Degas dancer, the Courtauld Gallery (detail)

Dance and art in London, November 2016

Being in London is always full of dance surprises. Apart from performances, the city’s galleries almost always have a dance-related exhibition, or a small display featuring dance items from their permanent collections. This November, for example, the Courtauld Gallery had a particularly interesting show, Rodin and dance. The essence of movement. It examined Rodin’s mouvements de danse, until now a little known a series of sculptures, with accompanying drawings, made towards the end of his life.

The first room of the exhibition had a section that looked at the inspiration Rodin drew from the visit to France by the Royal Cambodian Ballet in 1906, which I have discussed briefly in a different context elsewhere on this site. This room included a small number of the very beautiful drawings in pencil, watercolour and gouache that Rodin made of the Cambodian dancers, along with photographs of contemporary dancers who also influenced Rodin, including Loïe Fuller and Ruth St Denis, and some photographs of Rodin himself.

: Emile Sanremo

Auguste Rodin sketching a Cambodian dancer in France in 1906. Photo: Émile Sanremo

The second, and main room contained material devoted to the mouvements de danse, a collection of terracotta and plaster figures, with some bronze castings, and accompanying drawings showing extreme dance movements and acrobatic poses. Although the drawings had been exhibited during Rodin’s lifetime, the sculptures had not. While they were all fascinating to look at—and there is a handsome exhibition catalogue (Rodin and dance. The essence of movement (London: Paul Holberton, 2016)—a model of Vaslav Nijinsky (in fact two models, one in plaster and one in bronze) attracted my attention.

Auguste Rodin, bronze casting of Vaslav Nijinsky (original model 1912)

Auguste Rodin, bronze casting of a model of Vaslav Nijinsky (original model 1912)

Rodin is known to have been at the opening night of Nijinsky’s L’après-midi d’un faun in Paris in May 1912 and followed up with an article in the Parisian newspaper Le Matin in which he showered Nijinsky with praise. Shortly afterwards, Nijinsky reputedly visited Rodin in his studio when it is thought the model for the sculpture was made. Looking at the sculpture it is impossible not to notice a certain turbulence and intensity in the figure. It is quite breathtaking in fact.

The Courtauld also has a collection of bronzes and paintings by Degas including the one shown as the featured image in this post. This particular bronze made me wonder about how it was made. Did a model pose, and if so was she a dancer? Most dancers, I think, would automatically take a pose with the lifted arm in opposition to the pointed foot, rather than same arm as leg as in the sculpture. Or did Degas simply model from memory, or just by adding body parts unthinkingly? But however it was made, this sculpture looked particularly beautiful as a shadowy figure with light streaming through the window.

The other major show with a strong dance component was an exhibition, Picasso Portraits, at the National Portrait Gallery. One room was devoted to portraits and some photographs of Picasso’s first wife, Diaghilev dancer Olga Khokhlova. While the portraits and drawings were fascinating, so too were some photographs of Olga, including two of her on the roof of the Minerva Hotel in Rome and some wonderful home movie footage of the family—Picasso, Olga, their son Paulo, and the family dog enjoying some light-hearted family moments.

A portrait of Olga appears on the cover of the catalogue (Elizabeth Cowling, Picasso Portraits (London: National Portrait Gallery, 2016).

Book cover, Picasso Portraits

Other rooms in the Picasso Portraits exhibition contained items relating to Ballets Russes personnel including composers, designers and of course Jean Cocteau looking particularly dashing in one pencil drawing in two dimensional, Egyptian style representing, so the caption said, Cocteau’s well known vanity.

