Marc Taddei, music director of Orchestra Wellington (OW), has made the band a major fixture of Wellington’s music scene. A heartily large number of subscribers means there is always a capacity audience in place and the Michael Fowler Centre is no small venue.
Typically, Taddei chooses a theme to connect the different works on any given programme. A recent one, Elemental Forces, featured the mighty Scythian Suite by Prokofiev. It was a staggering experience to hear the enlarged orchestra play the work. I was quite shocked to learn from the program note that Diaghilev had commissioned the score from Prokofiev just the year following Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps, but then declined it even before the composition was finished. (No wonder Prokofiev was sometimes seen leaving Diaghilev’s office in tears). It was 1915, orchestral players were in short supply, mostly being away in the trenches, so the work was never performed and I’m not aware of any subsequent choreography being set to the music. (Diaghilev must have been out of his mind. The final movement of the suite summons a mighty sunrise—probably the most extraordinary sight any human has ever witnessed, even if we do tend to take it for granted, as in ‘the sun will rise again tomorrow’. The dancers would only have needed to start in a crouched position in the dark and to unfold to a standing position into the light, with the slowest motion humanly imaginable. Perhaps Sankai Juku could have managed that? or Cloudgate?
OW’s most recent programme, Myth & Ritual, opened with Richard Strauss’ Salome: Dance of the seven veils. Nobody danced to it—nobody needed to, the music said it all. Then a powerful work for orchestra and saxophone, Zahara, by John Psathas. The soloist, Valentine Michaud, wore a dress (creation might be a better word) that Léon Bakst would have been proud to design.
Then followed Bela Bartok’s Miraculous Mandarin in which the orchestra joined forces with Orpheus Choir and with Ballet Collective Aotearoa (BCA). The Michael Fowler Centre may be a large venue but by the time an enlarged orchestra and sizeable choir are in place, there’s not a lot of room left for dancing. It was impressively resourceful then for BCA’s Turid Revfeim, artistic director, and Tabitha Dombroski, choreographic director, to place the cast of six dancers in the high choir stalls, a wide but extremely narrow space, for their playing out of the myth and ritual of this extraordinary work.
Bartok knew what he was doing, even if not everyone has seen what he could see. Note the date of composition, 1918. Whether overt or not, World War One has to be in the subtext of anything produced in Europe at that time. Despite that provenance, the work was received as a scandal and banned on moral grounds but that has not prevented its longevity as a score, even if these 105 years later it can still challenge audiences.
Four street rogues compel a woman to act as seductive target to wealthy passers-by who will then be robbed and beaten to death. One such character emerges, the Miraculous Mandarin, who dies several times, but returns to life. That role was compellingly played by Björn Aslund who faced the orchestra in defiance of the inevitable. The harlot, Mimi, was played with aplomb by Alina Kulikova, and the rough rogues—Alisha Wathen, Zoe White, Callum Phipps and James Burchell—were extraordinarily agile in their clambering through rails and seats. No need to design a set for this—it was there in the architecture of the place.
The dancers are named here because, inexplicably, they were not acknowledged in the printed program on the night— but the imagery they created will linger long in the memory.
Other than that omission, this was a remarkable night at the orchestra that became a night at the theatre. A graphic exhibition in the foyer of the life and work of Bela Bartok, supplied by the Hungarian Embassy, was an added and much appreciated feature.
There is further resonance for those who follow ballet history here that Poul Gnatt, founder of New Zealand Ballet, choreographed Miraculous Mandarin for the national ballet company in the Philippines that he helped to found in 1970s. And in mid 90s, the then artistic director of the Royal New Zealand Ballet, Ashley Killar, choreographed Dark Waves to Bartok’s Music for strings, celeste and percussion. He based the ballet on a short story by Vladimir Nabokov, and gave to Jon Trimmer one of his finest roles. The work was toured to America (where it impressed the New York critics) though was never performed publicly in New Zealand. (I’d got lucky and seen a studio rehearsal before the company went on tour. They returned to find various arts agencies were trying to close the company down. Triumph to those who said No to that).
There are still a number of dancers from the original cast easily to be located, who would willingly coach a new cast. Killar is still active in the ballet world and lives in Sydney, so there’s not a lot to stop the work being staged again. It’s redolent with New Zealand provenance.
