Tatiana Leskova and Anna Volkova

I am delighted to have renewed just recently my connections with two of the dancers who performed in Australia with the Ballets Russes companies of Colonel de Basil—Tatiana Leskova and Anna Volkova. Both feature in the photograph album that was the subject of a recent post, James Upshaw and Lydia Kuprina in South America, sometimes together, sometimes alone or with others. They were and still are great friends.

(left) Tatiana Leskova and Anna Volkova in South America, ca. 1942. (right) Anna Volkova in Cotillon. Private collection

Both remembered Upshaw and Kuprina quite clearly and Leskova was able to tell me that Upshaw died in France, although exactly when is still unclear.

Leskova celebrated her 90th birthday in December—’I turned 17 on the boat coming to Australia’, she recalls—and is still very active in the dance world. Her biography, written by Suzana Braga and published in Brazilian Portuguese (Tatiana Leskova: uma bailarina solta no mundo) in Rio de Janeiro in 2005, has recently been translated into English. In addition, the irrepressible Leskova has just published a book of photographs. I hope to write about these publications at a later date.

Michelle Potter, 22 December 2012

HOW TO ORDER

‘It brought back so many memories’—Jill Sykes

James Upshaw and Lydia Kuprina in South America

Recently I had the good fortune to be contacted about a photograph album believed to have belonged to James Upshaw, probably best known in Australia for his work as television producer for the ABC. The album was indeed assembled by Upshaw and the photographs largely cover a period from 1942 until 1946. During this period Upshaw and his then wife, Phillida Cooper, or Lydia Kuprina as she was known at the time, danced their way around Central and South America, first as members of Colonel de Basil’s Original Ballet Russe and then as an independent dance duo.

James Upshaw ca. 1943James Upshaw, ca. 1942

Cooper had been a pupil of Melbourne teachers Eunice Weston and Jennie Brenan and had left Australia in 1939 to study ballet in Paris with Lubov Egorova. She returned with the de Basil company for its third tour of Australia, 1939‒1940, and then left with them in 1940 for the United States. With de Basil she danced under the name of Lydia Couprina. Her birth name may have been Helen Phillida Cooper, although on some archival records she appears as Phillida Helen.

Upshaw was born in 1921 in Paris to an American father and a French mother and spent his childhood and youth in France and America. I have not yet been able to ascertain where he trained as a dancer but he appears to have joined de Basil in New York at the end of 1941 apparently, as did others, to escape military service. A letter dated May 1943 from Valrene Tweedie (whom Upshaw married at a later stage in Australia) to her friend Marnie Martin in Sydney explains:

 Phyllida married Jimmy Upshaw, one of the boys escaping the draft.

They married in Buenos Aires in 1942. It was probably in 1944 or 1945 that Upshaw and Cooper took on independent work dancing in nightclubs and casinos and later venturing into film. They later toured in Europe and danced on television in London before returning to Australia in the early 1950s.

Upshaw and Kuprina, Rio 1946Lydia Kuprina and James Upshaw performing in Rio de Janeiro, 1946

The album recalls other albums assembled by dancers while on tour and contains leisure shots as well as rehearsal and performance shots. It is especially interesting to see the repertoire that was being performed, and to see that it was sometimes being performed outdoors.

Faune outdoorsA performance of L’Après-midi d’un faune, Viña de Mar, Chile 1942

But what makes this album particularly significant is that it documents the activities of the Original Ballet Russe following the infamous strike of 1941, which resulted in a period of several months when the de Basil dancers were stranded and practically penniless. Looking at the album without the knowledge of the difficulties that the strike engendered, and which continued to plague the company for the rest of its existence, it would be easy to imagine that all was fun and games. The album nevertheless gives a wonderful insight into company life and will I’m sure yield more knowledge of this period of de Basil’s company.

at-the-beach-2On the beach in Rio, 1942

Michelle Potter, 5 December 2012

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‘It brought back so many memories’—Jill Sykes
This book is available to library clients through James Bennett Library Services

Dance diary. October 2012

  • Dancing bronzes

During October I was utterly transfixed by an exhibition called Bronze on show at the Royal Academy of Arts in London. I was sceptical when I read so many reviews all with glowing descriptions that seemed to border on hyperbole. But the exhbition was absolutely mind-blowing in its scope, in the intelligence of its presentation and in the power of the objects on display.

