Ballets Russes: Synthesis of three ways of expression

It is a fitting epitaph for Serge Diaghilev, a man who started life as an exhibitor of Russian art, that London’s Victoria & Albert museum should host this major retrospective of his life as the founder and artistic director of the Ballets Russes. A difficult though charismatic man, Diaghilev, who was neither dancer, musician or designer, was able to assert an unprecedented influence on 20th century design, music, and dance.

Leon Woizikovsky, Lydia Sokolova, Bronislava Nijinksa and Anton Dolin in Le Train Bleu, Photographed by Sasha in 1924, Diaghilev and the Golden Age of the Ballets Russes 1909-1929- photo© V&A images

Diaghilev brought art, music and dance together to create theatrical spectacles, whilst releasing dance out of the shadow of opera. A consummate collaborator, he achieved this through working with some of the most forward thinking choreographers, composers and designers of his time.

Diaghilev and the Golden Age of the Ballets Russes 1909-1929 is a chronological guide through his work – from his life in St Petersburg to his arrival in Paris, an unknown, penniless Russian with huge ambition, ending in 1929 by which time he and the Ballets Russes had achieved great status in European culture with everyone clamouring to work with him.

The journey is effectively conveyed using the actual costumes and giant backdrops, music, and restored films of the performances. The development of the three separate strands of design, music, and choreography are explored in parallel through the accompanying text and specially created short films.

There are some amazing pieces of original costume – fascinating not least because it is difficult to imagine how they could dance in such elaborate costumes, set-designs, posters and props. Pieces that are created by a roll call of leading avant-garde artists and designers of the time – Leon Bakst, Georges Braque, Henri Matisse, Jean Cocteau, Auguste Rodin, and Ivan Goncharov.

Front cloth used for Le Train bleu after a painting by Pablo Picasso 1924 from Diaghilev and the Golden Age of the Ballets Russes 1909-1929 - photo© ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2010

Pablo Picasso’s huge front tableau for Le Train Bleu, together with the bathing costumes designed by Coco Chanel, is amongst some of the highlights of the exhibition. The visuals are enhanced by text describing how Diaghilev brought a Slavic flavour to the stage to resonate with the growing fascination in the west of all things ‘oriental’ and ‘exotic’.

We learn that some of the costumes bold in colour and geometry, were influenced by Russian Folk clothes, whilst others such as one designed by Vaslav Njinsky was inspired by Cambodian temples. We also learn that the costumes influenced the fashion of the time – Bakst inspired Paris fashion through Paul Poiret, whilst another of company’s regulars, the painter Natalia Goncharov, doubled up as a fashion designer.

In a series of short films, the composer and broadcaster Howard Goodall, provides an excellent examination of the musical influence of the Ballets Russes. The 1913 production of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring at the Theatre de Champs Elysees – built by Astruc to showcase contemporary dance and opera – infamously caused a riot not least because of the awkward costumes.

Costume for a Mandarin in Le Chant du Rossignol by Henri Matisse, 1920 from Diaghilev and the Golden Age of the Ballets Russes 1909-1929 - photo© Succession

Goodall shows how Russian composer Igor Stravinsky’s music was the culmination of two separate developments in music- both in opposition to the dominant Austrian-German tradition. One was the emergence of a Slavic music in Diaghilev’s St Petersburg, starting from Alexander Borodin, to Modest Mussorgsky, to Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky, and culminating in Stravinsky’s mentor, Rimsky Korsakov’s use of Russian folk music.

Stravinsky himself was fascinated by the rhythmic and hypnotic sound in recordings of Russian Folk music sampled for the first time by a Russian anthropologist.

The second influence was French composer Claude Debussy’s layering of sound – like colour on a canvass, an antithesis to the Wagnerian Leitmotif. Diaghilev commissioned the hitherto unknown Stravinsky to compose the Firebird where the composer uses the folk score to signify the human and the exotic octotonic scale to signify the fantastical.

This synergy between music, dance and design are brought to life in a huge projection of the Firebird. The final chapter of this musical narrative finds Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes isolated from Russia following the revolution and entering a period where their work lost some of its Slavic nature.

Front cover: Costume de Chinois du Ballet Parade with costume design for a Chinese Conjurer by Pablo Picasso 1917 from Diaghilev and the Golden Age of the Ballets Russes 1909-1929- photo© ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2010

The work, though, remained fiercely modern and it is here that we see the emergence of music that continues its influence today – the playful and childlike (Erik Satie); repackaged old masterpieces (Ravel); and repetitive speech and percussion (Stravinsky’s Les Noces).

The strength of the V&A exhibition is in presenting these parallel narratives of music and design, and their interaction with each other. If there is criticism to be made, it is that there is little on the socio-political context, the backdrop of war and revolution, and how that interacts with the artistic narrative.

The greatest disappointment, though, is in the absence of an equally strong examination of the dance and choreography. There is little attempt to contextualise the Ballets Russes within the Russian ballets tradition – that of the Kirov and the Bolshoi.

Although much is made of the relationship with contemporary dance, including a beautiful version of the Rite of Spring by Pina Busch and a moving contemporary piece by Akram Khan and Sophi Guilem, there is no equivalent of Goodall to explain to us how these pieces and genres relate to one another: how does the elaborate staging of Njinsky’s Rite relate to the minimalism of Pina Busch? Is the minimalism of Les Noces the missing link? The names of choreographers such as Fokin, Njinsky, Massine, Bronislava and Balanchine, are mentioned but there is no systematic examination of their contribution to dance.

Caricature drawing of the composer Igor Stravinsky playing the music for Rite of Spring by Jean Cocteau, 1913 fromDiaghilev and the Golden Age of the Ballets Russes 1909-1929 - photo© ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2010

Diaghilev and the Golden age of Ballets Russes is an altogether very satisfying exhibition. The wonderful costumes, set-design, and posters, the interspersion of films – sometimes projected dramatically onto the huge backcloths from the Ballets – accompanied by the dramatic music created for Diaghilev provides a holistic completeness to the exhibit.

The sensual experience is greatly enhanced by the amazing story of a man in his top hat and monocle with his dance troupe, who changed the face of western art, dance and music forever.

Guest blogger Maryam Jap

Diaghilev and the Golden Age of the Ballets Russes 1909-1929 is at the V&A in London until 9 January 2011.

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