Like tracing the outer edges of a spider's web, musing over a program of mixed ballet repertory almost inevitably leads centerward to the magical name of Sergei Diaghilev.
Two works on the three-ballet weekend program the Australian Ballet will offer at the Orange County Performing Arts Center owe at least a loose debt to Diaghilev.
The mixed bill will include Serge Lifar's abstract "Suite en blanc," David Lichine's comic "Graduation Ball" and Jiri Kylian's elegiac "Return to the Strange Land."
Diaghilev's name comes up so frequently in discussions of ballet that people who don't know the story must wonder what all the fuss is about. After all, he was not a dancer, a choreographer or a composer. He was not a painter or a set designer.
He was an impresario, a job that today probably lacks the luster and credibility it once had.
But Diaghilev assembled such a company of Russian dancers and artists that their impact on the art scene of Paris in 1909 and subsequent seasons made Sputnik's impact on American science and education in 1957 seem a mere sputtering Roman candle by comparison.
Not only did the company include such dance luminaries as Pavlova, Karsavina, Nijinska, Danilova, Markova, among the women, and Nijinsky, Fokine, Massine, Dolin and Lifar, among the men, but a short list of the composers he commissioned works from includes virtually every major name writing during his lifetime: Stravinsky, Debussy, Ravel, Faure and Prokofiev, among others.
His choreographers also were legendary figures of 20th-Century ballet: Fokine, Nijinsky, Massine, Nijinska and Balanchine.
The company introduced such cornerstone works as Fokine's "Les Sylphides" and "Le Spectre de la rose," Nijinsky's "L'apres-midi d'un faune" and "Sacre du printemps," Massine's "La Boutique Fantasque" and "Pulcinella," Nijinska's "Les Noces," Balanchine's "Apollo" and "Prodigal Son."
Following Diaghilev's death in 1929, his company members and choreographers went on to influence ballet throughout the world.
Serge Lifar, his last premiere danseur, became ballet master at the Paris Opera. Ninette de Valois, a Diaghilev soloist, founded a company and school that eventually became the Royal Ballet of Great Britain. Massine and Balanchine were choreographers for the successor company, Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. Later Balanchine founded, with Lincoln Kirstein, the New York City Ballet.
Lifar was the last of a series of dancers who had taken the place of Nijinsky, who was dismissed from the company after he married Romola de Pulszky in 1913. Lifar joined the company in 1923 and two years later became its premiere danseur.
Generally considered the outstanding dancer of his generation, Lifar had the distinction of creating the title roles in Balanchine's "Apollo" (originally titled "Apollon musagete") (1928) and "Prodigal Son" (1929), among other works.
Diaghilev had encouraged Lifar to choreograph, as he had encouraged Nijinsky. But most of Lifar's works were created for the Paris Opera, which he ruled from 1929 until 1945, an uncommonly long reign at this administratively turbulent company.
Lifar's choreography did not win the universal acclaim his dancing did, as it was characterized by quirkiness and stylistic difficulties.
But his "Suite en blanc,' created in 1943 to music drawn from the score Lalo wrote for the earlier ballet "Namouna" proved less controversial, although it presents fiendish demands on the dancers.
Rarely seen today, this nine-part ballet can be viewed simply as an abstract and brilliant display of classical technique, which can reveal a company's limitations as well as its achievements.
Other than Stephen Baynes' "Catalyst," Lichine's "Graduation Ball" is the only work the Aussies are presenting with a bona fide Down Under connection. The ballet received its premiere at the Theatre Royal, Sidney, Australia, in 1940.
But that was simply coincidence rather than design, however.
Lichine and his wife, Tatiana Riabouchinska, one of the three original "baby ballerinas," were touring the country when they decided to unveil "Graduation Ball." They were members of the Colonel de Basil Original Ballet Russe, one of the successor companies to Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, which had folded upon his death in 1929.
(The term "baby ballerina" had been given to three young leading artists upon the founding of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo in 1933. Riabouchinska, 15 at the time, was the oldest of the three. The others were Irina Baronova, 13, and Tamara Toumanova, 14.)
"Graduation Ball" is a romp about a ball held for a girls' school and the cadets of a nearby military academy. Both girls and boys try to appear sophisticated, but they all suffer from nerves and bashful self-consciousness.
The job of getting them over their bashfulness falls to the headmistress and the general of the school, who slowly begin a flirtation of their own. By the end, the children have found out how to enjoy themselves without supervision.