Stage Is Set for a Design Exploration; Richard Edmonds Enjoys a Book Which Does Full Justice to the Wide-Ranging Influence of Russian Stage Design during a Period of Cultural Renaissance

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Byline: Richard Edmonds

Masterpieces of Russian Stage Design (1880-1930) John E. Bowlt, Nina and Nikita D. Lobanov-Rostovsky and Olga Shaumyan (Antique Collectors' Club, priced PS49.50) When the Russian Ballet hit the West in 1909, it was a major impact with far reaching effects which went far beyond Serge Diaghilev's original stage spectacles.

Through Diaghilev's far-sighted vision, some of the greatest designers, dancers, conductors, composers and choreographers the world had ever known changed the course of art in the West in ways which percolated down through all levels of society.

For example, Nijinsky's athletic dancing set new standards for choreography in terms of the position of the male dancer. Earlier, male dancers had been seen only as "porteurs" carrying the female dancer to the various points of the action where she was shown off to her best advantage, but moving out of focus when that task was completed. The ballet itself was merely an adjunct to the opera or perhaps a musical comedy. It was not taken seriously. Diaghilev and his Russian collaborators changed all that and Ballet Russe audiences went wild.

"I am, firstly a great charlatan (though with dash), second, a great charmer, third - cheeky! Fourth, a person with a lot of logic and few principles and fifth, someone afflicted with a complete lack of talent and so I think I have found my true vocation which is to be a patron of the Arts. For that I have everything I need, except money........ mais ca viendra..."

Thus wrote Diaghilev to his stepmother in the autumn of 1895.

His words proved to be prophetic, and the man who, during the glory days of Diaghilev's Ballet Russe did not know where the next thousand francs was coming from, through a strategic use of courage, daring and sheer cheek gave the world its greatest names, Picasso (as set and costume designer) Stravinsky and Rimsky-Korsakov (composers); Bakst and Benois, Larionov and Natalia Goncharova (designers); Michel Fokine (choreographer) Ernst Ansermet and Igor Markevitch (conductors) and the legendary Vaslav Nijinsky, Leonid Massine, Anna Pavlova and Tamara Karsavina - dancers whose names live on today wherever people who love the dance gather to remember former glories.

In her memoirs, the Comtesse de Noailles, a poet, influential hostess and a woman whose judgement Paris respected, recalled how she arrived late for the opening performance of the first Ballet Russe spectacle in Paris in the summer of 1909 (and we should remember that Diaghilev was scarcely known there at that time, in spite of having brought Russian opera to the city in previous seasons). …