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The Wolf from Sleeping Beauty.




  1. I’m a huge fan of the Ballet Russes too- the costumes and sets were just enchanting. I had the opportunity recently of handling some of the original costumes, and even in their deteriorating condition there was so much beauty to them and still so much magic.

    • Are you serious?! That’s amazing! How did this opportunity come about?

  2. Oh I used to drool over these back in the day when Cath and I were still dancing. Our costumes were handmade and professionally done- but nothing like these pieces of art!

    • What kind of dance did you do, and what were your costumes like? I’m always so interested in dance costumes. Can’t dance to save my life, but I love every aspect of it– the intense physicality combined with all the drama and fantasy. Gorgeous.

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