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Serge Diaghilev © V & A Images
Serge Diaghilev © V & A Images

Diaghilev and the Golden Age of the Ballets Russes 1909 - 1929

Howard Loxton reviews the new exhibition at the V & A

Dateline: 26th September, 2010

Sergei Diaghilev has become an almost legendary figure in theatre history. His famous ballet company may have lasted little more than a couple of decades but its influence and effect were enormous, not only in the field of dance and theatre but of music, art, fashion and taste and they are still being felt today.

Now, a century after his Ballets Russes first astounded Western European audiences, the Theatre Collections of the Victoria and Albert Museum have mounted a fantastic exhibition that celebrates the whole range of his achievement from his involvement with the Russian court and the art world of St Petersburg right up to his death in Venice in 1929. In fact it carries the story much further in reflecting the influence of Diaghilev and his composers, choreographers and designers on the shape of modern ballet and fashion, with videos of contemporary choreography and couture dresses inspired by Bakst's designs by Yves St Laurent.

"There is no interest in realising the possible, but it is exceedingly interesting to perform the impossible," says a quote from Diaghilev blazoned at the beginning the exhibition and its curators Jane Pritchard (Curator of Dance at the V & A) and Geoffrey Marsh (Director of the Theatre and Performance Collections, who was originally appointed as Director of the Theatre Museum) have clearly seen that as a challenge. How do you celebrate and represent a person, a company - a phenomenon that embraced the leading musicians and artists of the first half of the twentieth century, people who changed their arts for ever, who changed ideas of dance and theatre. How do you present something that was quintessentially vibrantly alive, living performance through things without a stage, the scenery, the lighting and the dancers - especially the dancers?

It is to the enormous credit of Pritchard, Marsh and the exhibition designers (Tim Hatley with Drinkall Dean) that they have created an experience that is so much more than things to look at, that magically comes to life.

They have assembled 300 or more items, though the impression is of there being very many more. About a quarter are loans from other museums, libraries and private owners but some three-quarters of the exhibits come from the holdings of the Theatre Collections, many displayed for the first time after careful work by the museum's conservationists (and some perhaps for the last because of the delicacy of their condition).

Objects conjure up their own ghosts, especially when displayed as imaginatively as here. The energy of the exhibition is also helped enormously by music and the vitality of video. Where parts of the exhibition concentrate on particular ballets, the music of that ballet often accompanies them and small screens through every section carry a survey by Howard Goodall not only of the music used by the Ballets Russes at that particular part of the story but of its influence on other composers. He covers much more than just the music and his presentation is brought to life by designs, photographs and other images of the works and of the times and by extracts from modern productions of the ballets, often used in clever montage.

There is something vibrant always visible, and it is especially engaging when it is the evil magician Kashchei from The Firebird gesticulating behind Goodall's head. It is The Firebird that also provides an amazing coup de theatre with video projection on a huge scale, to match that of the actual 1926 backcloth to the final wedding scene that they accompany. A montage of flames and the precisely profiled silhouette of a quivering dancer in the role as Stravinsky's score fills the air imaginatively evokes the thrill of performance; spine-tinglingly exciting.

This is a mammoth exhibition that occupies three very large galleries. It needs two hours at least to take it all in properly for it is packed with fascinating material from ballet shoes to the famous front cloth designed (and partly painted) by Picasso for the 1924 ballet Le Train Bleu. It is arranged roughly chronologically but thematically as well beginning with material to set the background in Tsarist Russia and Diaghilev's involvement in the art world, including the the journal Mir iskusstva (World of Art) and his work for the Imperial theatres and there is evidence on rare film of what ballet was like before he began his innovations.

In fact, it was an exhibition of Russian art that Diaghilev first brought to the West and he followed that by taking Russian opera to Paris. The magnificent robes worn by renowned bass Feodor Chaliapin as Boris Godonov is the first of the many original costumes on display.

Soon one is in the company of the dancers and choreographers who first worked with Diaghilev, with the designs of Léon Bakst and the first of Diaghilev's protégé lovers, Vaslav Nijinsky. There is what amounts to a shrine to Nijinsky with costume photographs, drawings, even a pair of ear-rings he wore on stage. At the centre of this "shrine" is the white plaster original of sculptor Una Troubridge's head of Nijinsky in L'Apres midi d'un faune done from life in 1912.

This first part of the exhibition marks the excitement that was generated by the first seasons in Paris and London and culminates in the outraged reaction to The Rite of Spring when it burst upon the stage of the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in 1913 with nine of the costumes (designed by Nicolas Roerich) worn at that performance and the Valentine Gross drawings that are evidence of what Nijinsky's choreography actually looked like.

As the exhibition progresses through the company's history, the emphasis changes to the creation of the ballets and a reminder of the travelling life of the dancers, with exhibits displayed against an imaginative montage of black painted ladders, chairs, travelling trunks and even a contemporary stage lamp from the period. Here are pages of dance notation done by Nijinsky himself of his choreography for Faune, the manuscript score as Stravinsky first wrote it for Pulcinella, with his changes and energetic deletions, and Prokofiev's for Chout. To the video sequence is added a film of contemporary choreographer Richard Alston creating a ballet with young dancers to demonstrate the process.

This section culminates in the evocation of Firebird and Picasso's front cloth, and some of those costumes, that must have proved a challenge to the dancer, for shows like Chout and Parade. Here too the video record gives a reminder of just how many of these exhibits come to be here: the Sotheby's auction at which the Le Train Bleu cloth was sold when it and many costumes were bought and saved for this museum, partly through the enterprising action of Richard Buckle, who, back in 1954, had staged his own great Diaghilev exhibition at the Edinburgh Festival.

A final gallery continues the story from the Great War until Diaghilev's death, marking the changes in style in both design and music, but though his costumes may now be by Chanel or the sets by Matisse there is also the reversion to tradition with his (financially disastrous) revival of The Sleeping Beauty, though he called it The Sleeping Princess, perhaps because his leading ballerina was not exactly a great beauty, except as a dancer.

There is a nice touch in the matching of a film montage of Marie Laurenin's Les Biches designs with a ballet Peter Darell made for television on a similar theme with his Western Theatre Ballet dancers and things become touchingly personal with Diaghilev's final (unpaid) hotel bill.

Finally the exhibition marks the continuing influence of the Ballets Russes with St Laurent's dresses and the ongoing development of dance with modern work on video including Pina Bausch's Rite and a ballet by Akram Khan.

What is missing? Well, there are dancer's shoes, boots to pointe shoes, but you don't see the state of dancer's feet; the sweat and the injuries are missing and so too is the scent that permeated Richard Buckle's Diaghilev exhibition at Edinburgh over fifty years ago: Diaghilev's favourite Mitsouko - far too expensive I'm sure, though at the press view director and curator Marsh whispered he had a bottle in his pocket! Instead the museum has a specially created perfume on sale in the museum shop, along with clothes inspired by the costumes in the exhibition. That's something that Diaghilev would probably have approved of, the Ballets Russes were not averse to exploitative merchandising as one exhibit in the exhibition demonstrates.

"That ogre, that Russian giant who lived only to create marvels," said Jean Cocteau of Diaghilev, and if we don't see much here of the ogre or of the private man in this exhibition we do see marvels. This, the first major special exhibitions created by the Theatre Collections since they relinquished their separate existence as the Theatre Museum in Covent Garden, is a triumph and a demonstration of what a very important part they can and should play at the V & A.

The exhibition opens to the public on 25th September 2010 and closes on 9th January 2011

Howard Loxton

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©Peter Lathan 2010