A new exhibition at the National Gallery celebrates the Ballets Russes, whose costumes were just as revolutionary as their music.

Somewhere deep within the working heart of the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra, in a part of the building visitors never get to see, is an area made up of rows and rows of broad timber cabinets, each shallow drawer numbered and each containing a Ballets Russes costume. One, architectural in inspiration, is by de Chirico; another, boldly geometric and made up of black-out material, is by Matisse. Yet another shows Natalia Goncharova’s modernist take on the Russian peasant.

In one, like all the others in a padded bed-like arrangement with pale green satin sheets covering it, is Petrouchka’s costume: a cotton tunic with red and blue satin ribbons around the zigzag hem; pink satin cuffs; a tightly gathered circular collar; and a pair of trousers, made up of large squares of pink and yellow satin. The little blue boots that go with it are somewhere else.

Most of the costumes were bought at auction in London in 1973 by James Mollison, the gallery’s founding director, as a way of looking at how the performing arts relate to the bigger picture of contemporary art. Since then, the gallery has built up the collection, expanding it to include artists’ drawings of sets and costumes. In doing so, the NGA now has one of the world’s finest collections of Ballets Russes material.

The Petrouchka costume looks brilliant – exactingly made, probably by a top French couturier, and clashingly modern. It’s impossible to believe it’s 99 years-old.

But it’s not hard to imagine it at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris in 1911, in a work with inventive choreography by Fokine, danced by Nijinsky, and with challenging and dissonant music by Igor Stravinsky. It was the composer’s second commission for the Paris-based Ballets Russes. His first, The Firebird, the year before, introduced his music to the West. Two years later, again for the Ballets Russes, the Paris audience’s ears were assaulted by the anarchic sounds of The Rite of Spring. The piece sounds strange enough today; in 1913 it caused near riots and had to be pulled after a few performances. It certainly didn’t sound like anything ever heard before, let alone something underscoring a ballet.

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Valentina Blinova, Valentin Froman. Stravinsky’s The Firebird.
Australia, 1938. Photo: Max Dupain.

“The Ballets Russes changed the course of Western art,” says the Australian Ballet’s music director and chief conductor Nicolette Fraillon. It’s a big claim, but one that, in many ways, is not even vaguely far-fetched. In musical terms, the commissioning of The Rite of Spring alone, by the Ballets Russes founder Sergei Diaghilev, would be enough to justify the company’s existence. That work, perhaps the most important of the 20th century, has influenced generations of later composers, from Copland and Messiaen to Boulez and Stockhausen. Like the other Stravinsky ballet scores, it’s been taken right out of the theatre to become a staple of the symphony orchestra repertoire.

Diaghilev originally set up the Ballets Russes in Paris in 1909 as a way of promoting Russia in the West, says Robert Bell, the curator of Ballets Russes: The Art of Costume at the NGA. “He had originally intended to do that through painting and music, but realised ballet could be a vehicle through which to view Russian painting, music and history.”

And so, on top of innovative young composers such as Stravinsky, and later Prokofiev (who created three ballets, Chout, Le Pas d’Acier and Le Fils Prodigue for the company), he used works by some of Russia’s greats, adapted to suit choreographer Michel Fokine’s needs. Among these were Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade and The Polovtsian Dances from Prince Igor by Borodin.

But Diaghilev, soon after founding the company, broadened its focus and worked with a number of non-Russian composers. Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloé, for instance, was first heard in 1912 as the score for a ballet by Fokine. Debussy’s Prélude à l’après midi d’un faune was used by Nijinsky for a ballet in 1912; the same year saw the premiere of Dhiagilev’s great critical failure, Reynaldo Hahn’s Le Dieu Bleu. Debussy was also commissioned to write Jeux, a love triangle set on a tennis court, which premiered in 1913. Richard Strauss wrote Josephslegende for the Ballets Russes, and Poulenc, 25 and relatively unknown at the time, wrote Les Biches for the company.

