The curtain rises on the Golden Age of the Ballets Russes

Ballet fans, a date to get into your diary now! A major exhibition of one of the world’s great artistic directors and impresarios is coming up at London’s V&A museum this autumn. 

Firebird by Natalia Goncharova
Firebird by Natalia Goncharova, 1926

A MAJOR EXHIBITION of one of the world’s great artistic directors and impresarios will be shown at London’s V&A museum from 25 September to 9 January 2011.

Titled Diaghilev and the Golden Age of the Ballets Russes 1909-1929, the exhibition will be the “must” show for all balletomanes. This is the Svengali-esque man who put Vaslav Nijinsky, the tortured but uniquely gifted Russian dancer and his shocking–for-the-time Rites of Spring on to the Parisian stage and caused a riot in the aisles. However, his dramatic performances reawakened interest in ballet both in Europe and America.

Serge Diaghilev
Serge Diaghilev

The Ballets Russes was the most exciting dance company of the 20th century because Diaghilev combined music, dance and art to create “total theatre”. It was exciting to listen to and thrilling to watch. He worked with composers Stravinsky and Mussorgsky, designers Coco Chanel, Natalia Goncharova and Leon Bakst, plus many of the great artists of the time like Picasso, Matisse, Cocteau and Braque, and the exotic sets and superb costumes drew the crowds.

The exhibition begins with Diaghilev’s life in St Petersburg and his early work in Paris up to 1914. Here are some magnificent costumes of that time, like the one for Boris Godonov worn by Chaliapin and a rich array by Bakst, including a turban worn by Nijinsky in 1909 at the first performance of the ballet company.

The second gallery takes visitors behind the scenes of the Ballets Russes in choreography, music and sets. As well as costume, there are wonderful stage back and front cloths to see like Picasso’s dedicated-and-signed-for Le Train Bleu.  Nijinsky’s notation for L’Apres Midi will be displayed as it was meant to be read, along with Stravinsky’s score for Pulcinella. A highlight in this gallery is a presentation of The Firebird through a series of designs by Goncharova for the coronation scene and the original backcloth.

In the last gallery Diaghilev and his company are in the 1920s when he had achieved great stature. Works by artists, writers and musicians he knew are displayed here, including manuscripts by Joyce, Proust and Eliot. There is also a large display of costumes here from the exotic and the chic to the decidedly odd!

Zepyre and fiore by Georges Braque
Costume for Massine’s Zephyre and Flore by Georges Braque, 1925

Said Mark Jones, V & A’s director, “Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes redefined ballet, pushing boundaries and collaborating with the best talents of his time. This is an unrivalled collection of over 300 objects, some rarely seen now in public.”

There will also be a limited edition, specially created eau de parfum called Diaghilev by Roja Dove, which promises to be as exotic as its namesake on sale at the museum and Harrods.

Diaghilev and the Golden Age of the Ballets Russes is at the Victoria and Albert Museum, South Kensington, London SW7 from 25 Sep-9 Jan 2011;

Report by Pat Moore.

Images: V&A images.