Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes

Diaghilev and the Golden Age of the Ballets Russes 1909-1929 is an exhibition currently running at the V&A Museum in London. Not knowing much about the Ballets Russes, I was interested to get an accelerated learning experience.

It’s a smart, intelligent exhibition which takes us through the state of ballet before Diaghilev set up the Russes, shows us a wealth of costumes and designs, gives us videos of Howard Goodall discussing Stravinsky, and takes us on a tour with the company as they conquered the world. There are some tantalising glimpses of their connections to High Modernism, including a couple of the extraordinary, brilliant, completely impractical costumes for Parade. There are also some fascinating videos of recreations of Nijinsky’s choreography for The Rite of Spring juxtaposed with Pina Bausch’s no less astonishing version. For no terribly good reason, but oh how I lingered, there is a case with manuscripts for In Search of Lost Time, Ulysses and The Waste Land. One room brilliantly gives us the backcloth for The Firebird - apparently the largest single item in the V&A’s collection - together with music and some choreographic video projection.

Almost every turn reveals something lovely. There is a stunning pair of posters by Jean Cocteau from 1913 that are both monumental and mischievous. An instantly recognisable Edward Gordon Craig watercolour of Isadora Duncan is an early thrill and a little later a fascinating room is devoted to Nijinsky and includes a strikingly good bust by Una Troubridge that reveals an extraordinarily beautiful young man with high cheekbones, curious mocking eyebrows and a perpetual pout. Easy to see why Diaghilev adored, loved, and jealously protected this nymph. Towards the end of the exhibition we revisit a 1967 auction of the costumes, where they were sold rather cannily as psychedelic outfits for a generation newly re-enchanted with colour and primitivism. One of the Ballets Russes’ dancers is shown on video marvelling at being briefly reunited with her original costume. There is a generous array of Goncharova drawings and designs and she certainly emerges as a remarkable talent. (Her futurist caricature of Diaghilev is above.)

It’s only partly an exhibition about the Ballets Russes. In many ways it’s really an exhibition about how to exhibit dance. Dance is shown in film, in sculpture, in sketches and photographs, in painting, video, notation, in testimony, and in music and other remnants. Dance is there to be imagined in the costumes which hang on their stands looking magnificently inert; you draw on the energy of the music and colour around you to imagine that costume on the back of a dancer, defying the earth for ever longer intervals. It offers remnants proudly, without trying to fill the gaps - a huge map showing all the places in Europe and the Americas that they played is illustrated with a handful of postcards from a member of the company; it’s obviously at some distance from Balanchine and Bakst but it gives a sense of a whirl of social energy that surrounded and bore up those whirls of choreographic energy.

Appropriately, it feels theatrical as an exhibition. We move between spaces through prosceniums and exhibits are framed and lit with an enormously dramatic sense of space. Red and black are the background colours; it’s an exhibition that emerges from the dark, offering sensations rather than analysis. It’s a very sensual exhibition.

I’ll admit that, not knowing much about the company, some of the significance of what I was seeing passed me by. While some of the costumes are remarkable in their modernity, like Léon Bakst’s stunning Shepherd’s costume for Narcisse (1911), printed or hand-painted in strong, simple, organic shapes in blue and orange, a lot of them rather passed me by, but I accept it’s not you it’s me. Perhaps because I know little, I jibed at little at being steered so firmly: this is mostly at the beginning, where I began to feel that the whole of dance before the Russes was being trashed in preparation for Diaghilev to take the stage. We are shown some stiff and awkward opera costumes; there’s an interesting showreel of some rather decorative, twee and facile little dances. I wished I’d known more, because I wanted to ask what were these ballet and dance forms thought to be at the time? What were the dancers and choreographers doing? It’s so terribly distorting to read an artistic practice in the light of what is about to emerge unbidden.

But it’s a very enjoyable couple of hours and while it may feel a bit long, you really need to get to the end to realise how full and rich the whole experience has been, the remarkable journeys you’ve followed them on.