Michelle Potter, 12 November 2016

Featured image:  Edgar Degas, bronze sculpture of a dancer, right foot forward, the Courtauld Gallery, London. Photo: Michelle Potter

Degas dancer, the Courtauld Gallery

Alexandre Riabko in Nijinsky, 2016. Photo: Jeff Busby

‘Nijinsky’. The Australian Ballet

7 September 2016, State Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre, Melbourne

Alexandre Riabko, guesting with the Australian Ballet in the lead role on the opening night performance of John Neumeier’s Nijinsky, has been dancing that role since at least 2003 when Hamburg Ballet guested in Paris. He may well have danced it even earlier. At the work’s world premiere in Hamburg in 2000 he took the role of the dancer Nijinsky as Harlequin in Le Carnaval and the Spirit of the Rose in Le Spectre de la rose. Thus the ballet Nijinsky, and the role of Vaslav Nijinsky, have been part of his dancing life for more than fifteen years. And so it was not surprising, but nevertheless thrilling, that his performance throughout the ballet was exceptional. It was exceptional from his first commanding entrance and walk down the steps leading to the space where he was to dance, through to his dramatic finale, performed in the same space, albeit now an arena that contained signs of destruction, as indeed did Nijinsky’s state of mind. Riabko held the work together. It was a tour de force by a dancer who communicated with every inch of his body.

Those with whom Riabko shared the stage—characters representing Nijinsky’s family, especially his wife Romola; characters that Nijinsky danced during his career; dancers from Diaghilev’s Ballet Russe, including Tamara Karsavina and Leonide Massine; Diaghilev himself; soldiers and others representing war, against which Nijinsky was so opposed—had mixed success.

Leanne Stojmenov was a standout as Nijinsky’s sister, Bronislava Nijinska, especially in the Rite of Spring scene (of which sadly there seem to be no media images available, but see below for Stojmenov as the Young Woman in Jeux).

Leanne Stojmenov and Alexandre Riabko in 'Nijinsky', the Australian Ballet 2016. Photo Jeff Busby

Leanne Stojmenov and Alexandre Riabko in Nijinsky. The Australian Ballet, 2016. Photo: © Jeff Busby

In the Rite of Spring scene, where Stojmenov played the Chosen Virgin, she danced as if there was no tomorrow, tossing her body into Neumeier’s demanding positions, flinging herself from side to side, hair in disarray. In fact this scene, with Riabko/Nijinsky standing on a chair shouting out instructions to the performers, is one of the most exciting of the evening. (To the Australian Ballet: oh please get access to the Pina Bausch Rite of Spring and put Stojmenov in the lead. She would be stunning).

I also thought that François-Eloi Lavignac was outstanding as Stanislav, Nijinsky’s brother. His small, compact but very flexible body perfectly suited Neumeier’s writhing movements. Stanislav’s death was a compelling scene.

Along with Lavignac and Stojmenov, I was also impressed by Cristano Martino as the dancer Nijinsky as the Faun in L’après-midi d’un faune, and the Golden Slave in Schéhérazade. His Golden Slave was slinky and strongly sexual. His Faun was beautifully controlled and conveyed an innate power.

Cristiano Martino as the Faun on 'Nijinsky'. The Australian Ballet, 2016. Photo: Jeff Busby

Cristiano Martino as the Faun in Nijinsky. The Australian Ballet, 2016. Photo: © Jeff Busby

As ever, however, I longed for so many of the others in the cast to have more artistry in their performance and, for the first time in my various encounters with this ballet, I felt as though Neumeier’s Nijinsky was too long and too slow in parts. I still get the feeling that the dancers of the Australian Ballet focus on steps, and Neumeier’s Nijinsky is not about steps. I was disappointed, for example, with Adam Bull’s portrayal of Diaghilev. Bull is an excellent dancer but I think of Diaghilev as an eccentric character and there was nothing eccentric about Bull’s interpretation. For me he was a ballet dancer pretending to be Diaghilev. Similarly with Amy Harris as Romola. I got no feeling for what kind of person she might have been.

I did enjoy the sets and costumes (concept by Neumeier) more in this viewing than previously, when I guess I was more focused on what was happening and who was who. Neumeier’s use of ‘attributes’ rather than detailed costuming to distinguish characters was aesthetically pleasing and the circles of light that occasionally appeared as part of a particular setting recalled Nijinsky’s fascinating circular drawings, some of which are part of Neumeier’s personal collection of Nijinsky memorabilia.