A few months ago I mentioned very briefly a project being developed by film maker Philippe Charluet in conjunction with Sydney Dance Company to preserve the choreography of Graeme Murphy, which he made as artistic director of the company over more than 30 years. Well, the project is now official and has been announced as part of Sydney Dance Company’s 45th anniversary celebrations. Sydney Dance Company says:
‘Sydney Dance Company is excited to announce that work has commenced on the editing and digitising of film and video recordings of some of the major works created by long-standing Artistic Director, Graeme Murphy AO and his Creative Associate, Janet Vernon AM.
The Heritage Collection will include re-mastered films of many full length evening works created by Murphy on the Sydney Dance Company ensemble during his 31 year tenure from 1976 to 2007, in addition to a new documentary resource of Murphy in conversation, interweaving a myriad of interviews filmed over a period of thee decades, with new footage in which he reflects on his body of work’.
What a treasure this will be for us and those who follow us in the future.
Pamela Vincent and the Rambert tour to Australasia
Here is another image from the Pamela Vincent album of photographs from the Ballet Rambert’s tour to Australia and New Zealand 1947–1949. Pamela Vincent was courted in Australia by Douglas Whittaker, principal flute player in the orchestra that accompanied the Rambert company. They married in England.
British Library and Serge Diaghilev
I was interested to find this link to a comment on Serge Diaghilev’s interest, which grew in intensity towards the end of his life, in rare books.
Press for May 2014 [Online links to press articles in The Canberra Times prior to 2015 are no longer available]
‘Fresh flavour but a little flat’. Review of Don Quixote, Imperial Russian Ballet. The Canberra Times, 7 May 2014, ARTS p. 8.
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.
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.
The Victoria & Albert Museum, London, has an enviable collection of theatrical costumes from the Diaghilev era, many of which (or is it all of which?) are displayed in the museum’s current, celebratory exhibition Diaghilev and the Golden Age of the Ballets Russes. There are some real gems to be seen. I was especially attracted by a costume worn by Tamara Karsavina as Zobeide in Schéhérazade. Not the more familiar Zobeide costume of harem pants and bodice but a soft, deep purple dress with painted gold designs scattered over the skirt and a top decorated with golden braid. Designed by Bakst, it was apparently worn only briefly before the more familiar costume became popular.
Also quite fascinating was a costume worn by a child performer in Le Dieu bleu, a golden costume of pants and top with a tall headdress reminiscent in shape of those worn by Thai and Cambodian dancers (although far less complex in decoration). While we are used to seeing the costume worn by the Blue God himself, costumes for the ancillary characters, in this case a ‘Little God’, are less common.
Some of the costumes are displayed with quite dizzying effect. For example, some ten or twelve costumes from the famous (or infamous) Nijinsky/Stravinsky/Roerich Rite of Spring are arranged on a tiered framework and are grouped into men’s and women’s costumes. The display gives a very clear view of the range of patterns and colours used by Roerich in designing the work. It is truly an embarrassment of riches.
I also loved the two appearances of Lydia Sokolova on film. One snippet is a two minute silent film made in 1922 called Dancing grace: novel studies of Lydia Sokolova the famous dancer. By today’s technical standards Sokolova’s turn out is pretty much non existent and she rarely points her feet, but as she executes a cabriole followed by an assemblé her sense of movement throughout the whole body is breathtakingly expansive. In another piece of footage Sokolova is wonderfully eccentric as she exclaims over one of the costumes she once wore, which was going under the hammer at the Sotheby’s auction of 1968. Clearly an outstanding dancer and a great lady.
The moment of greatest impact for me, however, came as I turned a corner into a new room to be confronted by the magnificent backcloth by Natalia Goncharova for the final scene of The Firebird. The huge and imposing cloth representing a Russian walled city, inspired we are told by frescoes by Andrea Mantegna, is familiar from many images in books. But to see it in real life is a remarkable experience. It is hung diagonally across the space of a quite small gallery. Above a brick wall that stretches horizontally across the bottom one eighth or so of the cloth, Russian buildings are piled vertically on top of each other, stretching upwards to a patch of deep blue sky. It’s a brilliant piece of work by Goncharova, impressively constructed with its horizontal lower and upper sections anchoring the towering verticality of the block of buildings. In terms of colour it is equally impressive with the golden onion domes of the Russian towers set off against patches of rich, red on the building walls.
