Dance diary. September 2011

  • Publication news

In September The Canberra Times published my preview of the Australian Ballet’s 2012 season, a review of the recent book The Ballets Russes in Australia and Beyond under the title ‘Dancing round a few home truths’, and my review of Graeme Murphy’s new take on Romeo and Juliet. Romeo and Juliet has certainly sparked some discussion and the amount of traffic that the extended review has generated over this website has been quite astonishing. It has more than quadrupled the previous record of visits to any one post. The suggestion that this Romeo and Juliet is just not a profound work has been made, not only in published comments but also in other communications to me. But whatever we think, it appears to be selling remarkably well and it will be interesting to see what Sydney audiences make of it when it opens there in December.

Editing and design began in September on an article of mine to be published in the December issue of The National Library Magazine. This article looks at the ballet designs of Arthur Boyd for Robert Helpmann’s Elektra, and those of Sidney Nolan for Kenneth MacMillan’s Rite of Spring. Both ballets were given their premieres by the Royal Ballet in London in the early 1960s. We’ve never seen the MacMillan Rite of Spring here in Australia, but Elektra was staged by the Australian Ballet in 1966 when there were some interesting changes to Boyd’s designs, which in fact had already undergone changes before they even made it to the Covent Garden stage.

joseph-janusaitis

Joseph Janusaitis in make-up for Elektra, the Australian Ballet, 1966. Photo by Walter Stringer. National Library of Australia, permission pending

  • Nijinsky’s costume for Le Dieu bleu

While the Romeo and Juliet post has attracted instant interest, the post from late last year on Nijinsky’s costume for the Blue God quietly continues to generate visits. I was recently contacted by author Denise Heywood, whose book Cambodian dance: celebration of the gods was published in 2008 in Bangkok by River Books. The book is an interesting examination of the history of Cambodian dance and reproduces some remarkable photographs from across many decades. Denise suggests in her recent communication with me that it is not just the costume has links to the Khmer culture, as I suggested in the post, but the choreography for the ballet Le Dieu bleu must surely also have been influenced by Khmer dance, especially the ‘slow, statuesque movements’.

  • The Royal New Zealand Ballet

The Royal New Zealand Ballet has just announced its 2012 season, its first full year under the directorship of Ethan Stiefel. Stiefel will begin the year in February with a very American program entitled NYC, ‘New Young Classic’ (although the other meaning of that acronym is in there too). NYC will feature works by Larry Keigwin, Benjamin Millepied and George Balanchine. Keigwin has a big following in New York and he will create a new work on the dancers of RNZB. Millepied is now probably best known for his contribution to The Black Swan, but he has been making dances for several years for a range of high profile companies including New York City Ballet, American Ballet Theatre and the Paris Opera Ballet. RNZB will dance Millepied’s 28 Variations on a Theme by Paganini (2005).  The program will also include Who Cares?, Balanchine’s popular and beautifully polished work set to songs by George Gershwin.

Later in the year RNZB will restage its production of Christopher Hampson’s Cinderella and in November Gillian Murphy will take the lead role in a new staging of Giselle to be co-produced by Stiefel and that exceptional interpreter of the role of Albrecht, Johann Kobborg.

tonia-looker-2012-giselle-h-photo-ross-brown1

Tonia Looker in a study for Giselle 2012. Photo: © Ross Brown. Courtesy Royal New Zealand Ballet

  • Memory lane

Canberra is currently in the middle of Floriade, its annual celebration of spring (although the weather is decidedly cold). I have never forgotten a remarkable Floriade, the only one I have ever attended I have to admit, back in 1990. The Meryl Tankard Company was then Canberra’s resident dance company and Tankard staged Court of Flora outdoors against the backdrop of Commonwealth Gardens.

