Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Diaghilev and the Golden Age of the Ballet Russes, V&A. Opens 25 September 2010

For Henri Matisse Sergey Diaghilev was Louis XIV, while Claude Debussy described him as '.. that terrible and charming man, who could make stones dance.'

Sergei Diaghilev was also described as a devil, a provocateur and a thief, but a hundred years on from the first glittering explosion of the Ballet Russes onto the Paris stage, we surely can only conclude the man was a bullish persuader with a nose for excellence all wrapped up with a phenomenal work ethic.

Sergey Diaghilev cajoled, lured, bullied, flattered and extorted the greatest names in modern art, including Stravinsky, Matisse, Picasso, Nijinsky, Chanel and Balanchine - urging them to collaborate on the most breathtakingly new theatrical productions the world had ever seen. It's a heritage that kick started the collaborative arts and establishmed modern ballet companies that seem such a permanent part of our cultural landscape now.

Of course, his only tangible legacy are the delicately faded costumes, properties and sets at, 'Diaghilev and the Golden Age of the Ballets Russes 1909-1929' which is about to open as the glittering jewel in the V&A's autumn schedule.

The conceit of the exhibition is that we've stumbled back stage at a Ballets Russes performance. Walls are painted darkly, there are highlights and illuminations as if from a nearby stage. Music, particularly Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, seems to lure us deeper into the exotic gloom. This concept works well for Diaghilev was averse to his productions being filmed, there is barely any footage. We are only left with eye witness reports, ballet notation of the choreography and the properties themselves. The exhibition's corners are taken up with ladders, suitcases and boxes - the jumbled detritus of a touring dance company.

And, boy, did the Ballet Russes tour! The US, Europe and Latin America were all regularly blessed with the company's presence, but sadly never Russia itself due to Diaghilev's own complex feelings towards his homeland and the 1917 revolution that put paid to any further thoughts of his triumphal return. Revenue from touring just kept the company's expensive calvalcade afloat. Although Diaghilev was constantly on the run from an ever growing army of creditors.

It was that cultural bomb of Russia's revolution which seemed to shift the company's aesthetic away from the post-belle epoque exoticism of ballets like Sheherazade, The Rite of Spring and The Firebird towards a cooler, pared down modernism found in works of the 1920s like Le Train Blue, Chout and Apollon whose simple grecian tunics were designed by Coco Chanel typifying the androgynous mood of the Jazz Age.

Perhaps the most vivid quote about Sergey Diaghilev comes from Jean Cocteau, another of his many collaborators, 'That ogre, that sacred monster... that Russian prince to whom life was tolerable only to the extent to which he could summon up marvels.'

And what marvels they were. Do whatever you can to see them before they fade from sight forever.

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

Fauning over the volume. l'Orchestre National de France, Prom 71, 7/9/10

What’s not to love about a programme including two of Debussy’s most famous works, Prelude a L’Apres midi d’un Faune and La Mer, alongside the 20th century’s most (in)famous ballet score, Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring)? There was certainly giddy expectation in the Albert Hall last night - musical devotees knowing exactly what they were about to receive.

Conducted by their (relatively) new music director, Daniele Gatti, l’Orchestre National de France were on stunning form (apart from an unseemly pile up by the brass section at the close of Dance of the Earth in Rite). Most distinctive perhaps was not the plangent sonorities of the fortissimi in La Mer and, of course, the Rite; but rather the exquisite, almost mystical, quietude that Gatti conjured from his 120-strong orchestra. It was this contrast, a kind of aural chiaroscuro between loud and soft, that gave these familiar pieces fresh mystery.

Perhaps it also comes from a particular kind of sensitivity of the predominantly French players to music that is such a part of their national culture? Sure, Stravinsky was Russian, yet what other piece of avant-garde music is more associated with Paris than this? There was that mythic riot in the Theatre Champs-Elysees at its premier on 29th May 1913.

Without these three works would 20th Century music have taken the adventurous course that it did? The breakdown in diatonic tonality towards dissonance and atonality, the shift from melody towards rhythm and the assertion of wind and brass over the violin’s orchestral dominance are all prefigured here.

But perhaps, more than any of this, these works taught us to listen with new ears.