Rare insight into a ballet company that caused quite a stir; A rare exhibition is conjuring up the memory of Serge Diaghilev and his astonishing Ballets Russes. JEREMY SACKVILLE was at the opening night.
THE value of an exhibition such as the one currently at Worcester City Art Gallery and Museum is not easily calculated.
We are generally well aware of the composers and dancers, including Anna Pavlova, Vaslav Nijinsky, Tamara Karsavina, Markova, Lifar, Anton Dolin and more, who were conjured up by Sergei Diaghilev during his 20 years as the director / impresario of the Ballets Russes.
But Diaghilev's uncanny ability to draw masterpieces from Stravinsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Debussy and the designers Bakst, Benois, Gontcharova and many more is uncanny. Michel Fokine was for many seasons Diaghilev's foremost choreographer and his influence changed the course of art in the West.
It is reflected in the exhibition Dhiaghilev's Ballets Russes in all manner of things, from photographs to paintings, drawings, rare books (one signed by Nijinsky's wife, Tamara, and another with remarkable lithographs of Nijinsky dancing) and original ballet costumes.
There is also an original photograph of Nijinsky dancing as The Golden Slave in Scheherazade, taken in 1910 for a Fine Arts Society publication, showing the world's most famous male dancer in his mid-20s.
In later years, Nijinsky was confined to a Swiss clinic for the insane. He had been Diaghilev's lover. The Ballets Russes was not without its share of human tragedy.
In a letter to his stepmother written at the outset of his career, Diaghilev said: "Me? I am first a great charlatan, second a great charmer, third cheeky and someone afflicted with a great lack of talent, but I think at last I have found my true vocation... all I need now is the money."
And the money came eventually, initially from wealthy Russian merchants in Moscow, anxious to improve their status by supporting the arts. Using their funding Diaghilev staged operatic productions in Paris, introducing the celebrated Russian opera singer Chaliapine and Russian music.
In 1909 Diaghilev staged the first of the astonishing ballets, The Polovtsian Dances, in Paris, and audiences were driven wild as half naked, virile Russian male dancers hurtled down the stage whistling and shouting. Later they howled down Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring and Nijinsky's violent choreography.
It continued in London, where the English poet Rupert Brooke visited Diaghilev's production of Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade 14 times, overwhelmed by its amazing costumes and sets by Bakst and its overt sexuality, a fact confided to this writer by the actress Catherine Lacey, Brooke's mistress at that time.
But there are many fascinating things to see in well-displayed showcases. Many of the original ballet programmes are works of art in their own right. Often 20 pages long they have covers by Salvador Dali, Bakst, Picasso, Natalia Gontcharova, Tchelitchev and more.
Elsewhere in this exhibition, for whom we must thank a Worcestershire collector, contemporary artists have responded marvellously well to a request by the exhibition's organisers to create special pieces.
Vic Bamforth, a Stourbridge glass artist, has created the stunningly fine "Scheharazade Vase", while Stephen Foster, a Scottish puppet designer, has contributed wonderful puppets recreating Kastchei the Enchanter and the Firebird herself from Stravinsky's The Firebird.
Around the gallery you will find extremely funny, framed anecdotes which provide a more personal note. When asked about her partnership with Anton Dolin, Alicia Markova (a Ballets Russes star in her time) said tartly: "Well, it would have been nicer if Mr Dolin had worn a little more deodorant!" And as for the ballerina who required sex before she could soar up in Swan Lake, well, you'll find a mention of that here too.
A special highlight in this exhibition among the beautiful fans, attractive posters, paintings and drawings by Laura Knight, Vladimir Polunin, Richard Edmonds, Irina Dunn and others, is an original costume design by Bakst for The Sleeping Princess, staged at The Alhambra theatre in London in 1921.
With typical extravagance (and confident of raising the money for the production from indulgent financial backers) Diaghilev set the production in the period of Louis XIV. The design uses layer on layer of rich fabrics with clear instructions written at the side of the main image to guide the costume makers.
Along with period shoes, gorgeous feathered hats and a set which was based on the Palace of Versailles, the cost was astronomical. The production eventually failed, the public found it lacking in appeal, and the outcome was a debt of many thousands of pounds.
Diaghilev fled to Europe to avoid a court case for debt.
The costumes were eventually auctioned by Sotheby's in 1968 in huge sales held in the Royal Opera House. One of those catalogues is on show and the costumes are shown in the photographs - ''and I was one of the models," said Marion Tait, the elegant former ballerina and currently deputy director of Birmingham Royal Ballet.
Ms Tait opened the exhibition in great style with a fine speech which was greatly relished, with many people vowing to return, with this reviewer among them.
| The exhibition continues daily (except Sundays) until April 30, alongside Matisse: Drawing with Scissors, which celebrates the artist's famous cut-outs he produced in the last years of his life.
A costume design by Bakst for Diaghilev's ballet Scheherazade