Review: Diaghilev & the Golden Age of the Ballet Russes in Exhibtion at Victoria & Albert Museum

Performance: 25 September - 9 January 2011
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Wednesday 29 September 2010

Diaghilev and the
Golden Age of the Ballet Russes 1909-1929, 
Victoria & Albert Museum, 25 Sep 2010 - 9 Jan 2011.

The best advice I can give anyone about to attend this exhibition is to allow at least two hours (preferably more) and to pace oneself carefully through the six sections in three separate halls. Also, unlike me, take a moment to get orientated via the free pocket-sized map/guide that explains, amongst much other useful information, the Exhibition Sections. I allowed myself two hours but still ended up rushing the final hall devoted to the Ballets Russes in the 1920s and its enduring legacy. I am looking forward to going back and for anyone who loves ballet, Russian art or costume design; one trip is not going to be enough. Thankfully the exhibition runs until 9 January next year.

The Ballets Russes was a voracious artistic maelstrom that not only dominated the cultural evolution of its own brief 20-year existence (1909 to 1929) but has continued to influence so much in art, music and dance to this day. In the week that the Exhibition opens at the V&A, Russell Maliphant’s AfterLight premiered at Sadler’s Wells; a dance work that owes everything in its inspiration to the spirit of Diaghilev and the images of his first premier dancer, Vaslef Nijinsky.

With so much to capture, this exhibition is an absolute tour de force and its curators – the dance historian and archivist, Jane Pritchard and Geoffrey Marsh (Director of Theatre & Performance Collections at the V&A) – have exceeded every expectation. No stone has been left unturned in their efforts to distil the influences upon Diaghilev in forming the Ballets Russes; in effectively summarising the music, art, costumes, administration, financing, stagecraft and choreography of this most enigmatic of ballet companies; and also in explaining how the Golden Age of the Ballets Russes has shaped the world of the arts in the 80 years that have followed Diaghilev’s death in Venice and the simultaneous demise of the Ballets Russes itself.

The exhibits form a well-balanced range of material, including a diverse array of original costumes, artworks and some fascinating film. I was especially entranced by the early filmed excerpts from Manzotti’s Excelsior (filmed in 1913) – with its staggeringly enormous cast of dancers, it looks like a reel from a Cecil B. De Mille epic in the early days of Hollywood. Then there was Maria Baldina and Theodore Kosloff in Valse Caprice (filmed c.1909) with Kosloff so obviously talking animatedly to his partner throughout their pas de deux; and finally, Tamara Karsavina in Fokine’s quaint Torch Dance (also from around 1909). There is another series of excellent films in which the composer Howard Goodall traces the evolution of the Ballets Russes’ impact on music – from Debussy and Satie through to Stravinsky and Prokofiev; punctuated by a parallel film in which Richard Alston evokes the choreographic legacy of Diaghilev in a studio session with Wayne Parsons and Hannah Kidd; and lastly, I loved the unintended but quintessential humour of a quaint BBC documentary that featured Sotheby’s 1968 auction of Diaghilev paraphernalia, in which Picasso’s frontcloth for Le Train Bleu was bought for the V&A for £68,000. These are just a few of the highlights of the many films on display, which also include – of course – choice performances of the Ballets Russes’ repertoire in later years (including a brief excerpt of Pina Bausch’s brilliant Le Sacre du Printemps. If you wish to do justice to all of these many films then the two-hour estimate is likely not enough.

No matter how much knowledge one may have about the history of the Ballets Russes there is always much more to discover and the exhibition contained many such gems for me. For example, I wouldn’t have guessed that the most performed item in the Ballets Russes rep was the Polovtsian Dances from Prince Igor, which I knew formed part of the programme for the first-ever Ballets Russes show at the Châtelet Theatre, Paris, in 1909 but was then reprised in a quarter of all the company’s performances over the next 20 years. It is also fascinating to reflect upon the life of other Ballets Russes productions – Nijinsky’s original Le Sacre du Printemps was only performed 9 times (5 in Paris and 4 in London) and many other iconic ballets had similarly brief lives within the Ballets Russes repertoire (many not lasting a week). A beautifully presented and illustrated book* to accompany the Exhibition, edited by Jane Pritchard, includes a fascinating appendix detailing the timelines of every work, as well as a world gazetteer of the many places across the globe in which the company performed.

The sumptuous art of the Ballets Russes is also fully represented. There are fantastic, rarely-seen images of dance and dancers, including the Legat brothers’ hilarious caricatures of Karsavina and Kschessinskaya (the former slim and piously dressed, the latter opulently bejewelled as befits the Tsar’s favourite) to Laura Knight’s evocative 1921 oil painting depicting Olga Spessivtseva tying her ribbons before going on stage to perform the Rose Adagio. The exhibition also includes Nijinsky’s first-known drawing – a doodle on Savoy Hotel notepaper, illustrating dancers from the Polovtsian Dances, dated 6th July 1911 – as well as a mechanical, geometric drawing he made just 8 years’ later, which seems clearly illustrative of an obsessive and damaged mind (Nijinsky suffered from serious mental health problems in the last 30 years of his life). I was disturbed to note that Picasso’s illustration for the Parisian programme of 1924 was missing from its stand (hopefully it will be reinstated). Impossible to miss were the two spectacular, giant cloths of Natalia Goncharova’s backdrop to The Firebird and Picasso’s aforementioned frontcloth for Le Train Bleu, which appear back-to-back, separating sections 3 & 4 of the exhibition (thus, literally forming its centrepiece).

Despite this giant scale, some of the more fascinating items, for me, lay in the small items of Ballets Russes memorabilia, such as Alicia Markova’s tiny boots from Prince Igor and a pair of delicate pointe shoes signed by Karsavina in dedication to the ballet historian, Cyril Beaumont, and the clever, wooden figurines that Beaumont sold in his famous Charing Cross Road bookshop as mementoes of the Ballets Russes tours to London.

Diaghilev was a man of no fixed abode and few articles of personal possession in these Ballets Russes years; living out of hotel rooms, often with the curtains permanently drawn (due to his obsessive fear of water) and largely dependant upon the benefaction of friends; and so it was especially fascinating to see – at either end of the Exhibition – his travelling alarm clock and the last week’s bill for Apartment 518 of the Venice Lido’s Grand Hotel Des Bains, where Diaghilev died suddenly from blood poisoning in August 1929 (paradoxically after one of the most financially successful summer seasons for the Ballets Russes). The bill – for 2,118.80 lire – remained unpaid and the company could not continue without him at the helm. But, as I left the final room, my last image was of Akram Khan and Sylvie Guillem in a clip from their 2008 show Sacred Monsters, just one of many thousands of examples of how the spirit of Diaghilev carries on.

Images from top left clockwise: On tour. Lifar with Diaghilev to his right and Boris Kochno on his left. © V&A Images; Illustration of Vaslav Nijinsky in L’Après-midi d’un faune by Léon Bakst for the cover of the programme for the Théâtre du châtelet, Paris, 1912, © V&A Images; Vaslav Nijinsky as the Slave from Sheherazade, 1910. Photograph by Bert © V&A Images; Front cloth used for Le Train bleu after a painting by Pablo Picasso 1924 .

/strong> ‘Diaghilev & The Golden Age of The Ballets Russes’ (publ. V&A, edit. Jane Pritchard) available online from the V&A (price £30).*

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