Inspired by the engravings in J. J. Grandville’s book, Les Fleurs animées first published in 1847, Court of Flora was given eleven performances in October 1990. Its spectacular costumes, designed by Sydney-based couturier Anthony Phillips, drew sighs of delight from audiences. So too did the ability of Tankard’s dancers to pose decoratively behind bushes and around trees while at the same time investing the flowers that they represented with clearly discernible human qualities, as indeed Grandville had done with his illustrations. In particular, an impish Paige Gordon as Thistle and an elegant Carmela Care as Rose still remain in the mind’s eye.

  • The Little Mermaid

I continue to be confounded by Rex Reid’s Little Mermaid, the version he made for Laurel Martyn’s Victorian Ballet Company in 1967. All sources seem to indicate that it opened as part of a mixed bill on 1 September 1967, but reviews seem to have appeared in Melbourne papers on the same day, 1 September. There is probably a simple explanation—perhaps there was a preview before 1 September to which reviewers were invited? But if anyone was there and can assure me that it did open on 1 September, despite reviews appearing on the same day, I would be thrilled to hear.

  • Site news

Traffic across the site during September increased by over 20% compared with August, due largely to the exceptional interest in Romeo and Juliet. The review attracted a large number of visits, more than any other post in the two year history of the site. Not surprisingly visits from Melbourne topped the list. Other Australian cities generating significant numbers of visits during September were, in order, Sydney, Canberra, Brisbane and Adelaide.

Some small updates will be made to the site in the next few weeks. On the home page I am having a link to the full tag cloud inserted under the list of top 20 tags. This will facilitate searching from the home page.

I am also having two new sub-pages added to the Resource page. One will be for National Library of Australia articles and will allow me to separate articles written for National Library of Australia News/The National Library Magazine from other online publications. The second will be for articles written for theatre programs.

Michelle Potter, 1 October 2011

Vaslav Nijinsky’s costume for ‘Le Dieu bleu’: part two

Jane Pritchard’s record of the itinerary of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes from 1909 to 1929, published in two parts in Dance Research 27, issues 1 and 2 (2009), is an absolutely indispensable resource and it was remiss of me not to have recalled its publication in my previous post and comments. From her listing I have extracted the Diaghilev performance history of Le Dieu bleu.

  • Paris: Théâtre du Châtelet, 6 performances 1912 (13, 15, 17, 18 May, 5, 7 June)
  • London: Royal Opera House, 3 performances 1913 (27 February, 1, 6 March)
  • Monte Carlo: Opera House, 3 performances 1913 (22, 26 April, 2 May)
  • Buenos Aires: Teatro Colón, 3 performances 1913 (20, 24, 28 September)
  • Rio de Janeiro: Teatro Municipal, 1 performance 1913 (29 October)
  • Berlin: Teater am Nollendorfplatz, 2 performances 1914 (11, 13 March)

18 performances in total according to the current state of knowledge.

Further information is in Jane’s comments originally posted on part one of this discussion but now also reproduced below as part one has become a little unwieldy to read. In addition, the illustrations from the The Sphere, mentioned in Jane’s comments, are also reproduced below (again with thanks to Jane).

From Jane Pritchard, 31 December 2010:

Oh dear thousands of comments to make and not much time at present. Let’s not get into the changing evolution of Schéhérazade and Zobéïde’s costumes yet – Bakst must have redesigned this to flatter each of his dancers.

1. The original costume for Ida Rubinstein 1910;
2. The Karsavina/Astafieva version for autumn 1911 (I don’t know what Roshanara who also dance the role this season at the ROH wore) This is the Karsavina version currently on display at the V&A;
3. The Karsavina version for 1912;
4. The Vera Fokina version originally for performances for Royal Swedish Ballet in 1913 and then worn with Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in 1914;
5. Schéhérazade was redesigned in 1915 (see credit in programme). This is when the Flora Revalles version comes in;
6. This is modified for Lubov Tchernicheva (and since she continues to dance the role it settles down as the costume);

What this alerts us to is that there is often not a fixed version of one characters costume in a successful ballet—and do critics ever alert audiences to changes?

