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Alexandere Nickolaevich Benois was born in St. Petersburg on May 3, 1870. He studied law at the St. Petersburg University (1890-1894) and art at the Academy of Arts from 1887. In 1894 he married Atia Kind. Benois exhibited at the Society of Russian Watercolor Artists in St. Petersburg (1893-1896) and, in 1895, designed his first sets and costumes for a production of Gluck’s Orpheus which was never presented. He made his first visit to Paris and Versailles in 1896.
Benois contributed to the magazine Mir Iskusstva (The World of Art) co-founded by Serge Diaghilev (1899-1904) and also contributed to The Golden Fleece (1906-1909), Starie Godi (Old Times) (1907-1913) and to Rech (Speech) (1908-1917). He was the curator of the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg (1918-1926).
Benois began his collaboration with Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in Paris with Le Pavillon d’Armide in 1907, becoming Diaghilev’s chief artistic advisor until 1911. He returned to Moscow and worked as a designer for the Art Theatre (1912-1915) and collaborated with Ida Rubinstein in 1923. He left Russia permanently in 1926 and settled in Paris where he designed for many ballet companies including de Basil’s Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo (later known as the Original Ballet Russe), Ballet of La Scala, Milan, Sadler’s Wells Ballet Rene Blum’s Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and London Festival Ballet as well as designing for opera, theatre and film.
Benois died in Paris on February 9, 1960, aged 89.
In summing up his approach to art, Benois remarked that he was attracted most of all to “that which is customary to call realism.” Moreover, he referred to himself as a “passéiste,” maintaining that his attitude to the past was “more tender, more loving” than it was to the present. Without exception his designs for the ballet reflect both this realism and this attraction to the past.
Benois’ work for the theatre was prolific, and included designs for operatic and dramatic productions as well as works for the ballet. Although he had been engaged as chief designer for Sylvia, the proposed 1901 production by Prince Volkonsky and Serge Diaghilev, his real debut for the ballet was in 1907, when he designed, and was responsible for the scenario of Le Pavillon d’Armide with choreography by Michel Fokine and music by Nikolai Tcherepinn. After this work his major designs for ballet were for Les Sylphides for Diaghilev’s first Paris season in 1909, Giselle (1910), Petrouchka (1911) and Le Rossignol (1914), all for the Ballets Russes.
Le Pavillon d’Armide was one of Benois’ most successful productions. First produced at the Maryinsky Theatre in 1907, it entered the repertoire of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes and became a staple item with that company. In designing Le Pavillon, set in early 18th century France, Benois was required to draw n his erudite historical knowledge and provided, in the sets and costumes, reconstructions of the period which were accurate to the finest detail. It was probably his success with Le Pavillon which encouraged him to pursue his theatrical vocation, for, although his interest in the theatre dated back to is childhood, Benois was accomplished and accepted as a writer, illustrator and artist before he began any of his theatrical commissions.
His best-known work for ballet was Petrouchka, for which he designed the curtain, sets and costumes. In conjunction with its composer Igor Stravinsky, Benois also devised the scenario. Set in St. Petersburg in 1830 during Butterweek Fair, the ballet, with choreography by Fokine, evoked elements from Benois’ childhood memories and provided him with an ideal theme in which, once again, he could display his ability to recreate accurately an historical period. Petrouchka has always been regarded as the high point of Benois’ theatrical career. However, while his designs for Petrouchka have become icons of ballet history, they cannot be said to be innovative. Like the rest of his designs, they use decoration as a static element and their importance lies mostly in the fact that they are integrated with great coherence into the overall conception of the ballet.
In his work for the theatre, Benois adopted a variety of historical styles to suit specific demands. Giselle, Les Sylphides and Le Rossignol all received the same careful attention to details as had Le Pavillon d’Armide and Petrouchka. This ability to move from style to style reflected Benois’ erudition and his interest in the past, traits which he had developed even in childhood and certainly as a member of the celebrated World of Art group. Strangely, despite his exceptional involvement with the theatre and with Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in particular, Benois remarked in his reminiscences that he was not “a devotee of the ballet, or even a balletomane,” and as a designer his contribution to the 20th century in which he worked was limited. Benois was at his best when retreating into a make-believe work which he could decorate.
Source: International Dictionary of Ballet; editor Martha Bremser, St. James Press, Detroit, London, Washington, D. C.