From Russia, With Love

A night at the museum is what I expected when I went to the V&A’s ‘Diaghilev and the Golden Age of the Ballet Russes’ exhibition but, I was delighted to find, a night at the theatre is what I got.

For those unfamiliar with this unlikely lord of dance, Sergei Pavlovich Diaghilev was perhaps the most charismatic player in Europe’s 20th Century art scene. Among his many talents, the entrepreneur founded a successful art review, orchestrated a very important historical art exhibition and, like modern-day mogul equivalent Simon Cowell, hauled opera singers with that all-important “x” factor to Paris to make it as stars. But it was Diaghilev’s dance company, the Ballet Russes, that brought him global renown. Assembled in 1909 from St. Petersburg’s Imperial Ballet students, the troupe became a world phenomenon in the midst of a muddled era that found itself crippled by the Great War and – in Russia – the Revolutions, along with Communism’s impeding grip. Diaghilev’s Ballet, with numerous collaborations from the avant-garde’s “art pack” whose cultural elite included Stravinsky, Chanel, Picasso and Satie, mesmerised European audiences from the stages of Paris, London, Berlin and Monte Carlo.

The exhibition, tracing a chronological narrative, moves in dramatic, virtuoso fashion through the Ballet Russes’s cultural reign (mapping their Art Nouveau beginnings -courtesy of artist Léon Bakst- through the war years, which almost crushed them) to their move towards Modernism in the 1920s, up until their break in 1929. Exploring Russia, the classical and the Orient (themes that bleed into Diaghilev’s work), the exhibition takes an unconventional, ambitious approach in depicting Diaghilev’s life and career through a triple-narrative. First, there is a focus on the real, on Diaghilev himself and the time’s political and historical crises; second, a fairytale production of the Ballet’s performances and the aesthetic efforts that contributed to them, encompassing set design, art and costume; and third, a tenacity to the documentation of art as it enters a new, modern age. Executed with flair and edge, this show-stopping exhibit works within a theatrical paradigm where both the viewer and the art exhibited become performers. While the exhibition features a heavyweight cast of painting, photography, film, sketch and sculpture, fashion undoubtedly steals the show. From signature meringue tutus and sumptuous silks, to floaty fabrics and “tribal-chic” trends, it is as though someone prized open Pandora’s dressing-up box and dreamily curated its contents. Impressive designer contributions include Picasso’s (not-so) ready-to-wear metallic – and somewhat Gaga-esque – costumes, sensible swimwear by Chanel, and Yves Saint Laurent’s glittering Diaghilev-inspired pieces from the ’80s.

There are just two rowdy audience members that interrupt this exhibition’s stellar performance: politics and history. Throughout, the viewer is reminded of the war, of Communism, of the Revolutions; of the events that had the authority to make and shape an entire strain of art and culture. Here, history is as fixed as the production sets that hang from the exhibition walls. It is the shadow that – like our own which eerily emerge under the exhibition lighting as we walk through the space, choreographing our own feeble fairytales – follows Diaghilev’s legacy and that of his ever-influential Ballet Russes. However morbid this shadow of context may be, it constitutes a necessary, undeniable backdrop to the Ballet’s success, as history and politics construct that real stage – upon which the V&A performs with such gusto the story of Diaghilev and his infamous Ballet Russes.

The  above review of the “Diaghilev and the Golden Age of the Ballet Russes,1909-1929” exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum, 25 September – 9 January 2011 was published in Cub magazine, October 2010.

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