Saturday, January 29, 2011

A few weeks ago we started our cultural doings for 2011 by getting along to the Victoria and Albert Museum to see the last day of their exhibition of DIAGHILEV AND THE GOLDEN AGE OF THE BALLETS RUSSES. I had wanted to see this for a while and had meant to go over the Christmas period but of course left it till the last day - and there Constant Reader, was the problem. Well, one of them.

It was PACKED - and packed with the most infuriating dawdling shaggers I have ever had the sadness to be stuck amidst. It was a dangerous combination = ballet subject + big modern art names + last day = Hell. I swear to God most of the old dears tottering around must have known Diaghilev... and that was just the men. The most profoundly irritating thing was that it was difficult to get near any of the exhibits as the knobheads I shared the space with seemed to be more interested in reading the small signs as opposed to looking at the actual artifact - ARGH!

I am not sure when I became interested in the Ballets Russes but I guess it was instigated by my late friend Martin Taylor who probably suggested I read Richard Buckle's biography of Nijinsky which I remember 'borrowing' from Claude Gill Books where we both worked in the late 1970s - and yes, I still have it. The interest was further stoked by Herbert Ross' 1980 film NIJINSKY starring Alan Bates as Diaghilev, a film which seems to have vanished. I can't even remember it appearing on VHS, maybe the music rights are holding it back.

The tortured relationship with Nijinsky only takes up a fifth of Diaghilev's professional life but one suspects it's this period that most people came to the exhibition to see. What the curator attempted however was to show that he had a marked influence on all the arts until the end of the 1920s. I'm not sure there were all together successful.

One of the problems is that Diaghilev was the producer, the impresario who brought the creatives together. So how do you get a feel for him, the man himself, when by the curator's admission there is relatively little of the man's effects left? Yes you can show the costumes designed, the set designs and the sheet music - but of Sergei himself there is his top hat, plenty of receipts, chequebooks and a few business cards. It was full of exhibits spread over three enormous rooms - but Diaghilev was always disappearing around the next corner. No doubt a trick he used from his creditors.The exhibition was also very oddly designed - all the main walls and platforms seemed to be at odd angles to each other which very often led to bottlenecks of people trying to fit through a small gap between the exhibits - it probably looked great at the private show and press night but with any number of punters within, it was a logistical nightmare.

The lighting was also set to dim for most of the exhibits - especially when it came to lighting the costumes on display. I presume this is because brighter lights might have showed the costumes to be slightly the worse for wear - theatrical costumes from the start of the 20th Century were never made to be seen in close-up - but again it just added to more frustration as there were obviously some remarkable designs on display such as Feodor Chaliapin's BORIS GUDONOV costume from 1908...Nijinsky's costume as The Prince in GISELLE....
and the bathing costumes designed by Chanel for the 1924 production LE TRAIN BLEU.In the main room for the glory days of the Ballet Russes there was a semi-circular enclosed space dedicated to Vaslav Nijinsky which again proved frustrating as the it proved to be a people trap - and again there was the whiff of items cobbled together to form a viewable space. There was however, remarkably, an original rose prop of Tamara Karsavina's from their duet LE SPECTRE DE LA ROSE - it was only a hundred years old! - and an original of Léon Bakst's wondrous artwork for L'APRES-MIDI D'UN FAUNE as well as his set and costume designs for both ballets.There was a particularly awe-inspiring massive backcloth for THE FIREBIRD and there were plenty of other things that caught the eye but as the exhibition progressed though to Diaghilev's death in Venice in 1929 I had long since tired of the trappings and longed for something that pertained to the man himself. At the end of the exhibition was a copy of his death mask - there he was finally but again, he had escaped.

Any hope of walking away with a bulging carrier bag of gift shop purchases were dashed when I saw the scrutty collection of postcards and absence of a catalogue.

Not a good way to start 2011's cultural life... such a shame as I had high hopes for the exhibition.

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