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Knights of the Vine RUSSIA


Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes at the Tretyakov Gallery
To mark the 100th anniversary of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, the Tretyakov Gallery (Kymsky Val, October 28 – January 31) is holding a centenary exhibition: 'Vision of the Dance. The 100th Anniversary of Daighilev’s Ballet Russe in Paris'. Don’t miss this.
Text by Evgenia Ilyukhina, Irina Shumanova,
photos courtesy of Tretyakov Gallery magazine

ergei Diaghilev is considered to be somewhat of a puzzle in the history of the 20th century. He was involved, simultaneously, in a vast number of creative projects. For many, he is not so much a real person as a composite figure of the ideal impresario, in whom the talent of an organizer was married to an exceptional sensitivity and receptivity to any innovation in art. Most importantly, he was able to find financers.

It seems that every project this “20th-century Medici” undertook was realized. He had a unique ability to inspire, bring like-minded individuals together and channel their creative energies into the creation of new kinds and forms of art. It was largely due to his efforts that Alexander Benois’ “self-education group” turned into the artistic association “World of Art” (Mir Iskusstva), and the magazine of the same title ushered in a new era of book illustration in Russia. Diaghilev was one of the originators of the modern concept of exhibition work. He organized a major show of Russian art in Paris in 1906, tracing its history from old Russian icons to the works of fledgling avant-garde artists. Still, “Diaghilev’s lifework” consisted in the creation of his ballet company: the famed “Ballets Russes de Serge Diaghilev”.

Owing to the Diaghilev’s genius, the sheer numbers of his productions and ideas generated within the Russian ballet theater alone, are now scattered across the globe. Thus, any exhibition devoted to Diaghilev demands the collaboration of Russian and Western specialists and the participation of European, Russian and American museums and private collectors. The show in Moscow is part of an international exhibition project including two consecutive shows, at the Nouveau Musée National de Monaco and at the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow.

The works at the Moscow exhibition come from museums which are in possession of the largest and most meaningful collections of Diaghilev-related material. Most items originated from Diaghilev’s troupe members, and his friends and associates, each of whom had his or her own version of the “History of the Ballets Russes” to tell. Thus, the Wadsworth Atheneum collection is based on a part of Diaghilev’s personal archive, inherited after his death by Serge Lifar, who sold it in 1933 after a financially ruinous venture in America. The most important acquisitions included stage costumes designed by Léon Bakst, Natalya Goncharova, Henri Matisse, Juan Gris and Giorgio de Chirico, bought at London auctions in 1968 and 1996.

Diaghilev’s company worked almost exclusively outside Russia, which explains why Russian museums hold only odd pieces of his legacy. The only exception is the collections of sketches for some of the early productions, such as Polovtsian Dances, Le Pavillion d’Armide, The Golden Cockerel, and The Firebird (of the 1910 version), which were begun, and sometimes premiered, in St. Petersburg. These items – sketches of the sets and the authentic costumes themselves – were loaned for the show by the St. Petersburg State Museum of Theater and Music, the Bakhrushin Theater Museum in Moscow, and the Glinka National Museum of Musical Culture.

Today many first-rate materials related to Diaghilev’s company are held by private collectors, and only some of them are featured at the Tretyakov Gallery exhibition. Because the productions were revived several times, there are replicas made by the artists themselves. Sometimes these replicas – materializations of full-fledged, well-rounded ideas – look better than the initial rough drafts. Such exhibits include the set designs for the 1920 production of the ballet Petrushka, on loan from the Bolshoi Theater museum, and costume sketches made in 1943, from the National Museum of Monaco.