And on the subject of Fokine & Fokina photos in The Ballets Russes and the Art of Design many were actually taken in Stockholm when Fokine mounted Cléopâtre, Les Sylphides, Le Spectre de la rose, Le Carnaval and Schéhérazade there when spurned by Diaghilev, 1913–14.

But to the challenges of Le Dieu bleu, a ballet full of questions and one for which a contemporary viewer (A. E. Johnson) commented that the published programme synopsis was not the action realised on stage. I recall once having an argument with a significant choreographer when his synopsis was clearly not what happened in performance but he insisted it was published none the less—what a disservice to his audience and posterity.

Whatever one thinks about Herbert Ross’ film Nijinsky it contains a wonderful scene in which we see a dress parade of the costumes for Le Dieu bleu followed by a petulant Fokine (played by a young Jeremy Irons) complain to Léon Bakst that Bakst is trying to ruin the ballet by over-designing it. This may not be an historically accurate meeting but there is a real truth to it. Le Dieu bleu to me appears to be such an old fashioned production drowning in display. I find it fascinating that when the French start contributing to the Ballets Russes productions it takes them a while from them to break away from their balletic past. Much of Le Dieu bleu was procession and mime Beaumont described the one performance he saw as having ‘dull’ music, ‘uninspired’ choreography and containing ‘too much miming and posing, too many processions’. The demons and reptiles were ‘reminiscent of a Christmas pantomime’ and comic. Gosh aren’t I excited that I’ll be able to see Wayne Eagling’s new version of this ballet at the London Coliseum in April!

But to sort out some facts. Le Dieu bleu did not receive a large number of performances but it was presented in Paris (1912), London, Monte Carlo, Buenos Aires and Rio de Janiero (all 1913) and all these performances featured Nijinsky in the title role. It was also given two performances in Berlin in 1914 when Nijinsky was no longer in the company thus the title role was performed by Fokine and his wife, Vera was the Goddess (a role created by Nelidova).

I found it extremely valuable when told I was mounting a Ballets Russes to compile a day-to-day itinerary for the Company so that I understood which productions were performed where and how often. And on the subject of itineraries, just as we say in Britain you wait ages for a bus and then three come along—the same happened with the Ballets Russes performances. Sarah Woodcock published her version in The Dancing Times; the Paris Opéra’s exhibition book Les ballets russes included a version by Boris Courrège and team and my own (the most complete for which I happily acknowledge assistance from Roland John Wiley, Andrew Foster and others) was in Dance Research Volume 27 (2009) which is available through JSTOR on line.

There appear to be two sets of photographs for Le Dieu bleu—those taken in a Parisian studio by Walery at the time of the 1912 premiere in Paris. These were initially reproduced in the souvenir programme (produced by Comœdia Illustré) and serve to document the creators of the ballet in their costumes—I feel certain many of these photos were taken to show Bakst’s magnificent costumes rather than the dancers.

Then there are the Berlin photographs taken in 1914 which were reproduced as postcards and reproduced as a full page spread in The Sphere, London 23 May 1914. I think these are taken posed on stage and what we are seeing is the Lotus pool and the golden staircase of the set. I think our god and goddess are on their plinths on which they rose from the pool (Fokine’s lower right leg is hidden) to make their first appearance. The review in the Observer, 2 March 1913, p.8 refers to ‘the Lotus flower that dreams in a large basin. From its petals the Goddess arises; at her side the blue god who proceeds to charm the denizens of the den to tameness. The tunes of his pipe and his elaborate dance play the part of Orpheus with considerable effect.’ At the end of the ballet the ‘Goddess returns to the heart of the Lotus and the blue god goes in another direction to the Indian Walhalla, with the assistance of a golden staircase that conveniently appears behind the opened rocks’. I would actually suggest that the best published description of the ballet appears in A.E. Johnson’s book The Russian Ballet (with illustrations by René Bull) London: Constable, 1913. pp. 163-177

But to return to the costume as seen in the photos . Nijinsky and Fokine are not wearing identical head dresses—once again, as with the shoes it is Fokine whose head dress is closest to the Bakst design note the drop ‘pearl’ decorations like ear-rings hanging from it.