Stravinsky’s Firebird music fills the space and the other walls show shadowy images of the Firebird, in this case Begoña Cao of the English National Ballet, dancing against a changing background of fire, original programs, images of Karsavina as the first Firebird, the musical score and a range of other images. Subsidiary material relating to The Firebird is shown on the walls of the previous gallery and includes a squared up design for the cloth and various versions of the design. All together it makes for a wonderful gallery-going experience.
The morning I was there the place was packed with people, all of whom had their favourite items as I did I am sure. And therein lies the rub. Diaghilev and the Golden Age of the Ballets Russes is a hugely ambitious show, perhaps overly ambitious. I couldn’t see the point of some items on display. Was there really any need to display a perfume bottle that once held the Guerlain perfume thought to be the favourite scent of Diaghilev? And there was the usual selection of devotional items—Diaghilev’s top hat and opera glasses and an assortment of pointe shoes worn by various Ballets Russes stars. But what was the argument at the heart of the show? In the end it became nothing more than a huge cabinet of curiosities, which is perhaps fitting given its location in a museum named after two giants of the Victorian age, when such cabinets were all the rage.
In 1951 Jacqueline Lee Bouvier, later to become Jacqueline Kennedy, won Vogue magazine’s Prix de Paris for a short essay entitled ‘People I wish I had known’. She wrote about three men, one of whom was Serge Diaghilev. She described him as an ‘alchemist unique in art history’. Kennedy is not alone in naming Diaghilev as a man of singular importance in the development of the arts in the West. The Australian-born writer and cultural critic Clive James included Diaghilev in his recent collection of essays, Cultural Amnesia, for example. And one of Diaghilev’s biographers tells the story of the vegetable seller at Covent Garden who said to him, ‘Did you know Daggyleff? He was the greatest dancer that ever lived.’
Neither Jacqueline Kennedy, nor Clive James, nor the unnamed vegetable seller knew Serge Diaghilev personally and yet for each the name Diaghilev resonated in a particularly powerful manner. It is now 81 years since Serge Diaghilev died in 1929, so what was it about this man and his exploits that continues to have an impact across continents, professions and social strata?
The obvious answer is that Diaghilev changed the face of dance by establishing an aesthetic of collaboration such as the dance world had not previously known, and in so doing surrounded himself with the most innovative thinkers and artists across all fields of endeavour. The year 2009 saw the centenary of the first Paris season of his famed Ballet Russe company and the world has been flooded with exhibitions and publications celebrating that event and its ongoing influence. More are planned for 2010.
But in addition, Diaghilev had personality plus! And it is this aspect of his life that comes out very clearly in Sjeng Scheijen’s biography Diaghilev: a life published in 2009. It is in fact a beguiling book. It places the whole Diaghilev enterprise in a very personal context—the troubles, the strife, the arguments, the sex, the weeping, the dramas, the networking, they’re all there. I probably didn’t learn all that much more about the works in the Diaghilev repertoire and this might be seen as a limitation of sorts. But I did learn much about the social and personal environment in which that repertoire got to the stage and Diaghilev’s personality grew bigger and bigger and more and more complex as the book continued.
My favourite anecdote, however, is a somewhat surreal one. It concerns the persuasive Misia Sert, pianist, patron and one time wife of painter Jose Maria Sert, and her input into Red Cross efforts during World War I. It is surreal in its juxtaposition of art and reality. It reads:
‘Many celebrated artists entered military service, though few fought at the front. Most joined army nursing corps or signed up with the Red Cross. Misia managed to persuade her couturier friends to provide a number of vans, which she converted into ambulances. Manned by artists and socialites, they sped to the aid of troops in northern France. Her nursing staff included Cocteau, sporting a natty little uniform designed by the couturier Poiret. Maurice Ravel also drove an ambulance, though in a regular army unit. Ida Rubinstein, too, worked as a nurse, though her uniform was designed by Bakst.’
The main strength of the book is the depth of research that has gone into its creation. It draws on sources, many of them valuable primary resources from Russia, which have not been and are still not easily available to other researchers. These sources make this biography quite unique. However, the use of personal material is not without its problems and in my opinion any publication that relies heavily on very personal material such as letters, diaries and the like needs to be taken with a grain of salt and its sources considered and reconsidered, checked and rechecked against other material. Scheijen relies heavily on such material and little else, which makes me wonder whether or not the book will in the future be seen as a collection of gossip and anecdote. Nevertheless, the book is a great read.
