13 Rooms, 11–21 April 2013, Pier 2/3 Hickson Road, Walsh Bay
The city of Sydney has just finished playing host to an ambitious project of installation art, or more correctly perhaps of performance art in which human bodies behaved as sculpture, sometimes moving sculpture, sometimes talking sculpture, existing for a moment in time before going home, or in some cases being replaced by another shift of bodies. The event took place in the mysteriously cavernous space of Pier 2/3 with individual installations/performances showing in purpose-built, small white rooms designed by Harry Seidler & Associates.
There was a dance element to one installation, Revolving Door by American artists Allora & Calzadilla. This piece of performance art was choreographed by Rafael Bonachela and performed by dancers of Sydney Dance Company augmented by students from Brent Street, a Sydney performing arts academy. The human ‘door’ of what was a circular space inside one room was a line of bodies representing the internal structure of a revolving door. This human chain of bodies came to a standstill occasionally, as indeed revolving doors do when no-one is using them, then took up the movement again sometimes with linked arms, sometimes with raised arms. Occasionally they would clap hands, lift arms, sit down or engage in some other simple activity.
There was of course no music for the dancers to keep time with so to keep the rhythm and to maintain a straight line they had to rely on body time, a concept with which Bonachela is, I’m sure, familiar given his interest in the work of Merce Cunningham. The need to maintain a completely blank look appeared to be another requirement and there were one or two unsettling moments for me, and perhaps for other viewers, when it became apparent that one dancer was focusing on me in order to maintain his blank expression. Does one look away or stare back, I wondered?
Revolving Door also had its amusing moments. Some viewers ventured into the circular space, which had an exit door on two sides, and got caught up in the movement, escaping just in time as the human door pursued its relentless pathway.
And just as body time, where dancers have to sense how and when the bodies of their colleagues move, is a characteristic of Cunningham’s work, so was performance art a component of the early aesthetic of Merce Cunningham and John Cage and their designers, in particular Robert Rauschenberg. Together Cunningham, Cage and Rauschenberg and a collection of dancers and other artists and musicians presented at Black Mountain College in North Carolina in 1952 what is generally regarded as the first ‘happening’ in the United States, Theatre Piece No. 1. Rauschenberg went on to create many acts of performance art, usually with dancers involved, while Cunningham’s Events reflect an ongoing interest in one-off activities.
The whole event was interesting from the point of view of what is generally regarded as the impermanence of performance art. These installations were largely works that had been installed elsewhere around the world including in Manchester in 2011 and Essen in 2012. As John McDonald remarked in his review of the show for The Sydney Morning Herald on 13‒14 April: ‘It is a relatively novel idea that performances may be reconstructed by different performers years after their first appearance…Many of the most famous pieces were staged in obscure locations to small audiences. We know them only in the form of grainy, decayed videos or poor-quality stills’.
Another installation I especially enjoyed was Damien Hirst’s work, first made in 1992, in which a set of twins sits in front of two of Hirst’s spot paintings, which although they look alike are quite different from each other. The situation gained an added interest when a set of twins from amongst the onlookers asked to be photographed in the installation.
And on the day I visited, the performer in John Baldessari’s Thirteen Colourful Inside Jobs was engaged in repainting her room from aqua to flamingo pink.
13 Rooms was an undertaking of Kaldor Public Art Projects.
Michelle Potter, 22 April 2013
Featured image: Moment from John Baldessari’s Thirteen Colourful Inside Jobs, 13 Rooms, Kaldor Public Art project.
Ballet and fashion, an exhibition curated by Roger Leong as a joint venture between the National Gallery of Victoria and the Australian Ballet, is a mini-feast for the eyes. It is a small exhibition with just twenty-one costumes, several headdresses, a face-mask, and seven designs on paper. But the material gives an enticing glimpse of how designers whose work has been primarily in the field of fashion have collaborated in the production of dance.