I agree that of the two known extant versions of costumes for the Blue God—the Canberra version matches the tunic in both sets of photographs. Please note it was never in the V&A’s collection we did not de-accession it. The Canberra costume appeared on the cover of the catalogue for first major Ballets Russes Sale 13 June 1967 when according to the published list of Prices and Buyers’ Names it sold for £900 to a Mrs Gibson—incidently the costume can be glimpsed in the background of the photo of Marie Rambert in Lubov Tchernicheva’s Pas d’acier jackets at a preview of the sale on p.167 of our exhibition book. The Canberra version was on display in the amphitheatre foyer at the Royal Opera House for years so I am amazed that it is still in such good condition.

The British version is extremely fragile and was one of the two last costumes worked on, the other being one of Matisse’s costumes for Le Chant du Rossignol. Both demanded very long hours of work and were not ready to be photographed for our book (not catalogue) to accompany the exhibition. The old photo of it as reproduced in Shead is horrid. I’ll get together more specific material on our version of the Blue God costume and get back to you on this. We also have a lot of other costumes for this production.

Adrian’s suggestion about new costumes for the USA tour is an interesting speculation— I just wish I knew how many of their costumes the Ballets Russes had access to when they re-formed in 1915–all the productions that year are described as being ‘redesigned’. I would love it if that also made sense of the mystery concerning the two versions of Le Festin costumes but it does not. So over New Year I’ll have to do some more thinking about the costumes.

I’ll finish these ramblings by including the copy on the labels for our four Dieu bleu objects in the exhibition; the painting of the set, a costume design (in the Bakst section) and two costumes (in the Nijinsky case).

Le Dieu bleu 1912

Diaghilev never let concerns over authenticity override artistic impact. Le Dieu bleu (‘The Blue God’ or Krishna) was designed by a Russian in a vaguely Indian setting, with a score by a Venezuelan composer for a French audience. Bakst’s designs mixed elements from various south Asian cultures. The faces on the stone cliff resemble those on the Bayon Temple of Angkor Thom in Cambodia.

Oil on canvas, Léon Bakst (1866–1924). Private collection

Costume design for a young Rajah in Le Dieu bleu 1912

Bakst’s designs for Le Dieu bleu were among his most elaborate, but the ballet was old-fashioned in its emphasis on design at the expense of dancing. His costume for a young Rajah, a character not individually named in the programmes, shows fantastic detail in the feathered turban, pearl decoration and stylised shoes.
Pencil, watercolour and gouache, Léon Bakst (1866–1924). V&A: S.338-1981

Costume worn for Le Dieu bleu 1912–14

The Blue God (1912), a ballet based on Krishna, was created for Nijinsky. His solo included poses inspired by Hindu sculpture, and his costume featured a closed lotus flower among sunrays on the appliquéd torso. Nijinsky and Fokine, who took over the role, were each photographed wearing different versions of the costume. The example here is more richly decorated.
Watered silk, inset with satin and embroidered with mother-of-pearl

Designed by Léon Bakst (1866–1924). V&A: S.547-1978

Costume for a Little God in Le Dieu bleu 1912

Léon Bakst’s lavish costumes emphasised design over choreography in The Blue God. A child performer wore this costume, whose tall headdress reveals the influence of Cambodia in its pyramid shape and sculptural forms.
Gold knit, satin and gold-painted decorations

Designed by Léon Bakst (1866–1924). V&A: S.613 to B-1980


russian-ballet-season-the-sphereThe Sphere, 23 May 1914, p. 247.

