In 1916 the Russian impresario Sergei Diaghilev (1872–1929) took the Ballets Russes out of war-torn Europe for a tour across the North American continent. The tour was scheduled to run from January to April 1916, with short seasons in New York at the beginning and the end. As it turned out, the company returned for a second tour that ran from late September to January 1917, during which time, however, Diaghilev's former lover and principal star dancer, Vaslav Nijinsky (1889–1950), replaced him as director.
In this article I discuss the cultural differences at the heart of the Ballets Russes' failure to conquer America in 1916–1917, and why that failure had to be edited out of history. Specifically, I look at three aspects of the publicity and critical reception: elitism, patriotism, and modernism. The publicists of the company both misunderstood and underestimated their audience, but in dance research, their prejudices have been taken for granted. The “eye-witness accounts” of Diaghilev's employees and the histories of the company written in the first half of the twentieth century have largely gone unquestioned since, but contemporary primary sources of the North American tours tell a different story. By contrasting the first tour with the second, which received less publicity and better reviews, I emphasize the practical experience of touring in the New World and how differently American critics evaluated the achievements of the two Russian directors of the company—Diaghilev (for the first tour) and Nijinsky (for the second).