At the V&A

Peter Campbell

The range of materials in the exhibition Diaghilev and the Golden Age of the Ballets Russes, 1909-29 (at the V&A until 9 January) is not limited by beauty or intrinsic interest: if an item can help to explain how Diaghilev controlled and galvanised his family of collaborators, or let us imagine what near-century-old performances might have been like and why they transformed the art of ballet (and affected fashion and the decoration of drawing rooms), it is welcome here. There are actual relics: set and costume designs by Benois, Bakst, Goncharova, Matisse, Rouault and many others. Some of them can be taken as independent works of art. Closer to the performances, and therefore diminished by the absence of the environment they were created for, are the costumes and stage cloths. There are records of how the dancers looked. Valentine Gross’s swift sketches of Nijinsky are important because they seem to say more than photographs about how he moved – Diaghilev wouldn’t let the ballets be filmed. Still photographs, on the other hand, like the one of Nijinsky as the Negro Slave from Schéhérazade, explain some things better than drawings. While this is a posed picture, not one in which movement is captured, it does show how pretty he could look, how his harem trousers hung, and, incidentally, that much of what is bare flesh in Bakst’s designs was, in performance, covered by flesh-coloured tights that pucker into giveaway folds at the elbow. (Diaghilev had more than once to deal with dancers who found skimpy costumes too revealing or heavy ones difficult to dance in.)

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