The centrepiece of the show is the ‘Dancing Satyr’, a slightly larger than life figure around 2,300 years old, which was dragged out of the sea by fishermen in 1998. It is the first object one encounters on entering the exhibition space and, although it is missing both arms and one leg, the sense of movement emanating from the figure is brilliant. No matter from which angle one looks at the figure it is dancing, wildly. Bathed in a soft, moody light this beautiful figure is the sole object in a quite large space. The impact is almost overpowering.

Dancing SatyrDancing Satyr, Greek, Hellenistic period, Third–second centuries BCE; Bronze, with white alabaster for eyes, H. 200 cm; Museo del Satiro, Church of Sant’Egidio, Mazara del Vallo; Photo Sicily, Regione Siciliana—Assessorato Regionale dei Beni Culturali e dell’Identità Siciliana—Dipartimento dei Beni Culturali e dell’Identità Siciliana—Servizio Museo interdisciplinare Regionale “A. Pepoli” Trapani / © 2012. Photo Scala, Florence

The show contains other dancing items including a serene dancing Shiva.

Of course many of the bronzes have nothing to do at all with dance but they are astonishing as well and include some unexpected (to me) items from Africa. The show covers an exceptionally wide period of time from the ancient world to the present. On the non-dancing front I loved a spider, hovering high on a wall, by Louise Bourgeois and a couple of beer cans in bronze from Jasper Johns.

Bronze is at the Royal Acaemy of Arts, London, 15 September 2012 to 9 December 2012. It’s a great show.

  • Bolshoi Ballet in Brisbane

The Queensland Performing Arts Centre today announced its latest dance coup. Australian dance-goers will have the opportunity to see two programs by the Bolshoi Ballet in Brisbane in a season lasting from 30 May-9 June 2013. The Bolshoi is bringing two full-length works. The season opens with Le Corsaire based on the production created by Marius Petipa in the nineteenth century but in a revival by Alexei Ratmansky and Yuri Burlaka. The second program is another revival, this time of a 1935 work from the Soviet era, The bright stream, again with input from Alexei Ratmansky, who has given the work a fresh breath of life with new choreography.

Both works promise to be curiosities—The bright stream, for example, is set during a harvest festival on a collective farm in the Russian steppes where a Moscow dance troupe arrives to entertain the workers. The season is, however, an opportunity to consider Ratmansky’s work once more, especially in a year when his new Cinderella will be a feature of the Australian Ballet’s 2013 season.

'The bright stream', Bolshoi BalletDancers of the Bolshoi Ballet in The bright stream

More about the season at this link.

  • Yvonne Mounsey/Irina Zarova (1919–2012)

Late in September one of the few remaining dancers who performed in Australia with the Ballets Russes died in Los Angeles. Yvonne Mounsey, born Yvonne Leibbrandt in 1919 in Pretoria, South Africa, danced in Australia during the 1939‒1940 Original Ballet Russe tour under the name Irina Zarova. A quick scan of programs from that tour indicates that she danced in at least Pavane (see below), Scheherazade, Thamar, Le Coq d’or, Petrouchka, Francesca da Rimini, Coppélia and Etude. Mounsey then travelled with the de Basil company on to South America where she was involved in the infamous dancers’ strike.

'Pavane', Original Ballet Russe, 1940Tamara Grigorieva and Irina Zarova in Serge Lifar’s Pavane, Original Ballet Russe, 1940. Photo: National Library of Australia

Mounsey’s major career was in the United States with New York City Ballet and she had a long career as a teacher in Los Angeles. Here is a link to Alastair Macaulay’s obituary in The New York Times, the only one I have seen so far that mentions the Australian part of her life.

Michelle Potter, 31 October 2012

Dance diary. May 2012

  • Heath Ledger Project

In May, on a very grey Parisian morning, I continued my interviewing for the Heath Ledger Young Artists Oral History Project with an interview with Hannah O’Neill. O’Neill is currently dancing on a seasonal contract with the Paris Opera Ballet, having dreamt of dancing with this company since she was a young child.

Hannah O'Neill, Paris, May 2012
Hannah O’Neill at the Pont neuf, Paris, May 2012

O’Neill graduated from the Australian Ballet School in 2011 and in that year she also auditioned for the Paris Opera Ballet. She was placed fourth in a field of over 100 and as a result of the audition received a seasonal contract. Confident and articulate and looking every inch the dancer, she is taking Paris in her stride. She has recently had her contract extended until the end of July when she will have to audition again for a place in the company. In the meantime she is looking forward to a forthcoming season of La Fille mal gardée.

