The Ballet Russes and the Orient

“An East/West Pas De Deux: The Ballet Russes and the Orient in the Modern Western Imagination.” Representing Islam, Terrorism and Violence: Changes in American Society and Culture after 9/11. Proceedings of the 2010 American Studies Institute International Conference. Seoul: Seoul National University, 2010.


The body, gestures, clothing and their relationship to notions of what we now refer to as gender were interrogated most particularly in the performances of Rubinstein and Nijinsky. But the group’s investigation of form was not limited to movement and the body. The works themselves were radically re-imagined. For example, Schéhérazade (1910) – based on The 1001 Nights – was reduced from an epic, never-ending narrative to a half-hour, non-narrative based on the outer frame tale, in which King Shahryar returns unexpectedly from a hunting trip to discover that his wife, Zobeida, is in the midst of an orgy with the slaves in the seraglio, and he proceeds to slaughter the slaves and then his wife.


As many modernist writers would later do – for example, Joyce, in Ulysses, published in 1922, compressed the epic of the Odyssey into a single day in modern Dublin – Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes transformed the languid, always delayed eroticism of 1001 Nights into the sexual frenzy of Sheherazade. (from p. 104-5)