The d'ecor past which Nijinsky danced
Set and Costume Designs for Ballet and Theatre, from the Thyssen-Bornemisza collection. London: Vendome Press. 47.50. One of the greatest stage designers of all time created such an elaborate set for Diaghilev's ballet, ``The Sleeping Princess,'' that it was never seen by an audience.
L'eon Bakst's design of an enormous, lavishly draped bed on top of which perched a gigantic black eagle, proved so heavy and cumbersome that the stagehands could not move it quickly. So the set had to be scrapped, and audiences had to be content to see the princess asleep on a cold marble slab.
Fortunately, Bakst's imaginative pencil and watercolor drawing of the original ``Awakening'' scene has been preserved and can be admired anew today in a recently published book on theatrical designs, ``Set and Costume designs for Ballet and Theatre'' from the Thyssen-Bornemisza collection.
Bakst's creation and works by 11 other famous designers whose styles have often been copied but never surpassed, have been chronologically cataloged by Count Alexander Schouvaloff, curator of the newly opened Theatre Museum in Covent Garden. His work has produced an invaluable reference book for all interested in a flamboyant, experimental, and fascinating period of ballet. The handsome book, which covers the period 1909-1929, offers page after colorful page of exotic and opulent costume and set drawings, including a synopsis of each ballet or opera that it illustrates, and personal glimpses of the artists' lives.
The originals of these works have been acquired by Baron Thyssen over the past 15 years and now hang in his country estate house in the heart of the English countryside. They form part of the famous Thyssen-Bornemisza family's art collection, a collection that includes paintings, Renaissance jewelry, silver, and furniture. (Most of these treasures are kept at the Villa Favorita in Switzerland.)
The turn of the century saw much experimentation in the arts world, with daring new ideas created in drama, music, art, and dance. The great Russian impressario, Sergei Pavlovich Diaghilev changed the face of classical ballet in 1911 when he formed the Ballets Russes, which utilized the great talents of the day. Never before had so many gifted artists worked together in the field of ballet. Artists such as composer Igor Stravinsky, choreographer Michel Fokine, dancers Nijinsky and Karsavina, and designers Benois and Bakst all blended their talents in a panorama of music, color, movement, and costume.
At the end of the 19th century, stage decorations had become so mediocre that they were often unnoticed by audiences. Painters were paid by the square meter, rather than for their artistry, consequently scenes showed plenty of sky and little else. All this changed with Diaghilev. Sets became a vital part of the ballet. Bakst chose colors for the greatest impact. His black ``Pilgrim'' in ``Le Dieu Bleu'' was dressed in white robes with sharp green triangles, circular outlines, and by adding green stripes on the walking stick; for Schakriar, King of India and China in ``Scherazade'' (1910), he used rich blues and reds'; and a print of the ``Sultan Vindictiv'' was painted in a strong, sparkling blue.
George Barbier designed 18th-century style costumes for films such as ``Monsieur Beaucaire,'' which starred Rudolph Valentino. There are several designs of the detailed, intricate work of Alexander Benois who was responsible for the colorful sets and costumes of Diaghilev's most famous ballet production, ``Petrushka.'' The book shows the sparce costumes of plumes and baubles that were created by Jos'e De Zamora for the nudes of French music-hall revues of the 1920s. They contrast greatly to the rich layers of material that Bakst used.
Perhaps the most unusual costumes are those designed by Nathalie Gontcharova for the ballet ``Les Noces.'' The 1923 audiences had come to expect vivid technicolored productions. Indeed, a print in the book shows that Gontcharova herself initially intended to present the Bride in a brightly decorated peasant folk costume. But she changed her vision and dressed the dancers in earth-brown tunics or trousers and white shirts and wrapped the girls' heads in scarves. The Bride was given very long braids that became part of the ritualized dance. The result was revolutionary, and the whole ballet was loudly criticized by most. Writer H.G. Wells came to the defense of the new creation and wrote a public letter praising the ``amazing experience.''
If Bakst's bed was a technical disaster, the rest of his work in ``The Sleeping Princess'' was not. The book records a favorable review of the ballet from the December 1921 edition of a British magazine, the Dancing Times. The ballet, the review said, ``possesses originality to the extent of genius, it preserves unity between costume and set, and it creates that most difficult of all decorative results, a sense of rhythmic perfection.''