Saturday, October 20, 2012

Costumes of the Ballets Russes
Wearable Art

Marie-Therese Wisniowski

The National Gallery of Australia has a significant collection of costumes of the Ballets Russes. Between 10th December 2010 and 20th March 2011 the National Gallery of Australia exhibited its renowned collection of the Ballets Russes' costumes designed by such artists as Picasso, Matisse, Gris, Bakst, Robert and Sonia Delaunay, Braque and de Chirico. The exhibition integrated design, music and dance.

They also published a valuable tome with the exhibition, namely: Ballets Russes – Art Of Costume, R. Bell (with essays by C. Dixon, H. Hammond, M. Potter and D. Ward), National Gallery Of Australia, Canberra (2010). It is well written and gives a concise history of the Ballets Russes as well as giving life to some 150 costumes and accessories from thirty-five productions of the Ballets Russes de Serge Diaghilev and Colonel de Basil’s Russes de Monte Carlo.

The revived post-Diaghilev Ballets Russes reached Australia in 1936 giving performances by the various touring companies of Wassily de Basil. Below is just vignette of the exhibition and of its accompanying publication in order to give you a sampler of a truly unique experience.

A Brief History of the Ballets Russes
The story of the Ballets Russes stems from the interest of one man its founder and director Sergei Diaghilev - a Russian émigré - who lived in Paris, self exiled from Russia. Diaghilev’s Saison Russe (translated "Season Russia") began with the ballet Le Pavillon d’Armide. It brought together the talents of choreographer Michael Fokine and prominent dancers such as Anna Pavola and a teenager named Vaslav Nijinsky.

Poster of Vaslav Nijinsky in 'The Spirit of The Rose' (1911).

The presence of so many of the Imperial Russian female stars and the overt physicality, athleticism and bravado of the Russian male dancers, brought an authority and a dramatic atmospheric that restored the status of ballet to the stratosphere of the arts. The costumes designed for these performances, allowed freedom of movement, but emphasised an opulence fitting for a royal court performance.

Diaghilev’s Russian troupe returned to Paris in the following years. In the 1912 season, Diaghilev commissioned scores for new works from contemporary French composers, establishing the Ballets Russes as a Western European and internationally focussed company associated with the musical avant-garde. This growing repertoire of successful ballets enabled Diaghilev to plan for more regular programs in Europe and elsewhere.

Cover of the official program for Ballets Russes, Theatre National de l’Opera, Paris (1910).

With the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, Diaghilev’s largely Russian émigré group returned to Russia. In 1917, Diaghilev met Picasso, which generated a new Ballet Parade that brought together the Ballets Russes and Cubism. Picasso married one of Ballets Russes' dancers, namely - Olga Khokhlova - which bought Diaghilev into Picasso circle, therefore widening his clientele for his work.

By the end of 1923 the Ballets Russes had returned to a permanent base in Monte Carlo due to the financial support of Pierre de Polignac. In Paris in 1925 Diaghilev met and signed up George Balanchine and several other recently arrived Soviet defectors. The company’s work in the latter 1920s was a reflection of the interest in French music held by Diaghilev’s younger troupe of choreographers and dancers.

On the 19th of August 1929, aged fifty-seven and in the company of old friends Misia Sert, Coco Chanel, Lifar, and Kochno, Diaghilev died of blood poisoning.

Sergei Diaghilev, New York (1916).
Photographer: Unknown.

After his death the Ballets Russes were largely run by two opposing personalities - Rene Blum and Wassily de Basil. By 1934 they had serious disagreements on the direction, strategies and priorities of the company. De Basil favoured an international touring company, whereas Blum favoured a Monte Carlo based company.

In 1935 Blum had inaugurated his Ballet de Monte Carlo, hiring Fokine as choreographer. In 1936, a Russian-American banker Serge Denham acquired it. This company eventually found its way to the USA.

M. Fokine and Mme Fokina in 'L’Oiseau de feu' (1911).
Photographer: August Bert.

On the other hand, de Basil’s companies toured the world. In particular they toured Australia three times and with the out break of World War II a ten week tour "down under" resulted in an eight month sojourn, allowing the company to develop its work and become a fabric of Australia’s theatre and dance scenes. Some of the troupe returned to Australia, such as Irina Lavrova, who returned as a dancer, choreographer and influential teacher, eventually founding the Australian Ballet in 1960.

