Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Erotic Ballets Russes Revisited

In 1895 Sergei Diaghilev, the founder and genius behind the Ballet Russes, was only 23, yet he already had a clearly defined sense of himself. With irony and panache he exclaimed: "I am, first, 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, it seems, with a complete absence of talent."

A century later, the legacy of Diaghilev and the circle of designers and dancers who worked with him continues to delight and intrigue, as is demonstrated by a major new exhibition at London's Barbican gallery and its accompanying catalogue and a substantially revised history of "Leon Bakst and the Ballets Russes" by Charles Spencer.

Leon Bakst was the most outrageous and dazzling of the costume designers who worked for the Ballets Russes, the turn-of-the-century Paris-based dance troupe credited with popularizing ballet. His influence on visual design and fashion in the first two decades of the 20th century was so dramatic that they have subsequently been called the Bakst Era. And art historian Charles Spencer has just radically expanded his 1973 biography of Bakst, to place his work in the context of the great art renaissance of Slavophilism as a whole.

"Leon Bakst" is a sumptuously produced book. It has innumerable full-page color reproductions that are intelligently inserted into the text. And with a blend of wit and humor, fact and scandalous personal anecdote, Spencer describes the spectacular impact of the Ballets Russes as a whole, while providing a compelling and essential guide to one of its most engaging artists.

It is a shame, however, that toward the end of the book, Spencer allows his style to descend into camp glibness. For example, when discussing Bakst's tendency to name-drop, and the occasion on which he constructed an elaborate story out of a brief encounter with Tchaikovsky, Spencer notes that "this fantasy must be taken with a pinch of pirochki." And again, recounting how Bakst fulfilled his commission to paint a series of panels based on Sleeping Beauty in James de Rothschild's house by using family members as models, Spencer comments, "It is reasonable to presume that [the fiery dragon] was not based on a Rothschild pet."

Stylistic lapses aside, Spencer is to be congratulated for tackling the complex sexual politics of the ballet. And this is not a peripheral issue, or titillating voyeurism, but an essential element of the group's creative dynamic and vitality. For much of the work of "Diaghilev's artists" was explicitly erotic, and the reader can only gain in understanding the sexual tensions and complicated gender-games at play within the group.

Spencer works hard to decode the bizarre relationships between Bakst, Diaghilev and the nubile, androgynous-looking Nijinsky, who was memorably described by Jean Cocteau as "an acrobatic cat stuffed full of candid lechery." In contrast, Cocteau remembers Bakst as someone who "boasts a lot and never sleeps with anyone." Spencer suggests that Cocteau may have inadvertently put his finger on the very reason why Bakst's art is so obsessively erotic: It was an outlet for his sexual frustration.

Spencer highlights Diaghilev's ruthless despotism and fierce homosexual jealousy. When scandal erupted after the first night of "L'Apr?s-midi d'un Faune," in which Nijinsky apparently made love on stage to a scarf discarded by a nymph, Stravinsky is purported to have said, "Of course Nijinsky made love only to the nymph's scarf, what more would Diaghilev have allowed?"

Ann Kodicek, the organizer of the Barbican's Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes exhibition, and the chief author of the fine catalogue that accompanies it, is much coyer about tackling these sexual matters.

The catalogue quite rightly concentrates on the exhibition's greatest strength, namely, the extensive material borrowed from Russia. But having persuaded the Tretyakov to lend, among other things, some outrageously erotic silhouettes by Constantine Somov, Kodicek does little more than primly note that "the idea of cross-dressing presents itself. Somov was a homosexual."

Nonetheless, Kodicek has done an excellent job of displaying, cataloguing and illustrating a vast array of exhibits, many of which are on show for the first time in the West. And this is an invaluable service even for the resident of Russia because the Tretyakov Gallery, the exhibition's main lender, still has no complete catalogue in English and offers few reproductions.

Kodicek worked with an eclectic range of Russian museums to gather her material, and she takes an equally ambitious approach for her catalogue entry. She consults numerous sources in both English and Russian and has uncovered several interesting aspects of Diaghilev's life, such as the fact that, although theater attendance was forbidden at his Perm school, an exception was made for Diaghilev, so passionate was the child's love of the stage.

Unfortunately, sources often seem to be quoted for the sake of it and are badly assimilated into the text, sometimes raising more questions than they answer. We are told, for example, that the "World of Art" magazine, Diaghilev's first major enterprise, included "officially prohibited material in almost every feature." But we are not told what was prohibited or why.

Kodicek has a propensity for big statements, which can undermine her scholarly research. In commenting on the death of Diaghilev's mother, for example, she lapses into amateur psychology : "Perhaps her death was the inevitable price for the advent of such a powerful personality."

Kodicek nevertheless effectively conveys the excitement and glamour of the Ballets Russes and the near-hysteria that they evoked in the French public. She is well supported by the other catalogue entries, notably Rosamund Bartlett's concise and informative account of "Diaghilev as Musician and Concert Organiser," and Militsa Pozharskaya's article on "Diaghilev and the Artists of the Saisons Russes." The latter provides witty profiles of the personalities involved, which encapsulate the essence of their bravado and conviction.

A personal favorite is the telegram that the tenor Shalyapin sent home after "Boris Godunov" had opened to rapturous acclaim in Paris in 1908. It read simply, "Alps crossed. Paris taken."

"Leon Bakst and the Ballets Russes" by Charles Spencer, Academy Editions, London, ?39.50 ($61), 228 pages.

"Diaghilev, Creator of the Ballets Russes: Art, Music, Dance" edited by Ann Kodicek, Barbican Art Gallery/Lund Humphries Publishers, ?17.50 ($27), 176 pages.