Exhibition Review: Diaghilev and the Golden Age of the Ballet Russes at the V&A

Visits to the Victoria & Albert Museum are always a pleasure.  Sometimes the discovery of a single object in a remote corner of the galleries is a thrilling experience. Sometimes  indulging in tea and scones with clotted cream and jam in the café after a morning in the National Art Library is sublime.  On my recent visit, to see the museum’s major autumn exhibition, Diaghilev and the Golden Age of the Ballets Russes, the delight was in the total experience of an extremely well-presented, and curated exhibition; one with enormous quantities of both substance and style.

This major retrospective exhibition presents more than 300 items from the V&A’s performing arts collections and celebrates the enduring influence of Serge Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes on 20th century art and design.  Curated by Jane Pritchard and Geoffrey Marsh, this landmark exhibition presents a dazzling array of artefacts that create an atmospheric journey into Diaghilev’s  collaborations with prominent visual artists and designers such as Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Giogrio deChirico, Natalia Goncharova, Andre Derain, and Coco Chanel.

Serge Diaghilev, photograph by Jan de Sterlecki 1916, Jerome Robbins Dance Division, New York Public Library for the Performing Arts

The first items of dress exhibited are Diaghilev’s top hat and opera glasses. This small display is a fantastic example of personal sartorial accessories as a portrait. The introductory display also outlines the social and cultural climate of tsarist Russia, in which Diaghilev began his career.  Curator Jane Pritchard has ensured that the story of the Ballets Russes is told in the context of its radical departure from the tradition of Russian ballet before Diaghilev. Numerous surviving performance costumes are displayed in a variety of settings, often in tandem with original sketches, performance photographs and other theatre ephemera.

In the gallery focused in the Ballets Russes’ early years, costumes take centre stage. Bakst’s costumes from the ballets Narcisse (1911), Sheherazade (1911) and Daphnis et Chloe (1912) are dramatically  displayed in motion on a revolving circular platform.  Under richly colored stage lights, with music from the productions playing, the costumes come to life, and the exhibition evokes a sense of what the Ballets Russes must have felt and looked like when it was first presented.

Costumes designed by Leon Bakst for Daphnis et Chloe, 1912

Mikhail Larionov's costume for the buffoon in Chout (1921)

A section of the exhibition is dedicated to the virtuoso principal dancer Vaslav Nijinsky. The display features the a pair of pearl drop earrings he wore in Sheherezade framed alongside George Barbier’s illustration of him performing the role. It also presents a number of Nijinsky’s elaborate and impractical costumes, and shows in some cases how they were adapted for comfort and ease of movement.

George Barbier's illustration of Nijinsky performing in Sherherazade

Earrings designed by Leon Bakst for Nijinsky in as the Golden Slave in Sheherezade (1910)

A section of the exhibition subtitled Creating Ballet dissects the process of theatrical production, illustrating how research, choreography, musical composition, and design develop and come together.  The exhibition design, by award-winning British theatre designer Tim Hatley, is suggestive of being backstage at a Ballets Russes production.  Particularly eloquent is the clever display of rehearsal and performance footwear (including toe shoes worn by Anna Pavlova) arranged on a paint-encrusted worktable.

The relationship between the Ballet Russes and popular contemporary fashion is addressed briefly in the exhibition. Natalia Goncharova’s commercial evening wear designs are exhibited, and Chanel’s costumes for Le Train Bleu are a radical example of “real” fashion clothing being worn as a naturalistic stage costume.

Eveningwear designs by Natalia Goncharova

Production photo showing Coco Chanel's costumes for Le Train Bleu (1924)

A short video of a 1968 auction of Ballet Russes artefacts, gives insight into the journey of the Ballet Russes costumes from private collection, to auction to museum.  The auction was a well publicised event in London, and an amusing newspaper clipping shows “hippies” wearing the actual costumes in an editorial photo shoot and advertisement for the auction.

Article from the Sunday Times describing the auction of Ballet Russes materials, V&A Performance Collections

DeChirico’s costumes for Le Bal, that superimpose architectural detail on the body, are in the exhibition’s final section.  These costumes are recognised as icons of surrealist fashion, and are much quoted by fashion designers, particularly in the 1980s. Adelle Lutz’s “Camouflage” costumes for David Byrne’s film True Stories (1986) are an homage to DeChirico’s groundbreaking and whimsical designs.

DeChirico's costumes for Le Bal (1929)

DeChirico's sketch for Le Bal costume

The enduring influence of the Ballets Russes on fashion is addressed near the exhibition’s close in a display of ensembles by Yves St. Laurent (1976-1999). In one sense they are perfectly natural items to include.  They are eye-catching, opulent and historically significant fashions from the late 20th century that exhibit the direct influence of the Ballets Russes on fashion designers.  However, the emphasis placed upon them as a closing image, brings out the vital differences between design for the stage in Diaghilev’s time, and fashion design in the 1970s.  The YSL ensembles are polished – they possess both a high level of commercial finish and a marked sense of the taste of their times.  All the costumes that precede them in the exhibition are possessed by something other – the excitement generated by artistic innovation, the creative energy or their designers and makers, and the sweat of the performers who wore them.

The opportunity to see this many Ballets Russes costumes in one place was an inspiring experience, and rare insight into the inner workings of one of the most revered art collectives of all time.  For aficionados of costume, dance, and fashion, the exhibition is a visual feast and cornucopia of information. It is encyclopaedic, yet engaging.  If you go to see it, give yourself ample time, at least two hours, and be ready to be immersed in a realm of fantasy and wonder whose influence will  undoubtedly continue to be felt on fashion for years to come.

You can read more about the Ballets Russes, in the exquisite exhibition catalog, which is comprised of writings on particular aspects of the company’s history and legacy. Essays on the topics of Wardrobe (Sarah Woodcock), Diaghilev and Chanel (Keith Lodwick), and Diaghilev Under the Hammer (Jane Pritchard), give a more detailed account of the research which fore-grounded the exhibition.

Also see Jane Pritchard’s curator’s blog for information on the planning and installation of the show.

A host of events devised in tandem with the exhibition are upcoming. For the events calendar click here.

For more information on the Ballet sRusses connection to popular fashion in the early 20th century see Samantha Vettese’s article in Issue #42, 2008 of the Journal of the Costume Society  (2008).

For a slideshow from the Guardian of costume items being installed by V&A staff click here. Be sure to note the alluring purple nitrile gloves being worn!

All images: vam.ac.uk  unless specified.

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  • Kat October 28, 2010 11.50 am

    wow those look awesome! I hope I get the chance to go and see it!

  • Christian Hernandez October 30, 2010 10.44 pm

    Wow. Amazing exhibit and well written post. Welcome to WT.

  • Annette Watt December 12, 2014 05.43 pm

    Hi Jane ,

    Thanks for the wonderful info. on Ballet They had a formative influence on Australian ballet. Beginning with an initial tour in the 1930’s . My uncle was an art critic and I remember the wonderful day on which the Company were entertained at his seaside home at Shoreham . You can find my tribute to them on Pinterest : Dance . Pseudonym Annette Emmanuel .

    How I would like to have met Diagilev ! The flamboyant impresario . And Leon Bakśt . The richness of his designs , the colours !, Regards , Annette MacLeod Watt

    # Hope you don’t mind – I saved some images from your web page .


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