Alexandre Riabko in 'Nijinsky'. The Australian Ballet 2016. Photo: Jeff Busby

Alexandre Riabko in Nijinsky. The Australian Ballet, 2016. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Nijinsky is a thrilling work and I bow to Neumeier’s concept. But I hope that throughout the Australian Ballet season, as it continues in Melbourne, and then goes to Adelaide and Sydney, that stronger characterisations might emerge from more of the dancers.

Michelle Potter, 9 September 2016

Featured image: Alexandre Riabko in Nijinsky. The Australian Ballet 2016. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Alexandre Riabko in Nijinsky, 2016. Photo: Jeff Busby

My review of Nijinsky with Hamburg Ballet in Brisbane in 2012 is at this link.

‘The diaries of Vaslav Nijinsky’. Paul Cox’s ‘cinematic poem’.

The death earlier in June of film maker Paul Cox sent me in search of a DVD copy of his film The diaries of Vaslav Nijinsky. The backstory is that Cox heard actor Paul Schofield on British radio reading from Nijinsky’s diaries (cahiers), which were first released in 1936 after having been rearranged and edited dramatically by Nijinsky’s wife, Romola.From that moment Cox was smitten and wanted to make a film based on the diaries. The making was a drawn-out experience (it took three years),2 but the film was eventually completed in 2001 and released in 2002. Cox has referred to it as a ‘cinematic poem’: it is certainly far from a documentary in the commonly understood meaning of the term.

Nijinsky began writing down his thoughts as a kind of diary on the morning of his last public performance, which he gave at the Suvretta Hotel in St Moritz on 19 January 1919. He wrote his last entry on 4 March that same year, the day he was to go to Zurich to see the psychiatrist, Eugen Bleuler, who would decide that he was suffering from incurable schizophrenia and who would advise, among other things, that he be admitted to a sanatorium. There are three exercise books of writing and drawing, with the first two books containing sections of Nijinsky’s own form of dance notation. The fourth notebook contains several letters to family, friends and others. The three diary books are held by the Jerome Robbins Dance Division, New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. The fourth book of letters is held in Paris by the Department of Music, Bibliothèque nationale.

I found Cox’s film (which I must admit I had never seen before) absolutely mesmerising. It is in many respects a collage of images that flash past us, some of which return hauntingly throughout the film. Sometimes they are photographs of Nijinsky in his well-known roles for the Ballets Russes, such as the image at the top if this post, which shows Nijinsky as Petrushka. Sometimes they are images from nature, with flowing water and birds, in particular a crane, appearing frequently. Cox also plays with light and shade and there are many fleeting, emotive moments where shadows flicker over walls, water, and natural features of the landscape. The images reflect Nijinsky’s words as they are written in the diaries and are spoken as a voice over by Derek Jacobi.

The film begins with a funeral procession, Nijinsky’s funeral. As the coffin and the mourning party move down a pathway we see ‘ghosts’ of Nijinsky hovering in the background and sometimes merging with the funeral procession. They are characters Nijinsky played in the ballets that made him the famous male dancer that he was—the Spirit of the Rose from Le spectre de la rose, the Golden Slave from Scheherazade, the Faune from L’Après-midi d’un faune, and so on. These characters appear, disappear and reappear throughout the film, slipping between the other images, always reminding us of Nijinsky’s remarkable dancing career.

