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.

No comments: