Ballet at the turn of the century was not highly regarded in Paris or London. Dancers were reputed to supplement their incomes by servicing wealthy clients, many of them in pursuit of the very youngest dancers, the “petit rats”, the beginners who were said to scurry around in the wings like rats. Choreography was traditional and dull, male dancers were so downgraded that many male roles were danced by women. The Ballet Russes burst into this world with explosive effect.
The Ballet Russes phenomenon penetrated every facet of entertainment. The great Paris music halls, the Folies Bergère, the Casino de Paris, the Concert Mayol, the Moulin Rouge and others put on spectacular shows inspired by the Ballet Russes. Acrobatic performers adapted and extended Ballet Russes productions, often copying the splendid Bakst costumes and stage designs, adding such popular touches as humour and some nudity to the mix. Many performers were professional ballet dancers, such as Lila Nicolska, Prima Ballerina of the Grand National Theatre of Prague where she had danced Swan Lake, Nutcracker, Petroushka and Coppélia. Nickolska became a star of the Folies Bergères, magnificent in her total nudity, before starring in several movies. Dance groups such as the Albertina Rasch Dancers and the Spask’s Ballet put on complex shows.
The famous plaque over the entrance to the Folies Bergère by the architect, designer and painter Pico, of the Ballet Russes Dancer Lila Nicolska.
Demetre Chiparus attended the music halls and purchased all the magazines which illustrated the dancers. His wife and occasional models posed for him as he varied some of the photographed illustrations. He never wasted a good attitude, often using the same one with slight variations of arm position and costume for different figurines.
The international success of the spectacular sculptures of Chiparus are a phenomenon of recent decades. They are decorative. They are colourful. They are immediately recognisable and immensely sought after. The French novelist Théophile Gautier put it succinctly “statuettes with which one can cohabit”.
The dance figures of Chiparus such as La Pagode, are frozen in spectacular attitudes, tall and graceful, contrasting with large, solid and impressive marble or onyx bases of complex composition. They are a precious link with a carefree era of high living, unashamed luxury and unrestrained experimentation in the arts from music to fashion to architecture. Chiparus’s repertoire symbolises a brief golden era that was shattered by financial crisis and the upcoming catastrophe of World War II. The sculptures that have survived stand graceful, self confident and proudly decorative, and are now firmly established as a major field for collectors.