Sergei Diaghilev's "Ballets Russes" on the Tretyakov Gallery Stage

Yevgenia Ilyukhina, Irina Shumanova

Magazine issue: 
#3 2013 (40)


It seems that every project this "20th-century Medici" became in­volved with was realized. He had a unique ability to breathe inspira­tion into people, bring together individuals sympathetic to his ideas, and channel their creative energies into the creation of new kinds and forms of art. He was responsible for many important milestones of Russian cultural life in the early 20th century.

To a great extent, it was due to his efforts that Alexander Benois' "self-education group" turned into the artistic association "World of Art" (Mir Iskusstva), and the magazine of the same title, edi­ted by him, ushered in a new era of book illustration in Russia. Dia-ghilev was one of the originators of the modern concept of exhibition work. His expert knowledge and the breadth of his interests enabled him to introduce to his contemporaries art of the past and to aptly foresee art trends of the future. This culminated, in 1906 in Paris, with a major show of Russian art tracing its history from Old Russian icons to the works of the fledgling avant-garde artists. And although the selection of pieces reflected Diaghilev's personal taste, now, more than 100 years later, we can argue that these subjective choices were objectively quite accurate. Still, "Diaghilev's lifework" consisted in the creation of his ballet company: the famed "Ballets Russes de Serge Diaghilev" not only introduced Russian music and Russian ballet to the West but also formed 20th-century ballet theatre. This is why the centenary of Diaghilev's Ballets Russes is now celebrated across the world and, fortunately, this time the route of the "Diaghilev com­pany's anniversary world tour" arrives in Russia.

Owing to the popularity of Diaghilev's productions and the ex­tensive export of ideas generated within the Russian ballet theatre, the vast materials relating to Diaghilev's and his companions' activi­ties are now scattered across the globe. Thus, the organizer of any exhibition devoted to Diaghilev has several problems to address. Fo­remost among them is the dissipation of Diaghilev-related materials. In the whole world, no single museum holds a collection that would enable it to recreate the history of Diaghilev's company objectively and fully. Putting together such an exhibition calls for collaboration between Russian and Western specialists and for the participation of European, Russian and American museums and private collectors. The show in Moscow is a part of an international exhibition project including two consecutive shows, at the Nouveau Musee National in Monaco and at the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow.

The atmosphere of the Villa Sauber, where the show was ho­sted in Monte Carlo, determined the small number of exhibits and the intimate character of the exhibition centered around Diaghilev's study filled with his memorabilia. The exhibition space at the Tretya­kov Gallery Krymsky Val campus accommodates more exhibits and also called for a more theatrical arrangement. The conceptual centre of the show is the unique, authentic front-cloth designed for "The Blue Train" (Le Train Bleu) by Pablo Picasso, brought to Russia for the first time.

The works at the Moscow exhibition comes from museums which are in possession of the largest and most meaningful collec­tions of Diaghilev-related material. Most items originated from Dia­ghilev's troupe members, and his friends and associates, each of whom had his or her own version of the "History of the Ballets Russes" to tell. Thus, the Wadsworth Atheneum collection is based on a part of Diaghilev's personal archive, inherited after his death by Serge Lifar, who sold it in 1933 after a financially ruinous venture in America. The collection was acquired thanks to the museum's director A. Eve­rett Austin, who became a great fan of Diaghilev's company when it performed in Hartford in 1916 during their American tour. During the years that followed the museum methodically bought up Diaghilev-related documents and visual materials. The most important acqui­sitions included stage costumes designed by Leon Bakst, Natalya Goncharova, Henri Matisse, Juan Gris and Giorgio de Chirico, bought at London auctions in 1968 and 1996. Ultimately, the assembly of ar­tefacts became a unique collection of international importance, spawning the biggest Diaghilev heritage research centre.