  • Meryl Tankard at the Cannes Film Festival

Over the past few years Meryl Tankard has been focusing her considerable talents on film making. She graduated from the directing course at the Australian Film Television and Radio School in 2010. It is a testament to her success in this endeavour that a short film she made called Moth was shown in May at the Cannes Film Festival. A glance at the program for the non-competitive Australian and New Zealand section of the Festival, Antipodes, puts her in exceptional company.

Tankard’s website has the following to say about Moth:

Moth is the story of three young women’s determination to be free, and is inspired by the stories from many reform schools in Australia in the 60s and 70s, and the brutal methods used to discipline the girls.

  • Pablo Picasso’s curtain for Parade

It was a surprise to discover hanging in the still quite new Pompidou Centre in the north-eastern French city of Metz the curtain from the 1917 Ballets Russes production of Parade. Conceived for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes by Jean Cocteau and first performed in Paris in May 1917, Parade had choreography by Léonide Massine, music by Erik Satie and costumes and settings by Pablo Picasso. The curtain is hanging in an exhibition entitled 1917, which has drawn together an array of visually disparate items, including some associated with war as well as with art in many of its manifestations. 1917 sets out to question the links between destruction, reconstruction and creation in a decisive year of World War I.

'Parade' curtain
Curtain for Parade (detail). Photo: Michelle Potter

The exhibition carries some additional items relating to Parade, including a program and some interesting photographs of the 1917 cast. But it was, of course, the curtain that attracted my attention. Although it is of monumental proportions, it is quite an intimate, even gentle piece of art. Its colours are soft and blend easily with each other and the picture is built on exceptionally complex, allegorical imagery. In gives no clue to the strident characteristics of the performance and the antics of the dancers in Parade whose role is to attract an audience into the circus tent, which we see before us on the curtain.

I was in the fortunate position of being able to see a performance of Parade in 2005 when it was staged by the Ballet of Bordeaux at the Diaghilev Festival held in Groningen, the Netherlands. The article I wrote for The Canberra Times about the Festival was also published online by the magazine of the ballet.co site. Here is what I wrote about Parade:

Leonide Massine’s Parade was one of the most anticipated works of the festival and it did not disappoint as a significant collaborative work of the period. With designs by Pablo Picasso, libretto by Cocteau and music by Erik Satie, which incorporated the assorted sounds of a siren and a typewriter and several pistol shots, Parade was created in response to the well-documented demand from Diaghilev to Cocteau—’Astonish me!’ It was also inspired by the Cubist movement in the visual arts and brought Cubism off the canvas and into the theatre. Set outside a travelling theatre with the slight narrative centring on the attempts of the characters to entice an audience into the show, the work premiered in 1917 in Paris and was recreated by the Joffrey Ballet in the 1970s. In Groningen it was performed by the Ballet de Bordeaux and, while it will perhaps always remain slightly eccentric, its apparently simplistic and unadorned choreography is a perfect foil for its idiosyncratic designs and music.U

  • Canberra dance

I was not in Canberra in May when Liz Lea presented her latest staging of 120 Birds. It also had a brief showing in Sydney at Riverside, Parramatta, after the Canberra season. Lea has a site that gathers together reviews of 120 Birds, including those for the 2012 Canberra/Sydney staging. In addition, here is a link to a preview piece I wrote for the one-woman version of 120 Birds, made for the National Gallery of Australia early in 2011 in conjunction with its exhibition Ballets russes: the art of costume.

  • New York Public Library

Over the past two months I have been following with considerable interest the upheavals at the New York Public Library, which have been reported upon in The New York Times and other outlets. The most comprehensive background account of the situation is ‘Lions in winter’ by journalist Charles Petersen and appears in n+1 at this link.

Many have wondered why I left New York in 2008 after eighteen months as curator of the Jerome Robbins Dance Division of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, given that it appeared to be the job of a lifetime for me. Well the issues that led to my resignation are complex (and it was not to get married as one report suggested!), but the majority can be grouped under questions of professionalism and accountability (or lack thereof in my opinion) in certain areas of the Library. In addition, I was dismayed by attitudes to curatorial autonomy, which in most cases did not fit with mine. It should, therefore, be fairly obvious where my opinions lie with regard to the present discussions.