The Collection
When the National Gallery of Australia was established, one of its tenets was to celebrate modernism and to show how arts across all media contributed to an understanding of its influence.

The exhibition presented the Gallery’s well renowned collection of costumes from Sergei Diaghilev’s and Wassily de Basil’s Ballets Russes. The Gallery started its purchase of the costumes in 1973 and as the collection grew, it has now become the most important group of works in the Gallery’s International Decorative Arts and Design Collection.

National Gallery Of Australia (2007).
Photographer: Unknown.

The Costume Designers
Leon Bakst (1866 – 1924).
Leon Bakst started his career as a book illustrator and painter, achieving only moderate success. From 1898-1904 he was Diaghilev’s art assistant. He then ventured into designing both sets and costumes for various theatres in St. Petersburg.

In 1909, Bakst was invited to design productions for the first 'Saison Russe' in Paris. He continued working with the Ballets Russes becoming artistic director in 1911 until 1919. Bakst designed more of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes' productions than any other artist associated with the company.

Costume for a Syrian woman in 'Cleopatre' (1909, 1930).
Designer: Leon Bakst.

Costume for 'Chiarina' (1910).
Designer: Leon Bakst.

Dress in 'Columbine' (1942).
Designer: Leon Bakst.

From Left To Right: Costume for 'Shah Shahriar' (1910-1930s) and costume for a dancing girl in 'Odalisque' (1910).
Designer: Leon Bakst.

Tunic for blue god (1912) (see below).
Designer: Leon Bakst.

Nijinsky as blue god in 'Le Dieu Bleu' (1912).
Photographer: Unknown.

From Left To Right: Costume for a friend of 'Queen Thamar', for 'Queen Thamar' and for 'Lezghin' (1912).
Designer: Leon Bakst.

Cape for a lady (1914).
Designer: Leon Bakst.

Costume for a lady in waiting (1921).
Designer: Leon Bakst.

Alexandre Benois
Alexandre Benois was a moderately successful painter. From 1896 he designed costumes for stage productions that were not realized. Beginning with the Ballets Russe’ Le Pavillon d’Armide in 1907, he become one of Diaghilev’s chief theatre designers for nine productions. He spilt with the company in 1924.

Cloak for a harpist (1919).
Designer: Alexandre Benois.

Natalia Goncharova (1881 – 1962).
Natalia Goncarova initially concentrated on lubok prints, iconic paintings (folk art), embroidery and fabric design. She was first commissioned by Daighilev in 1913 and she later joined the company in 1915 in Lausanne Switzerland, where she designed Liturgie. After de Basil’s reformation of the Ballets Russes, Goncharova was commissioned to create new designs for the 1937 Covent Garden productions. She later designed opera and ballet productions in London and Paris.

From Left To Right: Costume for a female subject in 'King Dodon'; for a peasant girl in 'King Dodon', and for a nursemaid in 'King Dodon' (1937).
Designer: Natalia Goncharova.

Juan Gris (1887 – 1927).
His initial success was as a painter. He made significant contributions to the Cubist movement, becoming a leading collagist, particularly with paper-college from 1913. Through Picasso, Gris was introduced to Diaghilev and so to the Ballets Russes. In 1922, he began to design for the company, with costumes and sets for 'Les Tentations de l Bergere' (1924). By May 1924 Gris produced his final collaboration with Diaghilev.

Costume for a Countess in 'Les Tentations de la Bergere' (1924).
Designer: Juan Gris.

Florence (1908 – 1984) and Kathleen Martin (1903 - ?).
De Basil commissioned both sisters to design the costumes for the Australian production of La Lutte Eternelle (1940).

Costume designs for 'Obsessions' (1940).
Designers: Kahleen and Florence Martin.

1 comment:

Peter Pascal said...

What an interesting blog, introduced by a thought-provoking photo. The unusual wall painting of the dwellings is
also a strangely modern interpretation. Something like this hieroglyphic view of a park by Swiss painter Paul Klee,

The image can be seen at who can supply you with a canvas print of it.