Initially Serge Lifar offered his collection to the Bains de Mer Monaco (Sea Baths of Monaco) society, which for many years finan­ced the productions of Diaghilev's company and its successor, the "Ballet Russe in Monte Carlo". Regrettably, the society did not buy the collection then, and the Nouveau Musee National in Monaco now holds only a small part of Lifar's legacy. On the other hand, in 1991 the museum received as an inheritance Boris Kochno's collection, which included a vast archive relating to the Diaghilev period. For many years the Ballets Russes rehearsed at the Theatre de Monte Carlo. The extant original costumes made for Diaghilev's productions were made into a separate special collection. The collection has such gems as scale models of the sets accomplished from sketches by Leon Bakst, Natalya Goncharova, Alexander Benois, and Andre Derain.

The present-day "Diaghilev collection" of the V&A Theatre Mu­seum comprises several major acquisitions originating from Diaghiev's associates and friends. Many pieces were bought directly from the artists. In 1927 the Museum came into possession of the vast archive of Serge Grigoriev, a long-time stage director of the Ballets Russes. Thanks to its special focus, the theatre and performance sec­tion of the museum put together one of the best collections of the­atre costumes and large-size original stage sets and front-cloths from Diaghilev's company. One of these unique items - that designed by Picasso for "The Blue Train" ballet - is shown in Russia for the first time.

The biggest collection of theatre costumes is held by the Dans-museet (Dance Museum) in Stockholm, an heir to the Parisian mu­seum "Archives Internationales de la Danse" created by Rolf de Mare, a Swedish aristocrat and connoisseur of ballet. According to Erik Naslund, present-day director of the Dansmuseet, this collection changed the attitudes to theatre costume presenting it as "the reali­zation of the artist's idea, in flesh and blood".

Diaghilev's company worked almost exclusively outside Russia, which explains why Russian museums hold only odd pieces of his le­gacy. The only exception is the collections of sketches for some of the early productions, such as "Polovtsian Dances", "Le Pavillion d'Ar-mide", "The Golden Cockerel", and "Firebird" (of the 1910 version), which were begun, and sometimes premiered, in St. Petersburg. These items - sketches of the sets and the authentic costumes them­selves - were loaned for the show by the St. Petersburg Museum of Theatre and Music, the Bakhrushin Theatre Museum in Moscow, and the Glinka National Museum of Musical Culture. The Tretyakov Galery holds a uniquely comprehensive collection of theatre works of Natalya Goncharova and Mikhail Larionov, which Larionov's wife Ale­xandra Tomilina, fulfilling the artists' wish, passed on to the Gallery in 1989.

Larionov was not only a set designer for Diaghilev's company, but also a choreographer and "historian" of the Ballets Russes. His le­gacy comprises a collection of artefacts he put together for a book; this includes rare vintage photos shown in public for the first time at this exhibition.

Today many first-rate materials related to Diaghilev's company are held by private collectors, and only some of them are featured at the Tretyakov Gallery exhibition. However, despite the coordinated efforts of many of the project participants, it was impossible to ade­quately represent some of Diaghilev's important productions with authentic items - sketches and costumes created for premiere per­formances. Because the productions were revived several times, there are replicas made by the artists themselves. Sometimes these replicas - materializations of full-fledged, well-rounded ideas - look better than the initial rough drafts. Such exhibits include the set de­signs for the 1920 production of the ballet "Petrushka", on loan from the Bolshoi Theatre Museum, and costume sketches made in 1943, from the Nouveau Musee National in Monaco. The show's organizers tried, whenever possible, to showcase initial sketches, but it was im­possible to completely leave out replicas made by the artists. It was a common practice in theatres in the early 20th century to make se­veral copies of the same sketch, intended for different workshops in­volved in costume making. Specialists and experts are sure to derive an exceptional, rare pleasure from the display of different drafts, especially as they are exhibited side by side.