Whether the Dance Division, and other research divisions at Lincoln Center, will be affected in the short or long term by the new plans reported upon by Petersen and others is not clear. However, I believe that the Dance Division is now but shadow of its former self and has been heading this way for some time.

Michelle Potter, 30 May 2012

Dance diary. March 2012

  • Kristian Fredrikson in New Zealand

In March I spent a week in Wellington, New Zealand, looking into the work made by Kristian Fredrikson for the Royal New Zealand Ballet and Wellington City Opera. I have nothing but praise for the staff of the Royal New Zealand Ballet, the Film Archive of New Zealand, the Dowse Art Museum and the National Library of New Zealand (despite the fact that the Library is currently closed to the public due to renovations) for their generous help with my research activities.

I was especially interested to see a recording of Swan Lake (that ballet again) from 1985—a production by Harry Haythorne who was at the time the Royal New Zealand Ballet’s artistic director. It linked up nicely with some designs for this production I had recently been examining in the National Library’s Fredrikson collection and it is always a bonus to see designs transformed into costumes and worn by dancers. Not only that, Haythorne’s production was quite different from anything I had seen before concentrating as it did on the character of Siegfried more than Odette, making something quite different out of von Rothbart and making a strong distinction between reality and fantasy. It was then a further bonus to see some of the costumes themselves, with their quite astonishing layering of fabric to achieve a textured look, at the Dowse.

It was also a pleasure to speak to former Australian Ballet principal, Greg Horsman, currently ballet master with the Royal New Zealand. His recollections of working with Fredrikson complemented those I recorded last year with Miranda Coney. Coney and Horsman are pictured below in the pas de deux from Graeme Murphy’s Nutcracker, in its first staging of 1992.

Greg Horsman and Miranda Coney, 'Nutcracker' 1992
Greg Horsman and Miranda Coney in Graeme Murphy’s Nutcracker, the Australian Ballet 1992. Photo: Don McMurdo. Courtesy National Library of Australia
  • Bruce Morrow (1928–2012)

I was saddened to hear of the death in March of Bruce Morrow, whose career included performances with the National Theatre Ballet and the Borovansky Ballet. He danced in some ground-breaking Australian productions, including Rex Reid’s Corroboree and the Borovanksy Ballet’s full length Sleeping Princess. Following his career as a performer he was for many years a highly regarded teacher at the Australian Ballet School and elsewhere. He is seen below as one of the Three Ivans in the 1951 Borovansky production of The Sleeping Princess. I interviewed Bruce in 2000 for the National Library of Australia’s oral history program. Here is the link to the catalogue record.

The Three Ivans, Borovansky Ballet 1951
(top to bottom) Bruce Morrow, Ron Paul and Tom Merrifield as the Three Ivans in The Sleeping Princess, Borovansky Ballet, 1951. Photographer unknown. Courtesy National Library of Australia
  • Stanton Welch’s Tapestry

I have been a fan of Houston Ballet since visiting Houston last year where, as in Wellington, I was treated more than generously by everyone with whom I came into contact. There’s a lovely clip available on YouTube from Welch’s newest work Tapestry.

  • The Ballets russes tribute programs continue

I read with interest Ismene Brown’s review of a recent English National Ballet season.

  • Site news

With Graeme Murphy’s Romeo and Juliet playing a season in Brisbane during March interest has been revived in the posts and comments on this site relating to that production. In addition, Brisbane for the first time was one of the top five cities in terms of numbers of visitors accessing the site. It came in third behind Melbourne and Sydney and was followed by Canberra and London. The top post for March was the review of the Australian Ballet’s Infinity program.

Michelle Potter, 30 March 2012

Dance diary. October 2011

  • Texas Ballet Theater

It’s surprising whom one meets walking down a Dallas street on a sunny Sunday afternoon. Two somewhat frilly mice from Nutcracker for example—perhaps not dressed for combat despite the menacing gestures!
miceOr two young dancers dressed in tutus.
texas-dance-theater-ballerinas-21
Texas Ballet Theater, currently directed by Ben Stevenson, was promoting its forthcoming Nutcracker season. The appearance of dancers on this occasion was part of the last day of ‘Art in October’, a celebration of the Dallas arts district with its top class museums and theatres.