One little annoyance: I disliked finding reference to Le Boutique fantasque. The name of the work is beautifully written with the adjective beginning with a lower case ‘f’ as is absolutely correct from a French language point of view. But as far as I know ’boutique’ has always been feminine gender—’la boutique’.
I also puzzled for a while over how Diaghilev could have seen the Olympic Games in Athens during a trip to Europe in 1906, as Scheijen observes, when I had always believed that Athens hosted the Olympics in 1896 and that 1906 was not an Olympic year. But the puzzlement was my ignorance. Eventually I discovered that Athens hosted an ‘Intercalated Games’ in 1906. The argument about whether or not the 1906 Games were really ‘Olympic’ has been an interesting side-step for me.
A Feast of Wonders: Serge Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes Edited by John E. Bowlt, Zelfira Tregulova and Nathalie Rosticher Giordano (Milan: Skira, 2009)
In this very handsome volume published in conjunction with the exhibition Étonne-moi: Serge Diaghilev et les Ballets Russes, which opened in Monaco on 9 July 2009, Alexander Schouvaloff has an essay entitled ‘The Diaghilev Legend’. In it he remarks on the ‘continued fascination’ with the Ballets Russes. He writes, ‘It is puzzling. Artifacts and records remain to obsess scholars.’ Well, the contents of this book make his use of the word ‘puzzling’ a puzzling one indeed.
The publication contains, in addition to the Schouvaloff piece, eleven other essays most of which develop their topics in contexts that have not previously been widely examined in the existing English writing on the Ballets Russes. For example, Nicoletta Misler’s ‘Dance, Memory! Tracing Ethnography in Nicholas Roerich’ draws on a wide range of Russian sources to examine Roerich’s use of shamanistic and similar imagery, particularly in his designs for Le Sacre du printemps. Then, Evgenia Iliukhina traces the roles of Mikhail Larionov and Natalia Goncharova in the Diaghilev enterprise. She notes Goncharova’s sources and the influence of other artists on designs for her major pieces, including those works, such as Liturgie, which were not realised but which nevertheless were significant developments. Iliukhina also looks at Larionov’s interest in choreography and the evolution of his attitude to the role of design in ballet. The article rightly positions Goncharova and Larionov as major artists in the post 1914 period of the Ballets Russes and as more than simply successors to Bakst and Benois.
These articles, and others of equal interest, suggest that the ‘continued fascination’ will last for decades yet, especially when there is still much primary source material awaiting the attention of scholars. Despite the fact that 2009 celebrates the centenary of Diaghilev’s first Ballets Russes season in Paris, it is clear that there is still much to be discovered and written about. And to return to Schouvaloff, if one follows his instructions regarding the ‘Find a grave’ website, which he gives at the end of his piece, it is clear too that Diaghilev’s charisma has not waned.
In addition to the essays, the book contains a list of operas and ballets for which Diaghilev was responsible. The list begins in 1908 with Boris Godounov and ends in 1929 with Le Bal. Its strength, or its particular interest, is the way in which the list is illustrated – not with a single image but usually with several from a variety of sources and of different media. So we have Le Coq d’or illustrated with set designs, set models, costumes, costume designs and photographs. The illustrations for Le Spectre de la rose include swatches of fabric, paintings, posters, costume designs, designs for stage props, photographs and sketches. The list is made all the richer as a result of this diverse illustrative material. In fact illustrations throughout the book are themselves a feast of wonders and go well beyond those that have become so familiar in the current literature.
The introductory pages contain a long list of lenders to the exhibition, which will move to Moscow in October 2009. The list of lenders, private as well as institutional, is interesting in its scope as well as for the one or two major collections that are not represented.
A Feast of Wonders is a beautifully and meticulously produced book and a delight both visually and intellectually—much more than an accompanying catalogue.
Swans and Firebirds (Schwäne und Feuervögel) Austrian Theatre Museum, Palais Lobkowitz, Lobkowitz Platz 2, Vienna, 25 June to 27 September 2009
Like many other museums, galleries and libraries around the world, the Austrian Theatre Museum in Vienna is staging an exhibition to mark the centenary of the first Paris season of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. Although this exhibition carries a sub-title ‘Die Ballets Russes 1909-1929’ it uses the term ‘russes’ in a wide sense as the exhibition includes material not strictly speaking from the Diaghilev enterprise as we have come to understand it. Jointly curated by Drs Claudia Jeschke and Nicole Haitzinger from the University of Salzburg, it draws for its material on the collections of a number of institutions, largely in Russia, Germany and Austria, and one major private collector, John Neumeier.
