Monday, 22 April 2013

V&A study session: Ballet Russes and The Rite of Spring

A few weeks ago I went to a study session at Blythe House, an archive and outpost of the V&A located opposite Kensington Olympia, London. The purpose of the session was to celebrate the centenary of Stravinsky's opera The Rite of Spring by examining, first-hand, original costumes and accessories from the 1913 production. Curator Jane Pritchard told us that the costumes were mainly acquired by the museum in a sale which took place at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane in 1967. The costumes were sold cheaply at auction and some people bought them to wear as clothes because the designs tied in with the late 1960s aesthetic. Tunics were sold for about £3!

The Rite of Spring was choreographed by Njinsky with design by Nicholas Roerich. Roerich drew upon influences from Russian folk art and the costumes are hand painted in a naive style. The long tunics were pulled up and gathered into a belt. Crinkled socks were made from non-stretch cotton and had a seam from centre front to centre back which must have been uncomfortable for the dancers. The costumes were roughly made and it is therefore surprising that they are still in such good condition. It was a fantastic opportunity to see the costumes, they intrinsically communicate a history of manufacture, the wear and tear of life and they leave you pondering the status of their current position as museum objects.

For a 2013 tour of the Theatre & Performance Galleries at Blythe House click

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Picasso's designs for the Ballet Russes performance of Parade

During my days of working in the tailoring dept at Glyndebourne I was lucky enough to get my hands on David Hockney's costumes for A Rake's Progress (for alteration purposes, I don't have them stashed away in the attic!) A Rake's Progress, 1975, is a visually stunning opera and it made me consider the added value an artist can bring to costume and stage design. Hockney has also designed Parade for The Metropolitan Opera, New York, and so here are some thoughts about the original production of Parade designed by Pablo Picasso, 1916-17, written with the help of Deborah Menaker Rothschild's beautifully illustrated book Picasso's Parade (1991). 

Serge Diaghilev commissioned Jean Cocteau to write a new ballet with the brief  ‘astonish me,’ the result was Parade (sideshow). With designs by Pablo Picasso, a score by Erik Satie and choreography by Leonide Massine, 
the ballet opened at the Theatre du Chatelet in Paris, May, 1917. Parade was the last of 4 ballets (the others were more traditional) to be performed in an afternoon as part of a war benefit fundraiser. Parade is important because it was the first modern ballet to bring cubism to the stage. It was an artistic interpretation of modern, popular entertainment; the circus, the variety theatre and the cinema. Cocteau and Picasso both shared a view that the ballet should represent the vulgarity and vitality of the modern age.


The curtain was Picasso’s largest work, a stretched canvas measuring 17m x 10m. The drapery of the curtains position the show inside a theatre, without them it could just as easily be an outdoor scene. The curtain can be read as an allegory of Picasso’s life; there are motifs in the painting that recur throughout his work such as the harlequin (Family of Saltimbanques, 1905). The foreground harlequin is a self-portrait. The monkey is said to be Picasso’s alter ego representing his hyper-sexuality. The equestrian is possibly Olga (In 1918 he married Olga Kokhlova a dancer in the Diaghilev Company).

1.   Chinese conjurer Ocean waves, sunlight and clouds are depicted on this costume. An exotic figure, it is based on a music hall magician or illusionist, popular at the time. The vibrant use of colour is evocative of Picasso's native Spain.

2.   The Little American girl Picasso drew several sketches for this costume which were not used, instead this black and white outfit was bought in a shop the day before the premier. The girl was based on silent movie stars like Mary Pickford who were thought of as innocent and optimistic. It was intended that she would charm the audience.

3.   The Acrobats (male and female) They wore white scrolls and stars on their cobalt blue outfits which echoed the Chinese conjurers costume. The woman was originally to duplicate the male outfit but Diagliev thought this was too revealing for a woman to wear so instead her costume was modified.
Acrobat. Source: The Red List

4.   The managers these characters were Picasso’s idea, originally Cocteau wanted disembodied voices offstage to introduce each act but Diaghilev said that the spoken word had no place in ballet. Picasso envisaged these characters to be like sandwich board wearers, advertising their acts. In Rome Picasso collaborated with the Futurists Giacomo Balla and Fortunato Depero and they helped to construct the frames for the large-scale manager’s costumes.

Audience reaction
The ballet apparently opened to an ‘unforgettable scandal’. It seemed that the creators of the ballet had misjudged the conservative wartime audience. Jean Cocteau reported that the audience only refrained from lynching Picasso and the others because Appolinaire was in uniform and had been wounded and had written the introductory notes in the programme.

Impact of Parade
Gertrude Stein wrote in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, that Parade which is ‘completely cubist…marked the beginning of the general recognition of Picasso’s work’ (1932:29). 

Picasso’s success led the way for other artists to design for the ballet: Braque, Juan Gris, Sonia Delaunay-Terk and Ferdinand Leger.

These images that seemed so outlandish were soon adopted by Hollywood musicals and by the 1920s and 30s chorus girls were dancing in some spectacular costumes with some pretty outrageous scenery!
Gold Diggers of 1933. "We're in the Money" production number