It was one thing for Diaghilev to commission work from young composers who had never written for the ballet, but he also took the further risk of commissioned some of the most avant-garde visual artists of the time, again untested in the field, to create costumes and sets. That included Picasso, who collaborated on a number of works, including Parade, with music by Satie and a scenario by Cocteau, as well as Stravinsky’s Pulcinella and Le Tricorne, with music by Manuel de Falla. Other visual artists employed by Dhiagilev included Derain, Matisse, Sonia Delaunay, Michel Larionov and Georges Braque. The collaborations, says Robert Bell, “reflected the major movements of the art world – Surrealism, Cubism, Orientalism – in some way. The fact that the Ballets Russes was using the key figures to do so gave them legitimacy.” There was, he says, “the potential for fireworks, but to their great credit, most collaborations worked”.

It’s impossible to overestimate Diaghilev’s contribution – artistic collaborations such as these were completely unheard of at the time, and even now would be considered daring. Today’s equivalent, says Bell, would probably be something like an Olympic Games Opening Ceremony. The big difference is that Diaghilev, although trying to run a business, was quite hands-off in terms of creative partnerships, whereas sporting extravaganzas, underwritten by governments, are closely monitored so as not to offend.

After Diaghilev’s death in 1929, the Ballets Russes split into various offshoots which travelled the world, having an enormous influence wherever they went. One, known as the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo, formed by the entrepreneur Colonel W. de Basil, came to Australia three times between 1936 and 1940, captivating the local artistic beau monde, including photographer Max Dupain. The company stayed several months on each visit, and reprised much of the Diaghilev repertoire, as it had inherited costumes and sets, including those by de Chirico and Picasso. It also revived some of the Stravinsky ballets. In the burgeoning days of the Australian symphony orchestra, the music would have been new to audiences says Nicolette Fraillon, as “no one would have played things like Petrouchka or The Firebird in concert”.

Coming here in the first place was a big risk for investors: at the time, there were no professional dance companies in Australia, so local audiences would never have seen full ballets, let alone ones
that, as Robert Bell puts it, “changed expectations of what dancers could deliver – it wasn’t Sleeping Beauty in tutus”. The gamble paid off, with the dancers being seen “as huge stars, bigger than The Beatles”, says Fraillon. “They filled all the magazines and newspapers. Department stores sold lipsticks branded with individual dancers’ names.”

An unexpected effect of the extended tours, with long seasons in each city, is that they changed the way theatres were run in this country. “They demonstrated to the theatre world that Australians would come back and back to things,” says Fraillon. “It was the start of repertory and subscription seasons.”

People in the visual arts world, she says, talk about the 1939 Herald Exhibition as the first large exhibition of contemporary art in Australia, “but it wasn’t – the first was via the Ballets Russes, which was living art, and had a major impact across the arts. The key Australian visual artists of the period – Lindsay, Nolan, Friend – write about seeing the Ballets Russes on stage, and how it changed their own work”. Nolan went on to design for theatre, including a commission in 1940 from the Ballets Russes for their production of Icare in Australia.

A number of dancers from the company stayed on in Australia and set up their own companies around the country, leading to the formation of the Queensland Ballet, the West Australian Ballet and eventually the Australian Ballet. “We wouldn’t have ballet companies in this country without the visits of the Ballets Russes,” says Fraillon. The same thing happened elsewhere, the most well-known case being Balanchine’s founding of the New York City Ballet. As Robert Bell puts it, “the
whole contemporary dance scene contains Ballets Russes DNA”.

And so too, within the costumes tucked up, immobile, in the rows of drawers in Canberra, the DNA of the people who created them, the dancers who wore them, and – you’d like to imagine – the echoes of music heard for the first time, are still trapped. There’s a wearing through of an elbow here from repetitive movement, the hasty sewing on of a press stud there. The letting out of a seam for a larger dancer, the shadow of sweat marks under the arms. The individuals involved are long gone, says Bell, and not much film of the Ballets Russes exists. “Those signs of life, then, are all that’s left, and are part of their appeal – there’s a real poignancy to them”.