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.)

After Nicholas Roerich, costumes for Elders and a Young Man from ‘The Rite of Spring’ (1913)

After Nicholas Roerich, costumes for Elders and a Young Man from ‘The Rite of Spring’ (1913)

There are also things that are just mementos, like Diaghilev’s last bill from the Grand Hôtel des Bains in Venice, where he died from blood poisoning in 1929. Others – the manuscript of The Waste Land, for example – prop up the exhibition’s wider concern with modernism. There are posters, hats and shoes, programmes and china figurines: all are there to help one understand how the Ballets Russes worked on its audiences. But that’s the puzzle: how did it work, what was it that so thrilled and delighted people?

Laura Knight, who was good on women at work (she painted female machinists during the Second World War), was allowed backstage and recorded dancers waiting in the wings. We stand there with her. We hear the applause and know that something wonderful has been achieved out of sight; there is plenty of evidence, not just the size of the audiences, but letters and diaries and reviews. Proust rose from his sickbed to attend.

But like Dame Laura in the wings, we must imagine what they saw by interpreting material of the kind that is set before us here: material that is never complete, experience that is never direct. The music is still alive in the concert hall: old recordings indicate that it is untarnished by time – just less shocking, and, of course, not new. The costume designs are happy in museums, but costumes, to be fully understood, need bodies. From our own experience we know that although texts and rules don’t change, performances are tied to one place and one time. No recording, no television broadcast, matches the live show. What Diaghilev’s Firebird was really like must now be the privileged knowledge of a very few people, all very old. Think of any great performance, something long gone, that you have seen and the difference between the experience and the record will be immediately apparent.

The exhibition faces up to this problem with sense, ingenuity and panache. Much of what is there is static, but short video lectures expand on history: in particular, the impact of the ballet on the music of Stravinsky and others, and of ballet music altogether on 20th-century music. You are also shown a choreographer at work, composing a ballet by shaping the movements of a pair of dancers.

What an exhibition can do is take you behind the scenes. You can wander among the costumes in the wardrobe, see the scenery in the paint loft. It gives an odd angle on lost performances but it is at least a firm starting point for the imagination, even if the original audiences would only distantly recognise in all this paraphernalia the experience Diaghilev created. The ten-metre wide front cloth of Picasso’s big girls galumphing along the beach in classical semi-undress is seen close up, from the orchestra pit as it were, not as it was revealed to the audience when the fire curtain went up. Prince Alexander Schervashidze, Diaghilev’s scene painter, who made this enlarged version from Picasso’s little panel, did the job in less than 24 hours, and did it well. You can tell because there is a replica of Picasso’s picture nearby. (Today it would be enlarged digitally and be a great big reproduction, but not a great big painting.)

Although the costumes are the real thing they are also interpretations. How different one version could be from another is demonstrated by two versions of one of Bakst’s costumes for L’Oiseau d’or. They are included in the book of the exhibition (V&A, £35), which is weighty, informative and well illustrated, but not a complete catalogue. Sometimes the drawn designs tell you things you might not guess from the costumes themselves. Bakst’s flowing scarves and twisted figures suggest movement in a way that a coat displayed on a tailor’s dummy can’t. They also show how far apart one maker’s version could be from another’s. When you compare the complexity of Goncharova’s costumes for Sadko with the crudeness of the painted patterns on a yellow satin tunic from a design by Matisse you realise that Diaghilev’s visual gift was for juxtaposition.

The richness of the fabrics and embroidery in some examples demonstrates Diaghilev’s strategic (or dangerously overstretched) use of his patrons’ money. There are signs of wear and tear on the costumes; metal thread is tarnished and they hang limply or stiffly. We must imagine them transformed by the dancers’ bodies and stage light. That final act of showmanship Diaghilev made his own responsibility. He was not a composer, choreographer or painter: he created the ballets by gathering and directing talent and meticulously supervising everything that went on stage. He did, however, take the final effect of the whole into his own hands by directing the lighting.

After Nicholas Roerich, costumes for Maidens from ‘The Rite of Spring’ (1913)

After Nicholas Roerich, costumes for Maidens from ‘The Rite of Spring’ (1913)

Two moving images are particular striking. At the beginning a piece of film shows a stage on which the large, well-drilled corps de ballet of one of the Italian companies that were immensely popular in the late 1800s moves from one symmetrical wedding-cake assemblage to another. Think of a Busby Berkeley number in tutus. The other is a clip of a Pina Bausch version of The Rite of Spring. The dancers are dressed in thin shifts or tights; the discipline still seems to be perfect but the body movements are fluid and intensely expressive. Between the rigid visual pattern-making of the one and the expressiveness and visual spareness of the other lies what the exhibition must try to explain by encouraging each viewer to attempt an act of archaeological imagination.

Perhaps the dressmakers were the greatest secondary beneficiaries of what would today be the Ballets Russes brand. Paul Poiret (who said he got there before Diaghilev) took Bakst-like liberties with colour and bold patterns, but the empire-line, corsetless ease of his frocks showed a couturier’s rather than a choreographer’s idea of how a woman might feel about her body. At the same time the Oriental lavishness of his showrooms must have had some kind of Ballets Russes connection. Chanel was closer than Poiret to Diaghilev and to the ballets. It was her clothes (not really, as the book points out, costumes) that gave a whiff of the sportif to the dancers in Le Train bleu. At the end of Diaghilev’s life she left the Duke of Westminster’s yacht and reached Venice in time to be at his deathbed. She also paid for the funeral. The Ballets Russes was Diaghilev’s creation and died with him. With a composer or a painter you are dealing with a single imagination. Diaghilev picked them and arranged them as a florist would a bunch of flowers.

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