On the Radar Diaghilev and the Golden Age of Ballet Russes
7th October 2010

Diaghilev and the Golden Age of Ballet Russes

Words Zoe Hodge

Photography Tamara Karsavina and Adolph Bolm in The Firebird, 1912 production

At the V&A

(25 Sep 2010 – 09 Jan 2011)

The fascinating world of the influential artistic director Serge Diaghilev and the most innovative dance company, the Ballets Russes, is explored by a stunning exhibition at the V&A this season.

During the late 19th and early 20th century the arts worked in parallel and synchronization, swinging like a pendulum, each in turn influencing and being influenced. This momentum drove forward a fresh wave of thinking, which resonated modernity. Known as the Belle Époque this period was one of revival and transformation for art, music, dance, literature and science and the Ballet Russes is the most stark example of societies shift in thinking at that time.

Russian impresario Sergei Diaghiliev reawakened audiences with his theatrical spin on traditional ballet, creating a modern experience to stun audiences and revolutionise performance dance.

Diaghilev, socialised in artistic and musical circles as well as within the Imperial Theatres in Russia. Many of his epiphanies, which resulted in his avant-garde vision of opera, ballet and theatrics, were formed within these circles. His links to the Imperial Theatres allowed him to select the most talented dancers, creating a first class foundation with which to experiment and radicalise. Dancers such as Vaslav Nijinsky who surpassed any previous male dancer, astonished audiences with his deep and intense characterizations, effortlessly reinventing himself for each production. He also worked closely with composer Igor Stravinsky whose work possessed exotic compositions and aggressive dynamics. Despite hostile responses from audiences Stravinsky boldly continued regardless, his moving and often alienating work is now considered as some of the most impressive music of the 20th century.

Diaghilev didn’t only work with dancers and musicians that spun the familiar on it’s head, he enthusiastically collaborated with a mix of modern thinkers including Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Jean Cocteau and Coco Channel, adding a colourful, exotic and multi faceted edge.

The V&A have gathered a rich and interesting collection of rare paraphernalia from the Ballet Russes archives; posters, props, pieces of the original set and costumes curated to tell the story of the Ballet Russes and this defining era.

Click here for more information and to book tickets.


To accompany the exhibition the V&A are also hosting a series of events, workshops and talks, click here to view listings. A talk on Friday 15 October with Justine Picardie about how Coco Chanel shaped the modern woman and her involvmenet in the Ballet Russes will make for an inspiring evening for fashion lovers. Justine is the author of recently published biography of Coco Chanel. Click here to read more about Justine Picardie's book, Coco Chanel; The Life and Legend.