Diaghilev's Golden Age of the Ballets Russes dazzles London with V&A display

By Kirstie Brewer | 13 October 2010
An image of a vast backdrop
Stage backcloth for the Wedding Scene in The Firebird (1926)© ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London (2010)
Exhibition: Diaghilev and the Golden Age of the Ballets Russes 1909-1929, Victoria and Albert Museum, London until January 9 2011

The awesome grandeur of Picasso's drop curtain is reason alone to visit this dynamic exhibition, which pays tribute to the great impresario, Serge Diaghilev and his troupe, the Ballets Russes.

The immense scale of the drop curtain, used for Le Train Bleu, is a startling testament to just how big the stage was when the ballet first premiered. Its dramatic presence befits Diaghilev, who reignited the western world’s passion for ballet and revolutionised western culture forever.

The Ballets Russes toured the world between 1909 and 1929, amidst the cataclysms of the First World War and the Russian Revolutions. The exhibition takes a moving look at how they survived during the War, having been cut off from their roots in Russia with little access to the cities they performed in before 1914.

A black and white photo of an early 20th century ballet dancer
Vaslav Nijinsky as Albrecht from Giselle (Act II) (1910)© V&A Images
Diaghilev combined dance, music and art in bold ways, creating "total theatre". He embraced the modern and exploited the avant-garde to create exotic performances that caused a sensation. The exhibition is chronologically laid out and, cleverly, begins with an overview of the seemingly sentimental and stuffy dance scene he was set to transform.

The collection of giant backcloths, stage sets, vibrant costumes, art, film and music used by Diaghilev stand in stark contrast to what came before, helping to bring the Ballet Russes' enduring impact to life. This sense of energy and excitement is captured brilliantly in the exhibition, and visitors should allow plenty of time to take it all in.

Picasso, Chanel, Matisse and Stravinsky are but a few of the great minds Diaghilev corralled together to collaborate on the ballets he presented. The wealth of treasures on show from the V&A's own unrivalled collection and a variety of lenders serve as romantic tributes to all of Diaghilev's great collaborators.

A black and white photo of a man in a big black coat carrying a cane
Serge Diaghilev© V&A images
A rich array of costumes designed by the likes of Bakst, Chirico, Braque and Chanel tell the story of the Ballets Russes, regarded as the greatest dance company of the 20th century, in theatrical style.

A particular highlight for me was seeing the turban for Le Pavillon d'Armide and the gold and pearl tunic from Le Festin, both worn by Vaslav Nijinsky; the infamous Russian ballet dancer and choreographer whose gravity-defying leaps have become legendary.

But it was perhaps the small, more humble objects that struck a particular chord with me; the tiny worn ballet shoes and the original manuscript for Stravinsky’s Firebird with its pencil criss-crosses were quiet reminders of the hours of labour and painstaking effort the company’s success was built upon.

Stravinsky’s Firebird manuscript forms part of a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at the Ballets Russes' productions – their inspiration, choreography, music and creation of the sets. This part of the exhibition includes Nijinsky’s notation for L'Apres-midi d’un faune – displayed for the first time as it was intended to be read, as is the musical score for Pulcinella by Stravinsky.

Throughout the exhibition is the hum of music, the arabesque of stage smoke and mood lighting.  But this all reaches a dramatic climax with a breathtaking original backcloth from The Firebird and a giant projection of the dancer Begona Cao, principal dancer of the English National Ballet dancing to Stravinsky’s score.

Diaghilev's top hat, travel clock and opera glasses offer a small but moving personal glimpse of the man they called dictator, devil, charlatan, sorcerer and charmer. He was an elusive man who left few personal possessions, but instead offers us a powerful legacy of music, dance and art that continues to take the world by storm.

Open 10am-5.30pm (9.30pm Friday). Admission £6-£11.60, visit the exhibition ticket page for full details.

Visit the
exhibition programme online for a full list of accompanying events and co-curator Jane Pritchard's blog for the inside track.

Visit Kirstie Brewer's blog or follow her on Twitter.
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