Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Diaghilev and the Golden Age of the Ballets Russes

The Victoria and Albert Museum’s current exhibition, Diaghilev and the Golden Age of the Ballets Russes, celebrates "the most exciting ballet company of the 20th Century" on the occasion of its 101st anniversary year of inception. Through Diaghilev’s direction, collaborations and interpretation of the "total theater," the Ballets Russes heralded Modernism and reinvigorated ballet by imaginatively synthesizing dance, music and art in each production. Three hundred artifacts from the Company’s early years are on display, including over 80 costumes, set designs, theater backdrops, and props by artists such as Chanel, Picasso, Benois, Braque, Matisse, Bakst, Larionov, and Goncharova.

The contributions of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes to both dance and music are numerous: Many dancers built careers under Diaghilev’s direction and, in general, he elevated the role of male dancer in ballet. The company became known for its ground-breaking choreography in part because Diaghilev supported Mikhail Fokine’s choreographic reforms, supervised the work of fledgling choreographers Vaslav Nijinsky, Léonide Massine, Bronislava Nijinska, and was also responsible for introducing to the world the 20-year old George Balanchine (who went on to create ten ballets for the company).

The composers for the Ballets Russe were of equal accomplishment. Diaghilev launched the international career of Igor Stravinsky at age 27 by commissioning The Firebird. He also commissioned other immortal works by Maurice Ravel (Daphnis et Chloé), Claude Debussy (Jeux), Richard Strauss (Die Josephslegende), Erik Satie (Parade), Francis Poulenc (Les Biches) and Serge Prokofiev (Le Pas d’Acier and The Prodigal Son).

Despite the achievements of his dancers, choreographers and musicians, many have argued that Diaghilev regarded his set and costume designers as the true stars of his innovative company. Other visual artist who collaborated with Diaghilev included Georges Rouault, Juan Gris, Maurice Utrillo, Giorgio de Chirico, Max Ernst, Joan Miró, Jean Cocteau, and Naum Gabo, among numerous others.

The finding aid below highlights the most visually interesting books in our collection, featuring the fine artists of the Company. This is not a comprehensive list but instead a starting point for research.

The Art of Ballets Russes: The Serge Lifar Collection of Theater Designs, Costumes, and Paintings at the Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, Connecticut by Alexander Schouvaloff (Yale University Press in association with the Wadsworth Atheneum, 1997).

An invaluable guide to the art of the company, this heavily-illustrated book emphasizes the set pieces, backdrops and costumes from the Serge Lifar Collection at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art. This book is organized alphabetically by visual artist’s name, further divided by production title. Each section includes a show synopsis and an essay highlighting historical details of the production, artists’ working methods and their relationships with Diaghilev. Understandably, Bakst and Benois have the most-lengthy entries.

The Art of the Ballets Russes: The Russian Seasons in Paris, 1908-1929 by Militsa Pozharskaya and Tatiana Volodina (Abbeville Press, 1990).

Beyond the introductory essay, this book is primarily illustrated offering season by season chronology of the Ballets Russes productions.

The Art of Enchantment: Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, 1909-1929 compiled by Nancy Van Norman Baer ( Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, 1988).

This catalog accompanied the 1988-1989 De Young museum exhibition. It contains images and essays addressing the work of the artists, as well as an essay on the cross-influences of design and choreography within the company.

La danza delle avanguardie: dipinti, scene e costumi, da Degas a Picasso, da Matisse a Keith Haring a cura di Gabriella Belli ed Elisa Guzzo Vaccarino (Skira, 2005).

In Italian, this book contains over 100 pages of Ballets Russes’ color images. It includes set drawings, costume designs and finished costume photographs for many productions, including the controversial Le Sacre du Printemps (1913), and for Picasso’s Parade (1917) and Pulcinella (1920).

The Russian Theatre: Its Character and History, with Especial Reference to the Revolutionary Period, by René Fülöp-Miller & Joseph Gregor (Lippincott, 1930).

With 48 illustrations in colour and 357 in half-tone. This volume has small section covering the Russian ballet, with sumptuous photographs of Ballet Russes dancers, as well as color drawings, primarily those of Bakst and Benois.

Picasso's "Parade": From Street to Stage: Ballet by Jean Cocteau, Score by Erik Satie, Choreography Léonide Massine by Deborah Menaker Rothschild (Sotheby's Publications, in association with the Drawing Center, New York, 1991).

A thorough examination of the 1917 Ballets Russes production.

Picasso Theatre by Douglas Cooper (H. N. Abrams, 1968).

Includes concept drawings, sets and costumes from Picasso’s Ballet Russes work.

Scenic and Costume Design for the Ballets Russes by Robert C. Hansen (UMI Research Press, 1985).

Few illustrations, but a complete chronology of all productions and the designers who worked on each. Lengthy bibliography of books and articles can be used for additional research.

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