On Sunday afternoon after being released from a group meeting hours before I expected I decided to pop over to central London to visit an exhibit at the V&A museum. I convinced my friend SK to join me in my spontaneity. After about an hour making it across town to South Kensington – because that’s how it goes in – we found our way into the beautiful V&A museum. For those of you not familiar with it, the V&A (Victoria & Albert) is predominately a design museum.
On exhibit, until the 9th of January, is a show on Diaghilev and the Ballet Russes. My knowledge of dance history is horrible and Diaghilev didn’t ring a bell, but I knew the importance and impact of the Ballet Russes and knew I had to see it. Saturday night I had called Miss D to see how her leg was doing after having surgery to fix some stress fractures. We got to talking about ballet, as dancers do, and I remembered the exhibit was up. I told her the name and she immediately told me I had to go if I had the chance. I am so glad that I did. Not only was it incredibly informative, but it was one of the best curated exhibitions I’ve ever been to.
As the exhibition starts you’re given a sense of place. The history of turn of the 20th century Russia, what was going on in the world and what was going on in the arts, who Diaghilev was and what he meant in relation to all of this. Everything is designed in stark red and black and the room is quite dim, but plaques and displays are lit well enough to be viewed clearly. The ceiling is impressively high and so are the temporary partitions built specifically for the exhibition. Then you move on to the second stage which takes on a cool blue/black feel. There is a video showing clips of ballets from the era and the timeline moves forward a little as we walk around the room inspecting costumes and learning about the music Diaghilev used. By this point I’ve realised Diaghilev was the man that really made the Ballet Russes popular in the early 1900s and cultivated some of the most radical ballet choreographers of the time, among them Balanchine. My excitement for the exhibit was growing by the second, as was my realisation that my study of dance history has been long neglected. (Though, when I have the time I will read the 800 odd page tomb I finally picked up called No Fixed Points). From costumes and music we move on to choreography. This room is laid in black and white, the pieces presented on converted back stage pieces – chairs, benches, pianos, trunks, etc. Again there’s a balance of video/design/objects/words that pulls you through while immersing you in the idea of it all. On and on the rooms go, but you barely notice the passage of time. And then you come to what was, for me, the highlight of the entire exhibit. You’ve been reading and learning about set design by looking at sketches for the backdrop for Firebird. And then you turn left through an archway. And there it is. What must be thirty feet high. You’re struck by the immensity of it, the beauty, the grandeur. Then a multimedia projection starts on two walls behind you. At points the videos are mirrored, sometimes they are different, and sometimes they are identical (as opposed to reflections). What is astounding (on top of the beauty of the piece itself) is that the walls of this room have painted slants at 45º angles (that are mirrors of each other – also the two walls form a corner) and on this slant is the “stage” of the video. So imagine if the video was of dancers feet, it would look as if the dancer were standing on that slant. Breathtaking is to soft a word for the beauty of that multimedia installation.
The exhibition continued, talking through various pieces of Diaghilev’s work for another few rooms. Did you know he worked with Picasso? Yeah, neither did I. Some of Picasso’s costumes were made with “american fabric” aka PVC. Can you imagine trying to dance in something made with PVC?
If I have the time before it closes I want to go again, because the exhibit was so rich, I know I missed something… or 10 somethings.