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Saturday, 8 January 2011

Diaghilev and the Golden Age of the Ballets Russes

Diaghilev and the Golden Age of the Ballets Russe was a magnificent and extensive exhibition in a way that will make it impossible to try to write about it all in a contained blog post. The exhibition is a feat which the V&A have pulled off with an elegance akin to the Ballets of Diaghilev. But I do not know much about Ballet so I will have to approach this in my own way.

First of all I will give you the V&A's introduction as a preface;

'Serge Pavlovich Diaghilev, dictator, devil, charlatan, sorceror, charmer- all names of a single man whose unique character and driving ambition caused a ferment in European culture. He embraced the modern and exploited the avant-garde, but was in many ways deeply conservative. He lived mostly in hotel rooms, but turned his company into an extended family.'

The Ballets of Diaghilev have left behind them a legacy of opulent relics; costumes of extreme fantasy, epics of scenery, programmes, posters, choreography, with colour and influence coming from all cultures across the world. I am sure that each visitor comes to this show with their own particular interests in my mind, drawn to particular elements and not others. It is this focus which I will use to write something coherent with. My interest was as an artist; Costume sketches, the graphic design of posters, prints and art works inspired by the ballet all collated to form the kind of wild sketchbook every artist wishes to claim. The ballet dancers called to be drawn, even choreographic plans formed patterns that looked like constellations. Artists inspired and involved with the Ballet were names such as Aubrey Beardsley, Georges Barbier, Leon Bakst, Jean Cocteau, Giorgio de Chirico and even Picasso!

Picasso designed the scenery for Le Train Bleu, which was a very happy surprise for me. I managed to take some sneaky photographs of Picasso performing new and unexpected tricks. This curtain towered above me as the two women hold hands and dance across the beach and the strange cubist forms of the set pieces rose up out of the ground. Diaghilev's Ballets were involved with contemporary art culture,;Picasso's contribution was strengthened by the costumes of Coco Chanel and the writing of Jean Cocteau. The ballets are creatures of fantasy but also of a cultural reality.

A failed photograph of some costumes, I got caught.

Stravinsky's Firebird Symphony and The Rite of Spring were commissions for Diaghilev (you probably know this, I am ignorant about these things) so I got to enjoy the layered rhythms of the composer as I watched a projection of giant ballet dancers skit across the red-glow of an exhibition hall. Ever since I saw my friend Catherine perform the Firebird symphony at a concert I have been captivated. When The Rite of Spring was first performed it caused a riot as it urged its audience in to chaotic frenzy. I feel something of this in the dark room with the projections.

I also made a discovery in the form of Russian Cubo-futurist artist Natalia Goncharova. Taking her inspiration from folk art, russian identity and traditional fairytales, Goncharova's sets were a labyrinth of the magical peaks of Russian architecture which I have loved since I was a child.

This post barely does it all justice, so go before it ends!


  1. I loved this exhibition too - so inspiring.

  2. The Firebird is a favorite composition of mine. BTW you might be interested in the CD where the former ballerina, Natalia Makarova, narrates the tale as the symphony performs. It's very good... great intro to the ballet, too. BTW thanks for stopping by my blog. R-Atencio

  3. R-atencio, that does sound interesting, thank you! It was a very good exhibition...

  4. Very informative post and this exhibition is one I will be attending when I get home 2 London in 2 weeks just before it ends. I didn't know about Natalia Goncharova and will make sure I see her work as I am very influenced by Russian icons and folk tales in my dreams and images I draw.

  5. I loved this exhibition, great post and great blog Fran xxx