Vaslav Nijinsky’s costume for ‘Le Dieu bleu’. Some comments

In the very glamorous exhibition, Ballets Russes: the art of costume, currently showing until late March 2011 at the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra, one of the most discussed items is the tunic from the costume for the Blue God from the ballet of the same name—in its French form Le Dieu bleu.

blue-god-tunic-newLéon Baskt, Tunic from costume for the Blue God, c 1912, from Le Dieu Bleu National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, purchased 1987

Its popular appeal rests largely on the fact that the tunic was worn by Vaslav Nijinsky, creator of the role of the Blue God and dancer and choreographer with Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. Not only was the costume worn by Nijinsky and as far as we know by no-one else, but traces of the make-up Nijinsky wore as the Blue God can still be found as marks on the inside the costume.

But we also know that the ballet was not a major success and was given very few performances after its 1912 premiere and quickly disappeared from the repertoire. That there were only a few performances of the ballet is both a blessing and a curse.

From a positive point of view it means that the costume, designed by Léon Bakst one of Diaghilev’s best known designers, is in excellent condition. While this situation reflects in part the exemplary conservation that has been carried out by the National Gallery’s conservation staff, it also reflects the fact that despite that the fact that the tunic is almost 100 years old it has not suffered from the wear and tear that constant use has on the fabric, decoration and stitching of dance costumes. Its excellent condition may also relate to the fact that it was made by two of the top Parisian costumiers of the time, M. Landoff and Marie Muelle. Madame Muelle in particular is known to have insisted that only the best quality fabrics be used and that decorative elements be appliquéd or embroidered rather than stencilled onto the fabric. She was also said to have had a secret metal thread that never tarnished.

A close-up look at the costume reveals that it encapsulates many of the principles that Bakst used throughout his design career, in particular a use of different textures in the one costume and daringly juxtaposed patterns and colours. He always made his interests, which included his understanding that dance was about movement, very clear in his designs on paper.

blue-god-design-new

Léon Bakst, Illustration of the Blue God costume, p 29 in official program of the Ballets Russes at the Théâtre du Châtelet May–June 1912
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

The costume is largely made from silk, satin, velvet ribbon, braid and embroidery thread, although set against the luxury silken fabrics are panels made from a simpler cotton or rayon material patterned with a floral, lotus-inspired design. The tunic’s dominant colours are pink, blue, gold and green and black and triangular and diamond patterns sit beside curves and half circles. Emerald green jewel-like sequins spill down strips of olive green braid.

blue-god-tunic-new

Léon Baskt, Tunic from costume for the Blue God, c 1912, from Le Dieu Bleu
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, purchased 1987

Some parts of the tunic have been machine stitched. Others have been sewn by hand. The faux mother of pearl decorations along the hem of the tunic, for example, were hand sewn onto the fabric and the tacking stitches joining them together in a row can be seen where some of the decorations, now extremely fragile, have fallen off. The tunic has a row of metal fasteners, hooks and eyes, running right down the back—no zips, no Velcro in those days. Nijinsky would have simply held out his arms as the tunic was slipped on by his dresser, who would then have hooked him into the costume.

The Gallery’s collection also includes the gold headdress for the costume. It is equally as fascinating to study close up. Its double row of decorative points attached to a tight fitting skull cap is made of metallic gauze stitched by hand onto a wire frame with metallic thread—perhaps even with Mme Muelle’s untarnishable secret thread?

But in a more negative vein, because the work was performed on such a small number of occasions, what do we know about the choreography? Probably very little really. However, a number of historians have noted that Bakst and Michel Fokine, Le Dieu bleu‘s choreographer, had been deeply impressed by performances given in St Petersburg in 1900 by the dancers of the Royal Siamese Court and had incorporated choreographic and visual ideas from these performances into several Ballets Russes productions on which they worked, including Le Dieu bleu. Still photographs of Nijinsky show that static poses rather than a fluid and expressionistic form of movement may have been dominant, recalling the dance style of the Siamese dancers.