The surviving visual materials do not make for a complete picture of the different stages of Diaghilev’s creative career. The first, “Russian” period is represented by spectacular sets and costumes designed by the “World of Art” artists. For them, just as for Russian émigré artists later, sketches of sets and costumes were an essential form of self-expression, valued as much as paintings. As for Diaghilev’s subsequent productions, fewer items have survived, and those that have are mostly rough drafts. Working on his later productions, Diaghilev eagerly enlisted the services of the most illustrious European avantgarde artists, such as Matisse, Picasso, Derain, Braque, and de Chirico. Sketches for Diaghilev’s unrealized productions are one of the special highlights of the exhibition; they include Goncharova’s pictures and collages for the ballet Liturgy, whose beauty and compositional originality are unmatched, as well as her numerous sketches for the sets of the Little Wedding Party ballet.

The layout of the exhibition is not strictly chronological. Aware that it is impossible to introduce the history of Diaghilev’s company in precise chronological order and to trace its history sequentially, the organizers arranged the exhibits thematically. This sort of arrangement was “suggested” by Diaghilev himself. Every one of Diaghilev’s performances and tours was pivoted around three ballet images: classical (romantic), exotic (most often – Oriental), and Russian. Moreover, every season Diaghilev regaled the viewers with a new production – an “avant-garde ballet of the future” of sorts, whose style was determined by a new form – a shocking artistic treatment (of music, choreography, and design).

This thematic division of the items, however, is fairly loose. Like in the Ballets Russes productions, differently themed materials are interlinked, with no clear-cut boundary between them. Thus, the theme of the “exotic Orient” in Diaghilev’s art comprises not only Léon Bakst’s fantastic Orientalia and Polovtsian Dances with sets designed by Nicholas Roerich, but also the ancient Bacchanalias and the biblical Legend About Joseph, a work in the style of the European Baroque.

The show’s first section is themed around classical ballet. This section recreates the images of that illustrious imperial ballet which Diaghilev, according to Larionov, showed off to the exacting Parisian viewers in all the splendour of its semi-centennial tradition. Portraits of the admirable étoiles of the Mariinsky Theater – Anna Pavlova and Tamara Karsavina – seem to come alive in a unique recording of Karsavina teaching a class in a rehearsal room, at the same ballet rehearsal bar which is displayed at the exhibition. The first ballets bearing a distinctively “Diaghilevian” stamp are represented with a magnificent array of sketches and costumes for Le Pavillion d’Armide and Bakst’s elegant sketches for the romantic Carnival – Fokine’s favorite ballet, which is still today a fixture in the repertoire of many theaters around the world.

The Russian themes, an essential and lasting feature in Diaghilev’s repertoire, are amply shown. Diaghilev’s first iconic production presented in Paris – the opera Boris Godunov – is introduced as an “overture” of sorts for the Ballets Russes. Other items on show include Roerich’s rare sketches for the Polovtsian Dances and The Rite of Spring, and costumes for The Rite, in very good condition, from the theater and performance collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum and from the collection of Olga and Ivor Mazure. The viewer is afforded a chance to compare two versions of the set designs for the famous Firebird ballet – one by Alexander Golovin and Léon Bakst (1910) and another by Natalya Goncharova (from 1926), as well as two versions of sets for Sadko (Boris Anisfeld’s from 1911, and Goncharova’s from 1916), as well as Goncharova’s sketches for the iconic production of The Golden Cockerel.

The closing section of the exhibition is devoted to the final period of the Ballets Russes and affords Muscovites a rare chance to see works of Diaghilev’s team of international associates. The most noteworthy items include de Chirico’s splendid sketches for the Ball ballet and works of the acclaimed artists André Derain and Pablo Picasso. The exhibition is enhanced by the opportunity to compare two versions of the designs for the Nightingale. Alexander Benois’ historical accuracy and refined stylization competes with Henri Matisse’s loose metaphorical interpretations of Chinese themes.

Diaghilev’s creation, the Ballets Russes, was not only one of the most successful art ventures that for 20 years defined the fashion, style and character of dance theater. The impetus for innovation and experimentation, given by Diaghilev, went on to determine the direction and development of 20th century ballet.

Text prepared by the Tretyakov Gallery magazine. Exhibition at the Tretyakov Gallery, 10 Krymsky Val, October 28 – January 31. Open daily 10:00–19:30 except Mondays.

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