PARIS - On the eve of the 100th anniversary of the creation of the Ballets Russes, and based on an original idea by Ravenscourt Galleries, Sotheby’s is pleased to announce the staging of an exceptional exhibition of works lent mainly by French, British and Russian private collectors, museums and foundations.
Some 150 paintings, designs, costumes, theatre decors, drawings, sculptures, photographs, manuscripts, and programmes will be on display in Paris, retracing the key moments in the history of the Ballets Russes – a company that for twenty years made a revolutionary impact on 20th century theatre and dance, and continues to fascinate to this day.
Conceived in St Petersburg, then brought to life in Paris, the Ballets Russes was an exceptional phenomenon in the history of European theatre and dance. Under choreographer Mikhail Fokine, dance was to involve far more than athletic prowess, becoming a vehicle for self-expression and emotion, backed by decors and costumes designed by frontline artists. Meanwhile impresario Serge Diaghilev signed up the biggest names from the Russian imperial theatres – the Mariinsky in St Petersburg and Bolshoi in Moscow. This outlet for Russian creativity, mixing sophistication and sensuality in music, dance, art and drama, swiftly enjoyed a runaway success. The début performance, an opera in 1908, was followed in 1909 by the first of many ballets, among them Polovetsian Dances (1909), Sheherazade (1910), Petrushka (1911), Le Spectre de la Rose (1911), Parade (1917) and Le Train Bleu (1924).
In 1911 Diaghilev established a permanent troupe, and embarked on international tours to London, Monte Carlo and Germany, soon followed by South America and the United States. As a private, independent company, the Ballets Russes travelled everywhere without being attached to any one venue, although their Paris season remained an important annual event.
Until his death in 1929, Diaghilev maintained a creative team of international talent that at various times included avant-garde composers like Igor Stravinsky, Maurice Ravel, Erik Satie, Serge Prokofiev, Manuel de Falla and Vittorio Rieti; and innovative theatre designers like Leon Bakst, Alexander Benois, Nikolai Roerich, Michel Larionov, Natalia Goncharova, Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Georges Braque, André Derain and Giorgio de Chirico.
Only the choreographers (and most of the dancers) were of Russian origin: Mikhail Fokine, Vaslav Nijinsky and his sister Bronislava Nijinska, Leonid Massine and Georges Balanchine. Often performing in their own ballets, they broadened the choreographic vocabulary of ballet and exploited dynamic new rhythms. On stage, alongside Russian dancers like Anna Pavlova, Tamara Karsavina, Alexandra Danilova and Serge Lifar, some key rôles were played by other nationalities – whether Polish (Leon Woidzikowski and Stanislas Idzikowski), British (Lydia Sokolova, Anton Dolin and Alicia Markova), Spanish, and American.
The Sotheby’s show aims to reflect the revolutionary creativity, stimulating diversity and sheer magic of a troupe that danced its way to glory and into history.
On display will be costumes designed by such great French artists as André Derain (La Boutique Fantasque, 1919) and Henri Matisse (Le Chant du Rossignol, 1920), and by the Russian designer Leon Bakst, who amazed the theatrical world with his passion for stark colour, bold forms and startling set designs. Bakst’s vivid and sensual costume designson Oriental and Greek themes not only impressed theatrical audiences but began new fashion trends. He was the first theatrical artist to become a celebrity in his own right.
Posters recalling the surge of creativity that surrounded the Ballets Russes include Pablo Picasso's iconic image of the Chinese Conjuror for the audacious production of Parade (1917), and Jean Cocteau's poster for Le Spectre de La Rose (1911), which enjoyed universal acclaim.
Costumes and stage designs presented include works by Alexander Benois, for Le Pavillon d’Armide (1909) and Petrushka (1911); Leon Bakst, for La Peri (1912) and Le Dieu Bleu (1912); Mikhail Larionov, for Le Soleil à Minuit (1915); and Natalia Gontcharova, for The Firebird (1925 version).
Among the sculptors who derived inspiration from the Ballets Russes' choreography were Demetre Chiparus, Paul Philippe and Boris Frödmann Cluzel, whose remarkable bronze dancers are featured in the exhibition, along with figurines in Meissen porcelain, representing characters from the ballet Carnaval, modelled by Paul Scheurich.
The exhibition also contains photographs of various dancers, such as Tamara Karsavina in Carnaval and Vaslav Nijinsky in the role of Petrushka; and correspondence between Serge Diaghilev and his collaborators, notably Georges Braque (1923), Walter Nouvel (1928) and Georges Rouault (1929).
Finally, there will be a handful of contemporary works reflecting the visual heritage of the Ballets Russes – notably an installation made of paper by Isabelle de Borchgrave, and items from the Imperial Porcelain Manufactory in St Petersburg.
Sotheby’s will also be showing, alongside the exhibition, a selection of works from the sale of Russian Art to be held in London in November 2008.