A successful failure? Les Ballets 1933
: An object-based approach to an avant-garde ballet company

  • Caroline Hamilton

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


Les Ballets 1933 was a ballet company that gave approximately eighteen performances of six ballets in Paris and London across the summer of 1933. The company was established by Boris Kochno, formerly the secretary and librettist for Ballets Russes impresario Serge Diaghilev, and the choreographer George Balanchine, both of whom were twenty-nine years old. The enterprise was eventually financed by twenty-five-year-old British aristocrat and patron Edward James. Les Ballets 1933 was a creative collaboration involving some of the most prominent artists, composers, and dancers of the time as well as attracting the elite of both Paris and London society. The company drew from elements of the French, Russian, and German avant-garde in terms of choreography, music, and design. The company can also be seen as a crucial stepping stone in the movement of ballet from Russia to Western Europe and eventually the USA.

Les Ballets 1933 has often received only a passing mention in the dance history canon to date with many authors either concluding that the enterprise was a complete failure, due to its short-lived nature, or an artistic success but with little further investigation. This thesis explores the concepts of failure and success by surveying Les Ballets 1933 with the surviving UK collections of material culture, including backcloths, props, costumes, company documents, correspondence, and ephemera, housed between the Royal Pavilion & Museums Trust (RPMT) and West Dean College of Arts and Conservation at the core. This study builds on the scholarship undertaken by dance historian and curator Jane Pritchard in the 1980s and early 1990s. How the company was created and ballets produced will be assessed with a focus on the ballets Fastes and Les Valses of Beethoven. These ballets are the least known from the company’s repertoire and are the best represented in terms of extant material.

Costumes make up the majority of the collection at the RPMT and are the most under-researched items. Ballet costumes in particular are unique working objects that, once separated from their on-stage lives, are often the only tangible thing to survive from what is an ephemeral art form. This thesis draws on scholarship created and developed 2 in the studies of theatre, performance, and dress history, and will explore a method through which ballet costumes can be ‘read’ and their embodied knowledge used to reassess Les Ballets 1933 and ballet more broadly during the period. This research will explore the extent to which key aspects of the productions – how they looked, were made, operated, and moved – can be read through their surviving objects. The extensive scale and range of the costumes, set, and prop pieces from Les Ballets 1933, and their unusual condition as surviving material from a short-lived and pioneering company, makes them a rich and under-researched source.
Date of AwardMar 2022
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Brighton
SupervisorJeremy Aynsley (Supervisor), Annebella Pollen (Supervisor) & Martin Pel (Supervisor)

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