Ballets Russes, the show.

Felia Doubrovska is               The Firebird (1910)

In 1909, a troupe of Russian dancers embarked on a whirlwind 20-year tour of Europe that was to sex-up ballet considerably. Hitherto a fluffy thing stuffed between opera acts, dance became a multidisciplinary multi-sensorial extravaganza that shocked the most enlightened of Parisian audiences. A show at CaixaForum captures the spirit of the most successful and financially disastrous dance troupe in history. Costumes, drawings and film clips, plus a fab series of talks and live concerts, piece together the story of the Ballet Russe that survived despite the turbulent backdrop; the First World War and the Russian Revolution, which effectively exiled the lot of them. Performances were the product of a mishmash of madcap creative imaginations, artists Leon Bakst, Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso; composers Erik Satie, Igor Stravinski and Claude Debussy – but the driving force behind the whole thing was the enigmatic, charismatic and autocratic entrepreneur Sergei Diaghilev – the Steve Jobs of dance. 

Diaghilev knew how to play an audience. He’d flirt with Orientalism, putting on traditional or operatic productions inspired by Russian folk stories (Prince Igor, The Sleeping Princess or Petrushka). Then, when the audience were hooked, he’d pop in something edgy. Le sacre du printemps (1913) was set to a capricious musical score by Igor Stravinsky, ballerinas picked their way about on painful permanent points, or embarrassingly pigeon toed. In the climatic final scene of L’après-midi d’un faune (1912), a young buck enjoys himself with a lady nymph’s scarf. Both these were choreographed, and the latter performed, by Vaslav Nijinsky, a dancer with thighs like tree trunks who soared through the air, as if dangled there on strings. Placing the male dancer centre-stage was one of many innovations of the troupe. Another was the outfits, in Parade (1917), dancers clunked about a set designed by Pablo Picasso, while Coco Chanel created ‘swimsuits’ for Le Tren Bleu (1924). She was one of the powerful society women who bailed out the Ballets Russes, always on the brink of bankruptcy. Choreographer Marie Rambert was another, called in on the 1912-1914 tour to convince distraught dancers to perform. When it ended, in 1929, it was not with the Wall Street Crash but with the sudden death of its patron. Without Diaghilev the company fell apart, but all the great innovators of dance, from Pina Bausch to Merce Cunningham, were directly influenced by it. A lesson in creative enthusiasm over adversity.

until January 15, 2012