Imagine the best party you can possibly fathom in let’s say, 1920, with a guest list made up of the cream of artistic vanguards from the collective realms of literature, music, dance, fashion and art, in one of the most exciting places to be on the planet at that time. Add a punch of old world Russian glamour and verve, and you have the invigorating focus for the V&A’s autumn show; Diaghilev and the Golden Age of the Ballet Russes.
The exhibition charts the journey of artistic director and cultural impresario Serge Diaghilev and his troupe of dancers, who fled their native Russia on the brink of revolution. In doing so they unleashed their own creative revolution upon the modernist cities of Europe between 1909 and 1929 with the maxim: “Art is free, life is paralysed”. It was in Paris that this tornado of modernist expression reached its apogee, with the various collaborations of Henri Matisse, Coco Chanel, Igor Stravinsky, Andre Derain, Joan Mirò, Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso, and was later felt throughout Europe and the USA through associations with James Joyce, Marcel Proust and TS Eliot before Diaghilev’s untimely death in 1929.
As can be expected at the V&A, costumes and textiles take centre stage, ranging from the fauvist prints of Matisse proudly emblazoned on tunics, to photographs of the bathing costumes designed by Coco Chanel for the 1924 production of Le Train Bleu; written by Jean Cocteau and named after the eponymous night train from Paris to the French Riviera. It is the same ballet’s proud curtain however, after 80 years in storage, that steals the show. Pablo Picasso, the ubiquitous agent provocateur of the period, designed the curtain backdrop for the ballet, after Diaghilev saw his painting Two Women Running on a Beach.
The curtain itself, stretching at over 34ft, was described by a former Diaghilev dancer as both “moving and alive”. Amazons as monumentally worthy of any Michelangelo ceiling soar weightlessly across it; brazenly ecstatic in their empty landscape, like figureheads sailing triumphantly into the unknown seas of the new century, yet so tragically unaware of the horrors that man’s new age would bring.
This proud piece is juxtaposed with the largest object in the V&A’s collection; a tapestry glittering with the onion domes of an imperialist Kremlin, designed for the 1910 ballet The Firebird. Illuminations and projections dance around the surrounding walls like the opening to a Bond film, silhouettes burning white against an avant-garde rainbow of sound and movement. It is the fiery liberation of dance as an art form, unshackled from its sentimental and cloying traditions of the previous century.
For the uninitiated, it becomes quickly apparent that this is not the ballet as experienced through the Impressionist pastels of Degas, but an exotic, disarming concoction that had riots erupting in the aisles of the Théâtre des Champs Élysées in 1913, with tangible evidence of the dancers’ provocative fervour in the cabinet of bruised ballet shoes in the second gallery.
The impact of the Ballet Russes in an age of political and social upheaval has not been forgotten, and to accompany the
exhibition echoes of this inspiration are on offer ranging from Tata Naka’s Firebird T-shirt to Erdem’s silk scarf inspired by the art nouveau patterns of the ballet Narcisse. In amongst these thrilling visual fragments of past creativity is perhaps the most evocative reworking of the Ballet Russes aura: a scent by Roja Dove, named ‘Diaghilev’, that reawakens the heady mix of bygone magic.