The exhibition suffers at the outset from being displayed very awkwardly in two rooms at the far end of the main entrance to the Palais Lobkowitz. The two rooms are on opposite sides of the entrance lobby and thus are not obviously linked except perhaps in an architectural sense. Combined with pretty much non-existent signage, this physical arrangement makes for a disorienting experience for the exhibition viewer.
One finds oneself moving fairly logically, or snake-like, from the central space at the end of the lobby, which is devoted to material from Polovtsian Dances from Prince Igor, into the first room to the right. This first room focuses on the notion of ‘white’ and includes material from Les Sylphides and, mysteriously given the white tag, Diaghilev’s 1920s production of The Sleeping Princess. Other material relates to The Dying Swan and includes an interesting reconstruction of the swan tutu as worn by Pavlova in this celebrated solo. A video screening in this room—a dancer from the Bayerisches Staatsballett dancing the waltz from Les Sylphides—is a problematic inclusion. The amplified sound of the dancer landing after the many jumps in this solo is unpleasant, spoils the sound of the accompanying music and does little to evoke the poetic qualities of Les Sylphides. It does nothing for one’s perception of the dancer’s skills either.
Moving to the second room is not a logical progression from the first and initially the impression is that the exhibition finishes with the white material. Once one discovers the second room, on the left of the main lobby, the two other organising concepts—’unicolour’ (einfarbig) and ‘multicolour’—enter the equation. Designs for Petrouchka and Coq d’or are major items in the multicolour section and lead on to Natalia Goncharova’s beautiful drawings and extensive notes for the unrealised ballet Liturgie. Beyond Liturgie is material relating to Le Sacre du printemps and Les Noces, including a rare and valuable glimpse of the progression of Goncharova’s work for Les Noces from early designs in the Russian Primitivist mode to the final stripped-back designs. But the three colour codings—the organising concepts—are forced. The material to my mind is pushed to fit the concepts rather than emerging from them. Much of the material doesn’t seem to fit well anyway. This includes some quite fascinating notations (in facsimile) from 1910 by Fokine for Firebird from the St Petersburg State Theatrical Library.
But perhaps the most frustrating aspect of this second room is a loop video, which purports (according to the wall label) to show two recordings of George Balanchine’s Apollo each of around 30 mins in length. Sadly, however, all that is playing is about 3 minutes of a Radio Canada recording made in March 1960 with Jacques d’Amboise as Apollo and Diana Adams, Francia Russell and Jillana as the Muses. A great cast. But it got to where Apollo receives his lyre and holds it up to start playing only to return to the opening moments of Apollo’s birth from where it continued again to the receiving of the lyre. And nothing of the second recording.
Looking more positively, there are some wonderful items in the exhibition and many of them belong to John Neumeier. In fact, the strength and individuality of Neumeier’s collection is perhaps the outstanding aspect of this exhibition. In the pre-exhibition space—that is in the space between those two annoyingly unlinked rooms—there is a beautiful bronze sculpture of Adolphe Bolm in Polovtsian Dances. It stands about 25 cm high and is mounted on a small wooden plinth. It captures the passionate movement of Polovtsian Dances beautifully. Also from Neumeier’s collection is a hat by Léon Bakst for Tamara Karsarvina in Firebird—a pert little skull cap in green and tan with a white feather perched on top. Although designed by Bakst, it is in many respects one of those devotional items that so often grace dance exhibitions rather than an art historical piece. With the inclusion in the show of many photos of Karsarvina as well as designs for costumes she wore, this little cap seems to embody the spirit of its original wearer. Also of considerable interest are several photographs taken in Paris in 1910 by Auguste Bert, most again from the Neumeier collection. They include one of Vera Fokina as the Tsarina in Firebird. She stands with her body turned just slightly off-centre. Her head tilts softly to the left, her chest lifts and her hands gently lift her hair from her shoulders. This and other photographs by Bert have a soft, expressive quality and a sense of light movement to them. They are an absolute delight to examine and very revealing of this photographer’s approach to dance as an expression of the age.
There is a catalogue to this exhibition. Unfortunately there are a number of oversights in its production. Perhaps the most frustrating is that the images are not credited adequately – a final frustration in an exhibition that really needed to have been curated and produced more rigorously.