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

The Sphere, 23 May 1914, p. 247.

Michel Fokine’s Paganini. Bernard Smith’s unique interpretation

Michel Fokine choreographed and rehearsed his ballet Paganini in Australasia during the 1938-1939 tour by the Covent Garden Russian Ballet. He did not succumb to the suggestion, however, that the ballet be performed in practice clothes so that its world premiere could occur in Australia. He set this decision out in a letter to his friend Sergei Rachmaninoff, to whose music Paganini is set. The letter is reproduced, in part and undated, in Memoirs of a Ballet Master:

‘The ballet was completely choreographed and very well performed in Australia. There was such a demonstration of interest that the management evolved the mad idea of presenting the ballet without costumes and scenery!

Knowing that very often the scenery, and especially the costumes, hamper the dancers, that much that goes well at rehearsals, in practice costumes, gets lost when presented on the stage, I would have welcomed the idea. But in this particular ballet, many dances, if given without the necessary masks and props, without the lighting effects, without the platform, and so on, could not possibly be understood. Therefore I declined this suggestion …’

Paganini was eventually given its Australian premiere in Sydney on 30 December 1939 on the opening night of the third Ballets Russes tour, that by the Original Ballet Russe. This was just six months after the work’s world premiere in London on 30 June 1939. Australian performances of Paganini were foreshadowed by Arnold Haskell writing in 1939 in the Sydney Ure Smith publication Australia. National Journal. Haskell noted that the company was ‘at home’, that is in London, but awaiting a return to Australia. He updated Australian readers on additions to the company and on particular successes achieved during the London season. He reported that Paganini had been ‘the greatest popular success for many years’ but went on to comment that he, personally, was not impressed. He wrote:

‘Its craftsmanship is certain, in one dance set for Riabouchinska, it is vintage Fokine, but the rest seems to have come out of the stockpot of romantic paraphernalia, banished by Fokine himself in “Les Sylphides”. There is the same theme as in Symphonie Fantastique, the battle between good and evil, but it compares to that Ballet as a print from a Victorian Keepsake does to a painting by Jerome Bosch. Soudeikine’s decor greatly detracts. It is at times of a chocolate box sweetness, and the costumes are still worse. Tactful lighting greatly helped here. It is, at any rate, a pleasant spectacle, but somehow I expect more from the Russians.’

Dimitri Rostoff as Paganini with artists of the Original Ballet Russe in Paganini, Australian season, 1940 (detail). Reproduced by permission of the National Library of Australia

Paganini was, nevertheless, also an enormously popular ballet in Australia. It was given 55 performances during seasons in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Adelaide. In terms of numbers of performances it was outperformed only by Aurora‘s Wedding (56 performances), Swan Lake Act II (58 performances), and Graduation Ball and Les Sylphides (69 performances each). The initial critical response in Australia was, however, a little lukewarm. The anonymous critic for The Sydney Morning Herald also noted the similarities with Massine’s Symphonie fantastique, and commented that the Massine work was ‘the greater masterpiece by reason of its more elemental, almost seismic release of emotion’. The critic also commented on the orchestral playing noting in particular the impact of the short rehearsal time that had been available to the musicians. But while he (or she) noted that Paganini ‘as a spectacle … provides half an hour of daring, thunderous beauty’ he was unhappy with ‘the obviousness, and at times extravagance, of the symbolism that is employed’.

But perhaps the most interesting interpretation by an Australian came from Bernard Smith. Smith was 23 when he saw Paganini in 1940 and was at the beginning of a long and distinguished career as an art historian and teacher. His interest in the ballet may have been sparked by his interest at the time in surrealism and what he called ‘all the various modernisms’ that were being debated in Sydney art circles. And the Ballets Russes performances certainly offered those interested in these ‘various modernisms’ the opportunity to see first hand examples in the company’s sets and costumes. The repertoire of the Original Ballet Russe as presented in Australia included works with designs by Giorgio de Chirico, Joan Miro, André Masson and Natalia Goncharova, all then at the forefront of one ‘ism’ or another.

Smith was also a friend of Sydney Ure Smith, whose patronage of the Ballets Russes through his various publications is well known, and Peter Bellew, the second husband of Ballets Russes dancer Hélène Kirsova. At the time he was also reading widely from a range of Marxist and other left wing texts and by his own admission was ‘a very active young member of the Communist Party’. Given his artistic and political leanings, then, the tenor of his discussion of Paganini in an unpublished, typescript entitled ‘ “Paganini”, notes after attending the Monte Carlo Diaghilev Ballet in Sydney 1940’ is perhaps predictable. It is, nevertheless, somewhat startling and certainly unique in its point of view. It reads in part:

‘The ballet “Paganini” is one of those works of art which are created to satisfy the “soul-hunger” of the creator or as in this case of the creators. It satisfies a double wish-fulfillment; the desire of the creators, Fokine and Rachmaninoff to hearken back to a Golden Age when there were no class differences and the completely contradictory desire to captivate the hearts (and money) of the bourgeoisie as Paganini did.

The second scene is a feudalist-bourgeois conception of the people, of lovers in an ideal pastoral world, where there are no class barriers … The “people” of the second scene are not the mass of the people at all, they are only the idealised conception of what the bourgeois would look like if they could forget that their own freedom depended upon the slavery of others’.

Smith’s use of the word ‘Diaghilev’ in the name of the company he saw is, of course, erroneous, but his unpublished critique of Paganini offers further evidence that the Ballets Russes visits to Australia inspired a wide range of people working across the arts, and also that they prompted a wide range of responses.

© Michelle Potter, 24 September 2009


  • Arnold Haskell, ‘The Covent Garden Russian Ballet’. Australia. National Journal, No. 2, 1939, p. 4.
  • “Paganini”, notes after attending the Monte Carlo Diaghilev Ballet in Sydney 1940, unpublished typescript. Papers of Bernard Smith, National Library of Australia, MS 8680 Box 1, Folder 5, Item 5.
  • Michel Fokine, Memoirs of a Ballet Master. Trans. Vitale Fokine. Ed. Anatole Chujoy (London: Constable, 1961).
  • Oral history interview with Bernard Smith recorded by Hazel de Berg, 20 November 1975. National Library of Australia, TRC 1/888-889.
  • ‘Summer: Exhibit A: Bernard Smith—changing the way we see’. Julie Copeland in conversation with Terry Smith and Peter Beilharz. Sunday Morning, Radio National, 22 January 2006. Transcript, accessed 23 January 2009.