The show is complemented by a compilation of footage showing extracts from five works: Romeo and Juliet (Graeme Murphy), 2 Lips and Dancers in Space (Robert Wilson/Makram Hamdam), Divergence (Stanton Welch), Aviary (Phillip Adams) and Tutu Parade (Adrian Burnett). The latter was part of another ‘tutu initiative’ that culminated in Tutu: designing for dance, an exhibition shown at the Ian Potter Centre, National Gallery of Victoria in 2004–2005. The footage is an excellent addition giving the viewer the opportunity to see how (or if) some of the costumes we see in display cases move (or don’t) with the body. It is good quality footage too and shown on a large screen.
The exquisite, detailed work of Akira Isogawa is represented in the first room with three costumes from Graeme Murphy’s Romeo and Juliet. But the surprise is the inclusion of two dresses from Grand, Murphy’s deeply moving work made in 2005 in memory of his mother. The dresses from Grand are beautiful to look at close-up, which of course we don’t get the opportunity to do when we see them onstage. Delicate, intricately decorated, ruched and layered, gently coloured and made from ivory-coloured fabric, with one of them showing touches of gold decoration, they highlight the detail and care Isogawa puts into his work.
Another of Isogawa’s techniques that is hardly noticeable from the auditorium but that is a delight to see close-up is his use of delicately patterned fabric. The skirt of Lady Capulet’s dress for Act I scene iii in Romeo and Juliet, for example, has an overlay patterned with a feather design. Romeo’s tights are also patterned. And it is interesting to see close-up Isogawa’s use of Japanese techniques of manipulating fabric on the sleeves of Lady Capulet’s shrug and Romeo’s doublet. And I must admit I didn’t notice while watching the work onstage that Romeo carried a built-in pistol on his chest.
I was also taken by two black ‘bird’ costumes: Giles Deacon’s black tutu commissioned in 2010 by Harper’s Bazaar on the occasion of the sixtieth anniversary of English National Ballet, and a costume from Act I of Aviary a recent work by Phillip Adams. The Deacon tutu, with its traditional shape and with small clumps of ostrich feathers placed delicately on the outer rim of the skirt, has a bodice of skin-coloured fabric on which is stitched a heart-shaped front of lace and beads. While it was initially made as a kind of pièce d’occasion, it was worn in a performance of the Black Swan pas de deux from Swan Lake by dancers of English National Ballet. It is a beautifully elegant version of the traditional tutu and its style stands in contrast to the modern variation on the tutu made by Toni Maticevski for Aviary. The Maticevski garment is less traditional in shape, rather more cabaret-esque with its pannier-like sides of strikingly large ostrich feathers, and with tulle and silk georgette fabric draped at front and back. Its accompanying millinery by Richard Nylon is eye-catching to say the least.
Remarkable to look at are three costumes by Viktor & Rolf for a Netherlands Dance Theatre production, 2 Lips and Dancers in Space, directed by Robert Wilson for the NDT III arm of the company. I especially enjoyed a black and gold costume that consisted of various extravagant additions to a basic, long-sleeved, black unitard-style garment. Gold metal crowns projected from the thigh and hip sections of the unitard, and gold cones (dunce caps?) with gold fabric falling from the peak of the cone sat on the shoulders and projected from the genital region. Gold fabric of various kinds—lamé, silk, satin—were wrapped and draped on various parts of the costume. The theatricality of the whole had the look of the Baroque era or perhaps Carnivale in Venice. Or perhaps Dada-esqe is a better word to describe the items, especially when one watches an extract from the work in the compilation of footage.
