Diaghilev, dancing, other arts, politics


Serge Diaghilev, photograph by Jan de Sterlecki, 1916

From London daily The Morning Star:

Diaghilev And The Golden Age Of The Ballets Russes 1909-1929

Friday 03 December 2010

Sergei Diaghilev is best known for creating the Ballets Russes, the Russian touring company whose innovatory ballets first shocked then thrilled European audiences in the years leading up to WWI.

Born into the Russian landed aristocracy in 1872 Diaghilev developed an early fascination for the arts of Russia and the European avant-garde. He devoted himself to promoting the avant-garde at home and Russian arts old and new abroad at a time when they were little known in western Europe.

At the turn of the century the Russian avant-garde was influenced by the previously disparaged pre-18th century icons and the Russian empire’s peasant arts, including those of its Islamic provinces.

These non-illusionistic works held a mystery, exoticism and expressive power which paralleled that of other “primitive” art then being discovered by Gauguin, Picasso, Matisse and other pioneers of modernism.

In 1906 Diaghilev amazed audiences in Paris, Berlin and Venice with a large exhibition featuring Russian icons, peasant arts and avant-garde art. He soon followed this with concerts of Russian contemporary music and by 1909 he had merged these influences with innovatory ballet.

The first productions by the Ballets Russes in Paris 1909 caused a sensation. Ballet’s polite traditions were broken. Gone were the naturalistic sets, melodic music and teetering ballerinas in frothy tutus supported by stolid male dancers in classical tunics.

Here was the virtuosity of the charismatic Vaslav Nijinsky leaping, arching, stepping and twisting sinuously as a wild faun to Mikhail Fokine‘s innovative choreography and Igor Stravinsky‘s and Nikolai Rimski-Korsakov‘s swirling music. Leon Bakst’s bold, exotic costumes and sets complemented the raw emotion, sensuality and eroticism the company exuded.

Diaghilev had created innovative total art works which enveloped audiences in complete audio-visual sensory experiences. Much in demand, the company toured a dizzying range of towns and cities across Europe and the Americas ranging from Buenos Aires to Sheffield and from Budapest to Pittsburgh until Diaghilev’s death in 1929, when the Balllets Russes also ceased to exist.

With a finger on the pulse of his age, Diaghilev’s greatest achievement was to understand the expressions of modernity being forged by the avant-garde and to spot and commission a dazzling array of talents.

He collaborated with the leading artists, designers, composers, choreographers, writers and dancers of his era. The Rite of Spring in 1913 was choreographed and danced by Nijinsky, to music by Stravinsky and costumes and sets by Nicholas Roerich. Parade in 1917 had designs by Picasso, music by Erik Satie and a libretto by Jean Cocteau. Such cross-fertilisations ensured that the separate elements of ballet – scenario, choreography, sets, costumes and music – were fused into a spectacle which was greater than the sum of its parts.

The socio-political context of the exhibition is predictably anti-communist. The introductory display quotes the tsar’s rather than the proletariat’s views on the 1905 revolution. Diaghilev’s move to western Europe is attributed to the cessation of imperial patronage caused by this “political upheaval.”

Diaghilev’s cultural stance at the time echoed that of the right wing of the liberal Constitutional Democratic party, formed in 1905. It argued that a cultural elite should function as a bridge between social differences under the guidance of an autocratic state, but this goes unmentioned.

Similarly his statelessness after the formation of the USSR is portrayed as punitive. Yet his reasons for not joining the struggle for socio-political justice, as did other members of the Russian intelligentsia, are not discussed. He had left Russia long before 1917 and the young USSR was rightly suspicious of its mostly hostile emigre bourgeoisie.

But though a political conservative, Diaghilev was an aesthetic progressive. His contribution to European modernism went far beyond his original commitment to promoting an idealised and at times patronising idea of Russian identity.

This V&A exhibition is supplemented by informative music, videos, digital projections and films which complement the original costumes, programmes, posters, paintings, costume and set designs by some of the greatest artists of the 20th century.

One can only marvel at the consumate skill with which craftsmen and craftswomen fashioned costumes from extravagant materials using techniques varying from embroidery, applique, beading, embossing, flossing, flocking and dyeing.

The rhythm, scale and mood of the exhibition varies. There is an intimate display of four of Natalia Goncharova’s alternative set designs for The Firebird unexpectedly and delightfully dwarfed by the production’s gigantic backcloth itself, which hangs in solitary splendour as Stravinsky’s music plays. Picasso’s enormous front curtain for Parade, on which two joyous women running portray unfettered energy and freedom, is also on display.

The ephemerality of ballet makes it a difficult theme for an exhibition.

But this show and its catalogue manage to convey the daring and magic of Diaghilev’s productions by blending careful scholarship, thoughtful curating and brilliant exhibition design into a whole which echoes the drama and creativity of its theme.

Runs until January 9. Tickets can be booked at www.vam.ac.uk.

Critic’s Notebook: Ballet Clings to Racial, Ethnic and National Stereotypes: here.