The surviving visual materials do not make for a complete picture of the different stages of Diaghilev's creative career. The first, "Russian" period is represented by spectacular sets and costumes designed by the "World of Art" artists. For them, just as for Russian emigre artists later, sketches of sets and costumes were an essential form of self-ex­pression, valued as much as paintings. As for Diaghilev's subsequent productions, fewer items have survived, and those that have are mostly rough drafts. Working on his later productions, Diaghilev ea­gerly enlisted the services of the most illustrious European avant-garde artists, such as Matisse, Picasso, Derain, Braque, and de Chirico. For these artists, whose creative focus was mostly on painting, theatre work was a short-term venture; their sketches were barely legible skimpy outlines, drafts, to be used as the basis in the process of crea­ting costumes or sets in which the artists were directly involved. It is surviving photographs rather than the sketches that give an idea of what the productions looked like. The method of reconstruction is the only method to use if one wants to let a contemporary viewer appre­ciate the novelty of these productions, their "future-directedness", and the measure of creative risk taken by Diaghilev. These "reconstruc­tions" have been made without any claim to absolute historical aut­henticity. Rather, they are historical installations and art objects created, however, after a study of the entire range of surviving mate­rials - pictures, photographs, and archival descriptions.
The sketches for Diaghilev's unrealized productions are one of the special highlights of the exhibition; they include Goncharova's pictures and collages for the ballet "Liturgy", whose beauty and com­positional originality are unmatched, as well as her numerous sketc­hes for the sets of the "Little Wedding Party" ballet. These items not only show how the imagery for the production was being sought and found, but also demonstrate the scope of the efforts and creative energies expended, the work that, hidden from audiences, took place "behind the curtain", and in large measure ensured the success of Dia­ghilev's ballets.

The exhibition has a special section devoted to photo and video materials. The photographs featuring actors playing roles and episo­des from the performances make for a special chapter in the narrative deployed at the show. This austere black and white coda not only transports viewers to the era of Diaghilev's company, but also sensi­tizes them to the beauty and inherent worth of the photographs taken by famous Russian, European and American photographers.

The best photographs were selected from Larionov's archive. The reevant items are more fully featured in the virtual photo album. The application of 3D, the cutting edge technology for installations, lends vigour and creates an illusion of immersion into the depths of vintage photos and the effect of a journey into the past, back to Diaghilev; it also incites a feeling of involvement with the events portrayed, which is of paramount importance for a show devoted to ballet.

The use of video calls for special commentary. Diaghilev himself was staunchly opposed to his productions being recorded - he belie­ved that contemporary recording technology, without sound and coour, could not do justice to the synthetic nature of his ballets. For this reason, all available recordings were made a long while after their premieres. However, the curators of a show devoted to the art of dance believed it was necessary to introduce an element of move­ment, showcasing recordings that were closest in time to their ope­ning nights or most accurately captured the spirit of a given performance.

The layout of the exhibition is not strictly chronological. Aware that it is impossible to introduce the history of Diaghilev's company in a precise chronological order and to trace its history sequentially, the organizers arranged the exhibits thematically. This sort of arran­gement was "suggested" by Diaghilev himself. Every one of Diaghiev's performances and tours was pivoted around three ballet images: classical (romantic), exotic (most often - Oriental), and Russian. Mo­reover, every season Diaghilev regaled viewers with a new produc­tion - an "avant-garde ballet of the future" of sorts, whose style was determined by a new form - a shocking artistic treatment (of music, choreography, and design).
This thematic division of the items, however, is fairly loose. Like in the Ballets Russes productions, differently themed materials are interlinked, with no clear-cut boundary between them. The consi­stent alternation of the thematic sections at the show reflects the gradual evolution of Diaghilev's ballets: from the initial romantic pro­ductions choreographed by Michel Fokine to the choreographic ex­periments of George Balanchine and Leonide Massine, and Bronislava Nijinska's later ballets.

The show's first section is themed around classical ballet. This section recreates the images of that illustrious imperial ballet which Diaghilev, according to Larionov, showed off to the exacting Parisian viewers in all the splendour of its semi-centennial tradition. Portraits of the admirable itoiles of the Mariinsky Theatre - Anna Pavlova and Tamara Karsavina - seem to come alive in a unique recording of Kar-savina teaching a class in a rehearsal room, at the same ballet rehe­arsal bar which is displayed at the exhibition. The first ballets bearing a distinctively "Diaghilevian" stamp are represented with a magnifi­cent array of sketches and costumes for "Le Pavillion d'Armide" and Bakst's elegant sketches for the romantic "Carnival" - Fokine's favo­urite ballet, which is still today a fixture in the repertoire of many the­atres around the world.