While I have singled out just a few of the costumes on display, every one of them has something of interest, either intrinsically, comparatively or in relation to the footage. Some are well-known to dance-goers in Australia: Vanessa Leyonhjelm’s ‘industrial’ tutu for Stanton Welch’s Divergence, Collette Dinnigan’s finely designed tutu with black lace and beading over a peach-coloured silk skirt and Easton Pearson’s African-inspired tutu, the latter two having been seen in the earlier tutu exhibition. Others are not so well-known: Rei Kawakubo’s astonishing costumes with their large protuberances for Merce Cunningham’s Scenario, Christian Lacroix’s colourful, multi-patterned, mixed fabric costumes for a 1980s revival of Gaîté parisienne by American Ballet Theatre, and others by Ralph Rucci and Valentino. And then of course there are the astonishing hooped burqas with flashing blue lights that are part of 2 Lips and Dancers in Space.
The exhibition is a very nicely curated show and well worth seeing. It is accompanied by a useful booklet, Ballet and fashion, by Roger Leong, which contains the information on the wall captions and extra information, especially about the designers. Some seating in the gallery displaying the footage would be a bonus.
Ballet and fashion: National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. 3 November 2012–19 May 2013
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.
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 Academy 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.
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.
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.
Below is a link to the text of a the talk I delivered at the National Gallery of Australia on 6 September 2012 in conjunction with the exhibition Sydney Long: spirit of the land. It has been altered slightly to remove some of the more colloquial elements associated with the spoken word. A link to the PowerPoint slides used to illustrate the talk is also below as are the two YouTube clips I used and that are referred to in the text.
To all those who have visited this site over the past year, and especially to those who have contributed what I have referred to elsewhere as ‘refreshingly honest’ comments, I wish a very happy holiday season.
A Christmas production of Nutcracker was always a much anticipated part of my childhood and recollections of Elaine Haxton’s designs for the old Borovansky production (reused in the early Australian Ballet production) surfaced a few years ago during a December drive through, of all places, the Kit Carson National Forest in New Mexico. I hope you enjoy the juxtaposition of images, despite the obvious differences in lighting and location!
I also recently came across aninterview with Elaine Haxtonrecorded by fellow artist James Gleeson in 1978 and held by the National Gallery of Australia. Her discussion of the work of the designer in the 1950s is worth reading I think.
I look forward to your visits and comments in 2012.
Michelle Potter, 18 December 2011
Featured image: High Road to Taos, Kit Carson Forest, New Mexico, 2007
The name E. O. Hoppé is familiar to anyone who has put in any time researching the history of the Ballets Russes under Serge Diaghilev. Hoppé, who was born in Germany but who spent much of his professional life in England, secured the exclusive right to photograph the Diaghilev dancers when they first came to London in 1911. Some of these photographs are well known in Australia and are currently on display in the National Gallery of Australia’s exhibition, Ballets Russes: the art of costume—the well-known image of Tamara Karsavina and Adolph Bolm in Firebird, for example. But a current exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in London, Hoppé portraits: society, studio & street, has on show some exceptional dance portraits that are not quite as well known.
Given my recent research into the 1934-1935 tour by the Dandré-Levitoff Russian Ballet and Olga Spessivtseva‘s role in it, I was especially interested in a portrait of Spessivtseva as Aurora in The Sleeping Princess. It was taken by Hoppé in 1921, the year of the premiere of Diaghilev’s ill-fated production of that ballet. Spessivtseva does not face the camera full on and her subdued eyes are turned to the front with a gaze that asks us to consider her as someone quite fragile. Her pale lips seem almost cold and the overall effect is haunting. Is it because we know that Spessivtseva would suffer some kind of mental illness that we read the portrait in this way? Or did Hoppé capture the essence of this enigmatic woman?
By contrast, a magnificent portrait of a young Margot Fonteyn taken in 1935 (she would have been 16) shows her looking straight at us. With lustrous eyes and full, red lips she is sensuous and confident, even slightly haughty, and definitely ready to take on the world. Again Hoppé appears to have had a remarkable eye for capturing the essence of his sitter.