But another dance troupe from the other side of the world probably had just as much influence on the creation of Le Dieu bleu as did the dancers of the Royal Siamese Court. In 1906 the Royal Cambodian Ballet came to France for the Colonial Exhibition staged in Marseille, Cambodia being at that stage a protectorate of France. The Cambodians gave several performances in Paris in July of that year, just as Diaghilev was in Paris preparing for his major exhibition of Russian paintings, which was presented a little later that year at the Salon d’automne. It is hard to imagine that Diaghilev and his team would have been unaware of the Cambodians. They caused a sensation in Paris and had a major influence on a number of French artists, including the sculptor Auguste Rodin who followed the company to Marseille and executed a major series of drawings of the dancers. Many newspapers, including the Parisian daily Le Petit Journal and the influential Le Petit Parisien, carried news of and advertisements for the Cambodians and most carried drawings and posters of the dancers against a background of Cambodian temples.

le-petit-journal-newCover of Le Petit Journal, 24 June 1906

Bakst appears to have drawn on these printed sources for his backcloth, which features a huge rock face carved with faces of gods. It clearly recalls the posters in Parisian newspapers, which in turn recall the huge faces carved into the rock at the gateways to the Angkor Thom temple in Siem Reap, Cambodia.

Costumes for subsidiary characters in the ballet as held by the Victoria and Albert Museum and on display in their London exhibition, Diaghilev and the golden age of the Ballets Russes 1909–1929, confirm that Bakst was indeed influenced by the interest in Cambodia that was generated in 1906. In particular the costume for a Little God, illustrated on p. 79 of the Victoria and Albert Museum’s catalogue, shows a towering headdress with four god-like faces smiling beatifically out to the potential auditorium. The headdress looks totally unlike anything a Cambodian dancer would have worn (or currently wears). The faces look a little more like Western-style putti than anything else and one can’t help but wonder whether Bakst only ever saw the cover of French magazines of the time and never the dancers themselves. However, the Cambodian influence is clearly there.

But the tunic for the Blue God will always evoke the man who created the role and who caused so many scandals for the Ballets Russes of Serge Diaghilev, that is Vaslav Nijinsky. The power of his name, like that of Anna Pavlova, will always make anything associated with him appealing to a wide spectrum of the population. One of Nijinsky’s colleagues, the ballerina Lydia Sokolova, has described in her memoirs the first sight the audience would have had of Nijinsky as the Blue God. She writes that he was seen ‘at the top of a flight of wide steps at the back of the stage, seated on a throne with legs crossed, holding a flower’. He was wearing the tunic now on display in Ballets Russes: the art of costume.

nijinsky-in-costume-newUnknown photographer, M Waslaw Nijinski (Le Dieu), p 36 in Comœdia Illustré, special edition, no 16, 15 May 1912.  National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

© Michelle Potter, 27 December 2010

This post is an amplified and enhanced version of my article ‘Homage to the Blue God’ first published by The Canberra Times on 18 December 2010.

The website for the National Gallery’s exhibition is at this link.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

  • Bell, Robert (ed.). Ballets Russes: the art of costume (Canberra: National Gallery of Australia 2010)
  • Buckle, Richard (ed). Dancing for Diaghilev. The memoirs of Lydia Sokolova. Paperback edition (San Francisco: Mercury House, 1989)
  • Misler, Nicoletta. ‘Siamese dancing and the Ballets Russes’ in Nancy van Norman Baer (ed.), The art of enchantment: the Ballets Russes 1909–1929 (San Francisco: Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, 1988), pp. 78–83
  • Musée Rodin. Rodin and the Cambodian dancers: his final passion (Paris: Editions du Musée Rodin, 2006)
  • Pritchard, Jane (ed.). Diaghilev and the golden age of the Ballets Russes 1909–1929 (V & A Publishing, 2010)

Comments on this post are now closed. The discussion continues on part two.

