Diaghilev and the Golden Age of the Ballets Russes

Written on September 24, 2010 by Banafsheh Farhangmehr in IE Humanities Center

By Victoria and Albert, London

Monumental and arresting … Pablo Picasso's drop curtain for Le Train Bleu ballet, at the V&A in London. Photograph: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty

When Lydia Lopokova, a former Diaghilev ballerina, went to see her old company perform in Paris in 1924, it was Picasso's drop curtain for the ballet Le Train Bleu that most impressed her. She found it "moving and alive". The ballet itself has long disappeared, but the drop curtain, of two women bounding along a beach, has survived. And for the first time in three decades, it's on public view, part of the V&A's magnificent celebration of Diaghilev's troupe, the Ballets Russes.

The curtain, hung from ceiling to floor, looks monumental: the rosy solidity of the women's bodies, the cloudy blue of the sky, all on an awesome scale. It's a startling reminder of the size of the stage where the ballet was premiered. But even more arresting are the tiny holes and creases on the curtain's surface – testament to the hard-working life of Diaghilev's troupe as it toured the world between 1909 and 1929.

During those years, Diaghilev famously corralled an extraordinary array of talent to collaborate on the ballets he presented, to which the 300 items in this exhibition pay scrupulous and moving tribute. There are cubist sets and costumes by Picasso, surrealist costumes from De Chirico, jewel coloured costumes from Matisse, along with contributions from Braque. All offer a fascinating slant on the artists' painterly concerns. Some are familiar, some I've never seen before – including an earnestly bizarre industrial set for the 1927 ballet Le Pas d'Acier, designed by the Russian constructivist painter Yakoulov.

The exhibition takes a chronological course through the company's history, pausing on certain individuals and themes. A whole section is devoted to Nijinsky, allowing you to ponder how a dancer whose jump became world famous could defy gravity in costumes so heavy and ornate. En route, the exhibition also accumulates vivid souvenirs from the wider historical context. Early exhibits, indicating the culture out of which the Ballets Russes was born, feature period film of the kind of overstuffed, sentimental ballets that were current before Diaghilev and his radical choreographers changed the artform for ever.

But it's the emotional power of the little objects that hits you, reminding you of the day-to-day labour that went into the creation of the Ballets Russes legend: a display of ballet shoes, stained and worn; the manuscript for Stravinsky's Firebird, crisscrossed with pencil and blue crayon; and, most touching of all, a collection of Diaghilev's personal items – his travel clock, his top hat and the opera glasses through which he watched his triumphs (and occasional disasters) take shape on stage.

As published in guardian.co.uk


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