There are a number of other fascinating dance portraits in this exhibition including a great shot of Martha Graham with Ted Shawn in a tango-style pose taken in 1922 just as Graham was completing her study at the Denishawn school before joining the Greenwich Village Follies. And of course many of the Russian Ballet shots are on show. All are reproduced in the exhibition book, along with many non-dance portraits and a collection of remarkable documentary studies of day-to-day life in Britain between the wars.
Michelle Potter, 4 April 2011
Hoppé portraits: society, studio & street runs until 30 May 2011 at the National Portrait Gallery, St Martin’s Place, London.
Exhibition book: Hoppé portraits: society, studio & street (London: National Portrait Gallery, 2011) ISBN 978 85514 4217
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Dr Ewan Murray-Will (1899-1970) was by profession a dermatologist with a practice in Macquarie Street, Sydney. He studied medicine at Sydney University graduating in 1923 and followed that initial study with further work in Vienna and London. He was honorary dermatologist to a number of Sydney hospitals including Sydney Hospital, St Vincent’s Hospital and the Coast Hospital (later Prince Henry Hospital). Murray-Will also served in World War II in the Middle East and later in North Queensland and was awarded an MBE at the conclusion of the War. He was also a passionate supporter of the arts and a friend and patron of the Ballets Russes dancers who visited Australia between 1936 and 1940.
His home movies documenting performances by, and weekend activities of the dancers of the visiting Ballets Russes companies have been known in Australian dance circles since the late 1990s when they were donated to the National Film and Sound Archive. Some of this remarkable footage was used in The Ballets Russes in Australia: an avalanche of dancing, produced in 1999 by the National Film and Sound Archive and the National Library of Australia. Some was also screened in a compilation of archival footage that accompanied the National Gallery of Australia’s 1999 exhibition of Ballets Russes costumes, From Russia with love.
Perhaps the most engaging of the footage is that shot on Bungan Beach, a beach north of Sydney that even today remains relatively isolated. It is hidden from the main road and accessible only by a walking track. It was at Bungan Beach that Murray-Will regularly rented out a beach house and also regularly invited a number of the dancers to visit on weekends. Much of the beach footage is filmed in slow motion and often shows the dancers demonstrating particular steps or lifts: Paul Petroff seemed to delight in performing grands jetés en tournant the length of the beach and Tamara Toumanova and Petroff enjoyed demonstrating the now well-known ‘presages lift’ from the slow movement of Massine’s Les presages. Other material shows the Ballets Russes dancers performing excerpts from their repertoire. A beautiful clip shows Nina Golovina in a scarlet swimming costume with her long dark hair falling over her shoulders dancing with Anton Vlassoff in an excerpt from the Bluebird pas de deux from Aurora’s Wedding. Some of Murray-Will’s footage, including the ‘Bungan Ballet’ a watery spoof created by four of the dancers, is available online from the National Film and Sound Archive’s australianscreen site: http://aso.gov.au/titles/home-movies/ballets-russes-de-monte-carlo/
But Ewan Murray-Will also bought art and moved in those Sydney circles where contemporary art was promoted and where both developments in the visual arts and the activities of the Ballets Russes were seen as part of the same attitude to contemporary creative endeavour. Murray-Will was, for example, a friend of publisher and patron of the arts Sydney Ure Smith, as Ure Smith’s collection of letters in the Mitchell Library in Sydney indicates. He was also close to Ballets Russes dancer Hélène Kirsova, whose second husband was Peter Bellew, first secretary of the Sydney branch of the Contemporary Art Society and in part responsible for securing Sidney Nolan’s commission to design Icare for Australian performances by the Original Ballet Russe in 1940. Kirsova autographed to Murray-Will a photograph of her and Igor Youskevitch in Le Carnaval with the words: ‘To Doctor Murray-Will, With my appreciation of your interest in the arts I am devoted to, Helene Kirsova, 1937’.