‘Diaghilev and the Golden Age of the Ballets Russes’. Victoria and Albert Museum

The Victoria and Albert Museum, London, has an enviable collection of theatrical costumes from the Diaghilev era, many of which (or is it all of which?) are displayed in the museum’s current, celebratory exhibition Diaghilev and the Golden Age of the Ballets Russes. There are some real gems to be seen. I was especially attracted by a costume worn by Tamara Karsavina as Zobeide in Schéhérazade. Not the more familiar Zobeide costume of harem pants and bodice but a soft, deep purple dress with painted gold designs scattered over the skirt and a top decorated with golden braid. Designed by Bakst, it was apparently worn only briefly before the more familiar costume became popular.

Also quite fascinating was a costume worn by a child performer in Le Dieu bleu, a golden costume of pants and top with a tall headdress reminiscent in shape of those worn by Thai and Cambodian dancers (although far less complex in decoration). While we are used to seeing the costume worn by the Blue God himself, costumes for the ancillary characters, in this case a ‘Little God’, are less common.

Some of the costumes are displayed with quite dizzying effect. For example, some ten or twelve costumes from the famous (or infamous) Nijinsky/Stravinsky/Roerich Rite of Spring are arranged on a tiered framework and are grouped into men’s and women’s costumes. The display gives a very clear view of the range of patterns and colours used by Roerich in designing the work. It is truly an embarrassment of riches.

I also loved the two appearances of Lydia Sokolova on film. One snippet is a two minute silent film made in 1922 called Dancing grace: novel studies of Lydia Sokolova the famous dancer. By today’s technical standards Sokolova’s turn out is pretty much non existent and she rarely points her feet, but as she executes a cabriole followed by an assemblé her sense of movement throughout the whole body is breathtakingly expansive. In another piece of footage Sokolova is wonderfully eccentric as she exclaims over one of the costumes she once wore, which was going under the hammer at the Sotheby’s auction of 1968. Clearly an outstanding dancer and a great lady.

The moment of greatest impact for me, however, came as I turned a corner into a new room to be confronted by the magnificent backcloth by Natalia Goncharova for the final scene of The Firebird. The huge and imposing cloth representing a Russian walled city, inspired we are told by frescoes by Andrea Mantegna, is familiar from many images in books. But to see it in real life is a remarkable experience. It is hung diagonally across the space of a quite small gallery. Above a brick wall that stretches horizontally across the bottom one eighth or so of the cloth, Russian buildings are piled vertically on top of each other, stretching upwards to a patch of deep blue sky. It’s a brilliant piece of work by Goncharova, impressively constructed with its horizontal lower and upper sections anchoring the towering verticality of the block of buildings. In terms of colour it is equally impressive with the golden onion domes of the Russian towers set off against patches of rich, red on the building walls.

Stravinsky’s Firebird music fills the space and the other walls show shadowy images of the Firebird, in this case Begoña Cao of the English National Ballet, dancing against a changing background of fire, original programs, images of Karsavina as the first Firebird, the musical score and a range of other images. Subsidiary material relating to The Firebird is shown on the walls of the previous gallery and includes a squared up design for the cloth and various versions of the design. All together it makes for a wonderful gallery-going experience.

The morning I was there the place was packed with people, all of whom had their favourite items as I did I am sure. And therein lies the rub. Diaghilev and the Golden Age of the Ballets Russes is a hugely ambitious show, perhaps overly ambitious. I couldn’t see the point of some items on display. Was there really any need to display a perfume bottle that once held the Guerlain perfume thought to be the favourite scent of Diaghilev? And there was the usual selection of devotional items —Diaghilev’s top hat and opera glasses and an assortment of pointe shoes worn by various Ballets Russes stars. But what was the argument at the heart of the show? In the end it became nothing more than a huge cabinet of curiosities, which is perhaps fitting given its location in a museum named after two giants of the Victorian age, when such cabinets were all the rage.

Michelle Potter, 21 October 2010