The dancing components, like the characters who hover around the funeral procession, are interspersed seemingly randomly between the flow of non-dancing imagery. David McAllister and Vicki Attard appear as the two characters in Le Spectre de la rose, while dancers from Leigh Warren and Dancers take on most of the other dancing roles. I admired Aidan Kane Munn’s ‘War Dance’, which he choreographed as a tormented, quivering solo and danced blank-faced. This was the item Nijinsky chose to dance at Suvretta House: ‘Now I will dance you the war … the war which you did not prevent.’ It is described by Joan Acocella (following Romola Nijinsky’s description) as ‘a violent solo, presumably improvised’ and analysed by Ramsay Burt in relation to Nijinsky’s thoughts on war and peace.I also especially admired Csaba Buday’s performance as the Faune in a version of L’Après-midi d’un faune choreographed by Alida Chase and set outdoors in a clearing surrounded by trees and bushes. There was an animal-like awareness to Munn’s reactions as the Nymphs passed by, and his closing scene with the veil was gentle yet blatantly sexual.

There is a kind of narrative component to anchor the imagery and dancing. We meet Romola and her parents and the various doctors who examined Nijinsky, for example. But we never hear them speak, although their body language and facial expressions give us clues as to how the story and their thoughts about Nijinsky are unfolding. Their presence forces us to face the reality that is behind the film.

DVD cover

The diaries of Vaslav Nijinsky is a truly beautiful, painterly film. Like John Neumeier’s Nijinsky, which Hamburg Ballet performed in Australia in 2012, it is absolutely compelling and arouses so many thoughts about the nature of Nijinsky—the man and the dancer. But, in contrast to the Neumeier work, the Cox film is almost serene in its overall mood, despite some confronting and bloody images relating to Nijinsky’s vegetarianism, and the challenging words and ideas spoken forcefully by Jacobi. That I find the mood serene is is not to suggest, however, that Cox has not presented the drama and the confusion of thought that permeated Nijinsky’s life. It is just felt in a different manner. The film and the dance work complement each other in a very unusual way and, having at last seen the film, I look forward immensely to seeing the Neumeier work again when it is performed by the Australian Ballet later this year.

Michelle Potter, 25 June 2016

Featured image: Vaslav Nijinsky as Petrushka. Photographer and source unknown

1. Joan Acocella, in her introduction to the unexpurgated edition of the diaries, published in English in 1999 as The Diary of Vaslav Nijinsky, explains in detail how Romola altered the diaries in that first publishing endeavour of 1936. In particular Acocella notes that around 40% of the contents of the diaries was omitted. Acocella’s introduction is, as is all her writing, lucid and informed: Joan Acocella (ed.), The Diary of Vaslav Nijinsky (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1999).

2. Philip Tyndall describes the development of the film saying that Cox ‘did much of the cinematography himself in addition to the writing, directing, co-producing and editing.’ Philip Tyndall, ‘The diaries of Vaslav Nijinsky. The culmination of a career.’ In Sense of Cinema. Issue 20, May 2002. Accessed 25 June 2016.

3. Ramsay Burt, ‘Alone in the world. Reflections on solos from 1919 by Vaslav Nijinsky and Mary Wigman’. In On Stage Alone. Soloists and the modern dance canon, eds Claudia Gitelman and Barbara Palfy (Gainesville FL: University of Florida Press, 2012).

Artist of the Australian Ballet in costume for 'Coppelia'. Photo: Justin Ridler

The Australian Ballet in 2016

Benedicte Bemet (left), Cristiano Martino (centre), and Jade Wood (right), 2015. Photos: © Justin Ridler

Mixed in with old faithfuls like Swan Lake and Coppélia, the Australian Ballet’s program for 2016 contains one or two works that we can anticipate with a bit of excitement. One of them is John Neumeier’s Nijinsky, which will be seen in Melbourne, Adelaide and Sydney, although we will have to wait until the last few months of the year.

Nijinsky was created in 2000 for Neumeier’s Hamburg Ballet and was seen recently in Australia when Hamburg Ballet performed it in Brisbane in 2012. On that occasion it received a standing ovation on its opening night—and I mean a real standing ovation where the theatre rose as one. No stragglers, no people leaving to catch the subway before the rush, no one standing up because they couldn’t see what was happening because the person in the row in front was blocking their view. A proper standing ovation. Neumeier calls Nijinsky ‘a biography of the soul, of feelings, emotions, and of states of mind’. It needs wonderful dancing, and fabulous acting. My fingers are crossed. Here is what I wrote about it from Brisbane.