  • it’s all good

I was impressed by QL2’s annual performance for younger dancers, this year entitled it’s all good and being an examination through movement of the notions of language and truth. It was not so much the choreography that impressed me: it was fairly basic, perhaps a little of necessity, and somewhat unimaginative in my opinion. But I was impressed by the production values that were in play. The young cast (they ranged in age from 8 to 17) knew a fair bit about stage techniques and behaved largely in a very professional manner. For this their director, Ruth Osborne, deserves praise as does whoever designed the simple, easy to dance in costumes. One or two of the younger of the young performers looked as though they had the potential to go on to a professional career.
its-all-good-3

  • Ballets Russes publication

A number of visitors to this site have asked me to post a review of the recent Ballets Russes publication. This review was published last month by The Canberra Times. Here is the link.

Michelle Potter, 31 October 2011

Nina Verchinina. A new article

Those who have been following posts on this site relating to Nina Verchinina may be interested in an article published in the most recent edition of Brolga: an Australia journal about dance (issue 34, June 2011). This elegantly written article, rather lengthily entitled ‘Designing for Nina Verchinina’s choreographic vivacity: a new light on Loudon Sainthill’s art’, is by Andrew Montana. It sheds important light on Verchinina’s choreographic exploits in Australia and suggests that gender may have played a role in the fact that, in Montana’s opinion, Verchinina’s ballets were never really given adequate showings in Australia.

The gender issue is an interesting speculation and perhaps will never ultimately be more than that. But the idea does have a certain plausibility and is echoed by the difficulties faced by Hélène Kirsova as she tried to develop her own company, the Kirsova Ballet, in the early 1940s in the face of competition from Edouard Borovansky. See for example my recent post on Kirsova, my article ‘A strong personality and a gift for leadership: Hélène Kirsova in Australia’ (Dance Research, 13:2, Winter 1995, pp. 62-76) and a shorter article in National Library of Australia News published in August 2000.

Montana is perhaps at his most eloquent when describing the drawings and paintings of Verchinina executed by Sainthill. But his article also develops further than has been done so far the story of de Basil’s design competition of 1940 won by Donald Friend, along with a number of other matters relating to the Original Ballet Russe in Australia.

As something of a side issue, Montana also mentions the Sidney Nolan designed Icare and notes that there is nothing to indicate that Sainthill was approached to design this work. This appears to contradict Brian Adams’ contention in his biography of Nolan, Such is life, that Sainthill had ‘already been commissioned by Colonel de Basil’ (p. 46) to design this work. Adams gives no source reference for his statement but I believe it does warrant more investigation. Adams goes on to say that Sainthill had been ‘edged out by [Serge] Lifar and [Peter] Bellew’ (p. 46) so there is potentially source material elsewhere other than in Sainthill’s archival collection, which Montana has investigated.

One error in the text needs correction. Montana notes that the cast of Verchinina’s Etude included ‘Lydia Couprina (Valrene Tweedie)’ (p. 22). In fact Lydia Couprina was the stage name of Phyllida Cooper, an Australian from Melbourne who had joined de Basil in Paris where she had been studying with Olga Preobrajenska. Tweedie danced under the name Irina Lavrova. As a side issue, however, there is a connection beyond nationality between Cooper and Tweedie. When Tweedie returned to Australia from the United States in 1950s she eventually bought the school in Sydney jointly run by Cooper and her then husband, James Upshaw. Upshaw later became Tweedie’s second husband.

Unfortunately this most welcome article from Montana is not available online, but it is worth following up in hard copy in libraries where Brolga is held.

Michelle Potter, 28 June 2011

Film footage of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes

As the Victoria and Albert Museum’s Diaghilev exhibition is being taken down, its curator, Jane Pritchard, has made the startling discovery that there appears to be film footage of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in performance. And we have always thought that no such footage exists! She reports on this remarkable discovery in her latest blog post—’I eat my words’, where you can also view the footage via the website of British Pathé.

Michelle Potter, 27 January 2011

UPDATE 16 June 2020: The footage and blog post is no longer available via the link above. But the footage (lasting just 30 seconds) of a section from Les Sylphides, filmed in Montreux, Switzerland, in 1928, is below.

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-sphere

The 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.

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

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.

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.

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Cover 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-new
Unknown 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.