Bakst was for many years the key figure in Diaghilev's enter­prise. His sets enthralled and dazzled Parisians, while his costumes were copied by Parisian women of fashion, and designers used his motifs in interior decoration. Bakst was responsible for the "Oriental" thread in Diaghilev's repertoire. The exhibition features his famed sketches for "Scheherazade" and "Cleopatra". However, at the turn of the 20th century the Orient was not so much a geographic term as a mysterious Barbarian pre-culture. This concept of the Orient, in Dia­ghilev's ballets, underlined both Oriental and Russian themes. The "Polovtsian Dances" were the symbol both of the Barbarian Orient and the elemental forces of Russian paganism. Not accidentally, the next generation of artists employed by Diaghilev - Larionov and Goncharova - in their "Russian" productions plainly underscored the Asiatic, Oriental nature of Slavic culture.

The Russian themes, an essential and lasting feature in Diaghiev's repertoire, are amply shown. Diaghilev's first iconic production presented in Paris - the opera "Boris Godunov" - is introduced as an "overture" of sorts for the Ballets Russes. Other items on show include Roerich's rare sketches for the "Polovtsian Dances" and "The Rite of Spring", and costumes for "The Rite", in a very good condition, from the theatre and performance collection of the Victoria and Albert The­atre Museum and from the collection of Olga and Ivor Mazur. The vie­wer is afforded a chance to compare two versions of the set designs for the famous "Firebird" ballet - one by Alexander Golovin and Leon Bakst (1910) and another by Natalya Goncharova (from 1926), as well as two versions of sets for "Sadko" (Boris Anisfeld's from 1911, and Goncharova's from 1916), as well as Goncharova's sketches for the ico­nic production of "The Golden Cockerel". The success of the produc­tions designed by Larionov and Goncharova encouraged Diaghilev to employ avant-garde artists. Goncharova's colourful ornamental sketches for "The Golden Cockerel" and Larionov's sets for "Russian Fairy Tales" and "The Buffoon", which introduced to bedazzled Parisian viewers "examples of Russian Cubism and Futurism", are complemen­ted by such exhibits as the unique costumes-cum-installations for "The Buffoon" ballet, loaned by the Dansmuseet in Stockholm.

The closing section of the exhibition is devoted to the final pe­riod of the Ballets Russes and affords Muscovites a rare chance to see works of Diaghilev's team of international associates. The most no­teworthy items include de Chirico's splendid sketches for "Le Bal" (the "Ball") ballet and works of the acclaimed French artists Andre Derain and Pablo Picasso. The exhibition is enhanced by the opportunity to compare two versions of the designs for the "Nightingale". Alexander Benois' historical accuracy and refined stylization competes with Henri Matisse's loose metaphorical interpretations of Chinese the­mes. The important items in this section include scale models of the sets for "The Ode", designed by Pavel Tchelitchew, and "She-Cat" (La Chatte), designed by Antoine Pevsner and Naum Gabo. Although these ballets are nearly iconic from the viewpoint of stage design, there are almost no relevant artefacts to be found in museums. Ho­wever, the design of these productions marked the definitive trans­ition from ornamentation to the minimalism and functional expressiveness of the Constructivist sets. These "translucent" graphic forms on the stage brought out to the utmost the architectonics and expressiveness of the new choreographic language of the founder of neo-classical ballet George Balanchine, Diaghilev's last ballet master. Diaghilev's ballet at that point seems to have run a full circle, retur­ning, at a new level, to the simple and harmonious classical forms of "white ballet".

Diaghilev's creation, the Ballets Russes, was not only one of the most successful art ventures that for 20 years defined the fashion, style and character of dance theatre. The impetus for innovation and experimentation, given by Diaghilev, went on to determine the di­rection and development of 20th-century ballet.

The Tretyakov Gallery thanks the organizations and individuals who supported the project. Not limiting themselves to financial support alone, they actively and enthusiastically helped to mount the exhibition in Moscow. Special thanks go to the Ekaterina Foundation, which worked hard to develop and helped bring to reality the entire Diaghilev project - both in Monaco and in Moscow.





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