Another program that fills me with anticipation is a triple bill called Vitesse presenting works by Christopher Wheeldon (DGV: Danse à grande vitesse), Jiri Kylian (Forgotten Land) and William Forsythe (In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated). It is scheduled for the early part of the year and will be seen in Melbourne and Sydney.

Forgotten Land and In the Middle are not new to the Australian Ballet repertoire having been introduced during Maina Gielgud’s artistic directorship. I remember watching people leave the auditorium after the opening sounds of Thom Willems score for In the Middle (it was 20 years ago), but it showed off certain dancers of that era absolutely brilliantly. But the Wheeldon is new to Australia. It is a work for 26 dancers with four pairs of dancers at the heart of the work. It shows in particular Wheeldon’s skill at creating pas de deux. In the Royal Ballet program notes from its showing in 2011, Roslyn Sulcas writes of Wheeldon that ‘[He]—like his ballets—is both traditional and innovative, able to inhabit an older world while moving firmly forward towards the new.’ Here is what I wrote after seeing it, on a very different mixed bill program, in London in 2011.

Then I await Stanton Welch’s Romeo and Juliet, exclusive to Melbourne in June and July, with anticipation mixed with trepidation. I was not a fan of his Bayadère, although I have loved some of his shorter works. But the word is that his R & J is ‘quite good’. Fingers crossed again.

Dancers of Houston Ballet in Stanton Welch's 'Romeo and Juliet'. Photo Amitava Sarkar

Dancers of Houston Ballet in Stanton Welch’s Romeo and Juliet. Photo: Amitava Sarkar

As for the rest of the year, Brisbane will get Ratmansky’s Cinderella in February; Stephen Baynes’ Swan Lake returns with seasons in Sydney, Adelaide and Melbourne; a program called Symphony in C will run concurrently in Sydney with the Vitesse program, although it is not exactly clear as yet of what the Symphony in C program will consist; and Coppélia will be in Sydney and Melbourne towards the end of the year. I think this is the Peggy van Praagh/George Ogilvie production from 1979, but the media release is a little confusing. ‘Having first revisited Coppélia in 1979, the great choreographer re-invigorated it thirty years later with this joyful and sumptuous production.’ Who is that great choreographer? Not PVP who was not really the choreographer and who died anyway in 1990.

And for my Canberra readers, we won’t be seeing the Australian Ballet in 2016 in the national capital where we too pay taxes.

Michelle Potter, 23 September 2015 

Featured image: Dancer of the Australian Ballet in costume for Coppélia, 2015 (detail). Photo: © Justin Ridler

Artist of the Australian Ballet in costume for 'Coppelia'. Photo: Justin Ridler

  • Full details of the 2016 season are on the Australian Ballet’s website.

‘Nijinsky’. Hamburg Ballet

26 August 2012, Playhouse, Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Brisbane

John Neumeier’s Nijinsky is an unusual work and defies easy categorisation. It is neither an abstract nor a narrative work. It’s more like a series of pictures that unfold throughout the work, building to a huge climax in the second part. Those pictures represent random events in the life of Vaslav Nijinsky and are really a series of flashbacks presented to reflect his diagnosed schizophrenic condition. They begin as he prepares to give his final dance performance—a Red Cross benefit show at the Hotel Suvretta in Saint-Moritz, Switzerland.* Neumeier uses this flashback technique to explore many different facets of Nijinsky’s life. We encounter him as a brother and a son, a dancer, a lover, a choreographer, a husband, and we are given impressions of the emotional states that accompany those roles in his life. Not only are these flashbacks random pictures, they also push us headlong into a maelstrom as they combine together, out of historical and any logical sequence and in a surreal fashion. Neumeier calls it a ‘biography of the soul’.

