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

The Victoria & 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

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