Ewan Murray-Will’s contribution to our knowledge of the Ballets Russes aesthetic as it was understood in Australia also includes that he collected, and then bequeathed to major institutions, paintings and drawings with a connection to the Ballets Russes. At least two designs by Alexandre Benois for Petrouchka were bequeathed by Murray-Will to the Art Gallery of New South Wales. They are a costume design for ‘Un jeune artisan ivrogne’ (A drunken young workman), a character that perhaps never appeared on stage in productions of Petrouchka, and a set design for ‘La chambre du nègre’ (The Negro’s bedroom), which is a variation on the better-known set for that scene in the ballet.
But perhaps more pertinent in the context of the influence the Ballets Russes had on Australian artists are those items bequeathed to the National Gallery of Australia by Murray-Will that are currently on display in the exhibition Rupert Bunny: artist in Paris at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. They include three oils on canvas painted in Paris between 1913 and 1920: Peleus and Thetis, The prophetic nymphs and Poseidon and Amphitrite. Any Ballets Russes influence on Bunny, best described perhaps as an expatriate Australian, came of course from Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes rather than from the touring companies that Australians saw in the years following Diaghilev’s death in 1929. The colours of Bunny’s palette in all three paintings recall the juxtapositions for which Léon Bakst became famous with his costume and set designs for Diaghilev. And the swirl of Amphitrite’s hair in Poseidon and Amphitrite, which was owned at one stage by Edouard Borovansky, recalls the decorative elements of flowing scarves and other items that feature in Bakst’s costume designs.
The most interesting of the three paintings, however, is Peleus and Thetis and, while Bunny’s colour juxtapositions may be a result of the influence of late nineteenth/early twentieth-century European artists, including Paul Gaugin, rather than, or as well as Baskt, there are nevertheless clear references to the Ballets Russes in this painting. Bunny painted Peleus with her feet and knees turned to the side as if on a frieze. Her body, however, is facing the front although her head is in profile. Such a pose clearly recalls the choreography for the nymphs in Afternoon of a Faun (1912), Vaslav Njinsky’s groundbreaking work for Diaghilev. Moreover, the angular position of Peleus’ arms, especially the way her left elbow is bent into a triangular shape as she resists Thetis’ advances, is similar to the arm positions of Nijinsky and the leading nymph in Faun as the two engage with each other before the nymph drops her scarf and flees. Even the hairstyle of Peleus recalls the wigs worn by the nymphs in the ballet, which closely fitted the head like a skull cap but had long strands of curls emerging at the back from the nape of the neck.
Ewan Murray-Will is reported to have been a reserved man. He left, however, a legacy to the arts world whose significance is probably yet to be fully explored. That legacy is largely a result of his exploits as an amateur filmmaker. But his activities as a collector of paintings and drawings, especially as they elucidate further the activities and aesthetic of the Ballets Russes in Australia and on Australians, are also of significance.
Postscript: Rupert Bunny: artist in Paris is at the Art Gallery of New South Wales until 21 February 2010 and then travels to Melbourne and Adelaide.
Australia Dancing. ‘Dr Ewan Murray-Will’ as archived at this link
Benois, Alexandre-Nikolayevich. ‘Jeune artisan ivrogne’, costume study for Petrouchka, 1936, watercolour, gouache and pen and ink over pencil sketch, 32.2 x 24.8 cm sheet (irreg), Art Gallery of New South Wales, Bequest of Dr Ewan Murray-Will 1971, 11.1971
Benois, Alexandre-Nikolayevich. ‘The Negro’s Bedroom’, set design for Petrouchka, 1931, drawing, gouache and pen and ink over pencil sketch, 25.3 x 36.2 cm image/sheet, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Bequest of Dr Ewan Murray-Will 1971, 12.1971
Edwards, Deborah. Rupert Bunny: artist in Paris (Sydney: Art Gallery of New South Wales, 2009).
Potter, Michelle. ‘Mutual fascination: the Ballets Russes in Australia 1936-1940’. Brolga 11 (December 1999), pp. 7-15.
Turnbull, Clive. The Art of Rupert Bunny (Sydney: Ure Smith, [1949?])