Artists of Hamburg Ballet in 'Nijinsky'. Photo Holger BadekowAlexandre Riabko, Anna Polikarpova and Otto Bubenicek in Nijinsky, Hamburg Ballet. Photo: © Holger Badekow

There are some thrilling moments of dancing. The trio between Nijinsky’s wife, Romola (Anna Polikarpova), Nijinsky (Alexandre Riabko) and Nijinsky as the seductive Faun (Otto Bubenicek), in which Neumeier explores facets of love and desire and life and art, is one such moment. The trio between Diaghilev, Nijinsky and another young dancer, where we see the destructive power of Diaghilev, is another. But for me the most powerful moments come in the second part of the work, when Nijinsky feels attacked from all sides—his schizophrenia is a reality, the Great War begins, his brother Stanislaw dies, Massine takes his place in Diaghilev’s life and activities and Romola has a liaison with his doctor. The pressure is relentless and we can feel it in so many ways. We see it when Nijinsky stands on a chair shouting out counts, as history tells us he did when his dancers struggled with Stravinsky’s music for Rite of Spring. We see it in the figure of Petrouchka (Lloyd Riggins), pale, wan and squashed emotionally as the drama continues around him. There is a remarkable performance from Aleix Martinez as Stanislaw, the brother, who dies as figures in military dress throw themselves about the stage. And how horrifying are those raucous moments when the dancers, still dressed as figures at war, humiliate Nijinsky as he struggles to cope with his world.

I wonder, however, how easy it was for the audience to understand on occasions who was who and what was happening. It does make a difference to one’s perception of the overall work to know something of Nijinsky’s choreography, and that of his sister Bronislava. There were many times when poses (albeit very well-known poses), from Jeux and Les noces for example, set the work in a particular context. Similarly costumes and props often gave significant clues. Nijinsky is clearly one of those ‘giving’ works that means more each time one sees it; but then not everyone has those opportunities. Neumeier knows his subject well and in fact has a large personal collection of Nijinsky memorabilia and other documentation.** But does he expect the audience to have the same in depth knowledge? Does it matter that not everyone has the same understanding of Nijinsky’s world?

Nijinsky had the audience on its feet at the end of its first performance in Brisbane. It is rare, I believe, for an Australian audience to rise as one and give a standing ovation and I can remember only one other occasion in Australia when I have thought that I was witnessing, and was part of, a ‘real’ standing ovation rather than one that’s a bit like a reverse fall of dominoes—if you want to see the curtain calls you have to stand up because the person in front is blocking your view. Nijinsky is sometimes hard to follow. I was confused at times and it wasn’t my first viewing.*** But the quality of the production, especially its visual strength, some fine performances, and the absolutely compelling manner in which the work surges forward and then concludes by returning to its beginnings in the Hotel Suvretta, generate in the audience an equally compelling desire to stand up and cheer. I did.

Michelle Potter, 28 August 2012

NOTES

*Ramsay Burt has an interesting essay ‘Alone into the world: reflections on solos from 1919 by Vaslav Nijinsky and Mary Wigman’ in the recent publication On stage alone, which I reviewed earlier this month. Burt looks, amongst other things, at the Suvretta performance in the context of Nijinsky’s philosophical opposition to war.

**John Neumeier has an extended essay on his collection and his fascination with Nijinsky in the catalogue that accompanied the major exhibition Nijinsky (1889–1950) at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris in 2000–2001. The catalogue also contains images and information about many of the Nijinsky items owned by Neumeier. See Martine Kahane, Nijinsky 1889–1950 (Paris: Réunion des musées nationaux, 2000).

***Nijinsky had its premiere in Hamburg in 2000. I was  lucky enough to catch it in 2002 when Hamburg Ballet was guesting in Paris. Looking back at that 2002 program it was interesting to see that some roles were, in 2012, still being danced by those who performed them in 2002.

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.