Diaghilev at London’s V&A

In May 1909 a season of Russian opera and ballet took place in Paris at the Théâtre du Châtelet. It must surely rank as the single most resonant event in western European culture in the 20th century, and it was down to Sergei Diaghilev, who was neither composer nor painter nor choreographer.

Writing about Diaghilev, Stravinsky declared: “His passionate devotion to the cause he served and to the ideas he was promulgating, his complete disinterestedness and lack of personal ambition, won the hearts of his co-workers. Working with him, they realised, meant working solely for the great cause of art.”

Diaghilev and his Ballets Russes are being celebrated in an exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum which evokes something very pertinent about the theatrical life of the Ballets Russes and the nature of Diaghilev’s achievement. His first two seasons in Paris (1909/10) were an extension of earlier enterprises that brought Russian music and art to the city, and served to awaken Parisian taste to barely known splendours.

In the same way, Diaghilev’s activities in Petersburg in the previous decade had made Russian taste aware of its own artistic past: he assembled a monumental exhibition of Russian historical portraits in Petersburg in 1905, and promoted contemporary art in exhibitions and in his magazine Mir Iskuasstva (The World of Art).

The effect of his Paris seasons was prodigious. New music, new design, new dancers, new choreography, made local theatrical fashion seem dusty and effete. Ballet, which had been trapped in an un-adventurous past, was suddenly freed, alive, brilliantly challenging.

By 1911, circumstance obliged Diaghilev to form a permanent troupe, and for the next 18 years – he died in 1929 – the Ballets Russes revivified ballet, its music, decoration, themes, ideals. Diaghilev had found means to satisfy his own passion for music (he was a frustrated composer, sent packing by Rimsky-Korsakov) and his well-educated taste in painting – he had been an eager collector of contemporary Russian and western art, and had extensive knowledge of 18th-century Russian art.

This show does justice to Diaghilev’s productions, and to the power, the verve and acuity of his taste. Every Ballets Russes staging was “by” Diaghilev, every collaborator chosen by him and sometimes guided by him, and without him nothing was possible – witness the immediate dissolution of his troupe on his death in 1929. (His only immediate participation in “his” ballets was in his skill at lighting: two of his dancers, Lydia Sokolova and Alicia Markova, told me of the pains he took re-lighting a backdrop, restoring theatrical life to travel-weary settings.)

Diaghilev’s theatre, as we understand it from this exhibition – the museum has a superb collection of Ballets Russes costumes, designs and memorabilia – and from those few honourable survivors from his repertory still preserved in performance, was a place of astonishingly coherent imagery and effect, and his alchemical genius fused design, dance and score to produce marvels.

Look at The Firebird, here evoked by one of Goncharova’s backcloths, where design speaks with the same voice as Stravinsky’s score and Fokine’s dances. So too with Petrushka, whose music, decoration and steps are unthinkable except as a trinity. The austerities of Les Noces; the extravagances of Parade (the Chinese conjuror’s costume, on show together with two recreations of the managers’ outfits, testimony to Picasso’s wit and cubist daring); Bakst’s splendours for The Sleeping Princess, and for those other ballets he decorated that glowed and flared in splendour during the life of the troupe: all can be understood from these displays.

With the late Prodigal Son, the ageing and sick Diaghilev still contrived a marvel by uniting Prokofiev, Georges Rouault and Balanchine, and proclaiming the new image of the male dancer – in this case, the beautiful, charismatic Serge Lifar, whose gifts were also shaped and displayed in La Chatte and Apollo. And, extraordinary revelation, how brilliant the clothes designed by Larionov for Chout, dazzling fantasies on folk art, matched by Prokofiev’s score. We may no longer see costumes as they truly were, inhabited by dance under stage lighting and “readable” in the furthest reaches of a theatre, but here they are – distinguished ghosts, illustrious revenants, eloquent even in their inanition.

The show proposes a treasury of artist’s designs, from the early heroes, Bakst and Benois, to a tiresome painting by Bauchant that inspired the original setting for Balanchine’s Apollo of 1928. Nijinsky’s costumes are here, and Diaghilev’s death-mask, and a treasury of drawings and photographs. There is a hitherto unknown film offering four minutes of Tamara Karsavina (early divinity of the Ballets Russes) in the slave dance from Cléopâtre, a sensation of the first Paris season in 1909. It is unique: the only film so far discovered of a Diaghilev work in contemporary performance – he resisted every proposal to film his company.

The exhibition is cleverly shaped, taking us from ballet as Diaghilev found it – debilitated – by way of thematic displays about the elements that formed his repertory, and the progress of taste as Diaghilev transformed it. And you will also find Picasso’s front-cloth for Le Train Bleu hanging here, with its massive running women, dedicated to Diaghilev, and Goncharova’s magical view of Old Russia from her sets for The Firebird. Breathtaking, like much else on display. To Jane Pritchard and Geoffrey Marsh, curators of the exhibition, laurels.

After a century, Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes still affect our ideas of what music, design, dance mean in the theatre. It is worth noting that they gave more performances in Britain than anywhere else, and that without Diaghilev there would be no British ballet. Marie Rambert, worked with Nijinsky on the 1913 staging of The Rite of Spring, helping him to understand that radical score. She came subsequently to London, and became nurse and goad to much choreographic creativity, from Frederick Ashton and Antony Tudor onwards. Ninette de Valois, already thinking of an “English ballet” (which would become our national ballet), joined Diaghilev’s company in 1923 for two formative years.

She wrote: “The main effect of Diaghilev on my dormant creative mind was to arouse an intense interest in the ballet in relation to the theatre ... I had come to one conclusion: the same should happen, along the same lines, and with just such an ultimate goal – in England.” She later said of Diaghilev: “His work was done at the time he died ... What is happening in the ballet world today may ultimately stand as a memorial to the man who succeeded in saving the ballet from itself.”

‘Diaghilev and the Golden Age of the Ballets Russes, 1909-1929’, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, until January 9 2011. www.vam.ac.uk

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