In 1923, while preparing for the Ballets Russes’ world premiere of Stravinsky’s ballets Les Noces, with choreography by Bronislava Nijinska, Serge Diaghilev told the composer, “Let her get on with it, perhaps in fifty years’ time people will understand us!”
More prophetic words were never spoken: a century after the Ballets Russes were founded, the Russian corps de ballet is still considered as one of the most exciting and inspiring in the world.
An exhibition that opened last year at Stockholm’s Dansmuseet (please note: the museum is currently asking people to sign a petition against the imposed move to another location) celebrated the centenary of the company, showcasing a selection from the museum’s collection that includes roughly two hundred items from the Diaghilev and de Basil’s ballets.
The Dansmuseet is actually the first museum and research institute in the world - founded in Paris in 1933 by Swedish art collector Rolf de Maré - dedicated to dance.
Exhibits displayed in the main hall include costumes, masks, art and posters from different countries, including Africa, China, India and Japan and a group of rare Ballets Russes's costumes for the ballet Chout (1921).
The costumes for this ballet based on a Russian folk tale were designed by Mikhail Larionov and represent an amazing combination of Russian traditions, Cubism and Futurism.
The materials employed for these costumes (including wax cloth, flannel, cotton, buckram and satin), the brightly coloured patterns painted on the fabric and the angular and geometric shapes of the costumes (especially the costumes for the buffon's wives, the buffon and the soldiers) turned the dancers into bizarre materialisations of Depero and Balla's futuristic visions.
The admission to the museum collection is free, so you can always get a chance to see the costumes for this ballet.
The Dansmuseet's Anniversary Exhibition event allowed instead visitors to admire costumes from almost thirty ballets, watch rare videos and documentaries focusing on Diaghilev, Fokine, Balanchine or analysing Nijinsky’s Rites of
Spring, and see original poster illustrations by different artists, among them also Jean Cocteau.
Already in 1911, just two years after they debuted in Paris, the Ballets Russes inspired an art exhibition of Léon Bakst’s work at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs. Further exhibitions soon followed to pay homage to the great revolutions the Ballets Russes brought with them.
Thanks to this dance company, classical ballet was turned into a modern art form, the perfect synthesis of movement, music and image; the figure of the male dancer was revived thanks to extremely talented artists such as Vaslav Nijinsky, Michel Fokine and Adolph Bolm, while composers, choreographers and set and costume designers started collaborating together, dramatically transforming the theatrical experience of traditional ballet into a visual journey that attracted large audiences.
One of the most vital changes brought by the Ballets Russes regards the transformation of ballet into an art form that referenced also fashion and the costumes exhibited at the Dansmuseet are tangible proof of such transformation.
Designed by Léon Bakst, Alexandre Benois, Natalia Gontcharova, Pedro Pruna, Henri Matisse, Nicholas Roerich, André Derain, Giorgio De Chirico, José-Maria Sert, Alexander Golovin and Pavel Tchelitchev, the costumes show how, between 1909 and 1929, the Russian corps de ballet mirrored specific trends in art, form Symbolism to Art Nouveau, Cubism and Surrealism.
Bakst’s costumes with their colourful exoticism and their combinations of bright and vivid colours were considered as a departure from conventional ballet attire.
The traditionally stiff tutus were left behind in favour of costumes that liberated the body, sensually revealing it or erotically hugging the skin, while Bakst’s predilections for orange-red colours enriched with golden fringes and braids or lame fabrics featuring appliquéd coloured stones and pearls, contributed to turn exoticism into a successful fashion trend.
Interest in the Orient had always been popular in France in the 18th century, but the popularity of ballets such as Cléopâtre (1909) and Schéhérazade (1910) with the beautiful patterns and stencil-painted motifs of the costumes for the temple servants and the soutage techniques used for the priests’ costumes, the iconic harem pants worn by the Golden Slave interpreted by Léonide Massine and elaborate dress richly decorated with coloured beads, pearls and ostrich feathers for the Zobeide character interpreted by Lubova Tchernicheva, prompted many fashionable women to imitate art in life and adopt Paul Poiret’s designs inspired by Bakst’s sensual exoticism.Ballets inspired by Russian themes, folklore or fairy tales such as Polovtsian Dances (1909), L’oiseau de feau (1910), Thamar (1912) and Les Noces (1923), with their Cossack costumes, geometrical decorations, intensity of colours and opulent decorations, helped instead reviving many fashion designers’ passion – in later years also Yves Saint Laurent’s - for Russian inspired creations.
The Dansmuseet exhibition also featured some of the most experimental costumes such as Pavel Tchelitchev’s and Giorgio De Chirico's.
Tchelitchev’s visual design for the ballet Ode (1928) was based on a Modernist concept and featured a Constructivist set that included film projections, innovative lighting effects and ropes that helped he dancers creating geometric diagrams.
Costumes included blue bodysuits with painted stellar constellations and crinoline dresses decorated with square mirror-like elements matched with fencing masks and gloves.
De Chirico’s costumes for Le bal (1929), in pale, sunny colours, featured instead surreal architectural elements that often made the dancers’ movement awkward.
The details of the costumes are also striking, from the time-consuming embroidery and painted motifs of the Chinese costumes in Le chant du rossignol (1925) to the wooden skeleton-like phalanxes applied to the gloves worn by Alexis Bulgakov as Köstchei the sorcerer in L’oiseau de feau (1910); from the Grecian tunics with their decorative patterns for Narcisse (1911), to the Louis XIV-inspired costumes for Le Pavillon d’Armide (1907), the effervescent Fauvist colours of comedy ballet La boutique fantasque (1919) and the pink silk body suits for the Cimarosiana (1920) dancers crisscrossed by silver ribbons and decorated with hand-painted appliquéd medallions in Wedgwood style.
The Dansmuseet’s Ballets Russes Anniversary Exhibition has been a journey through exoticism and avant-garde, a full-immersion into a voluptuous orgy of colours, materials, embellishments and decoration, the perfect complement to the uninhibited eroticism of the most sensual corps the ballet in the world.The Ballets Russes anniversary exhibition is at the Dansmuseet until Sunday 25th April. Some of the items from this event will be showcased at the Victoria & Albert Museum’s exhibition “Diaghilev and the Golden Age of the Ballets Russes”. The video embedded at the end of this post shows copies of the Pablo Picasso costumes for the Ballets Russes' El Sombrero de Tres Picos (Le Tricorne, 1919).
Images 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7 in this post courtesy of the Dansmuseet, Stockholm.