City Lit Blog

A visit to the V&A Archives, May 9th 2017

Story added 13th Jun 2017

Blythe House - V&A Museum archives

Tucked away behind Earl’s Court Exhibition Centre in a knot of recently gentrified streets, stands a huge red-brick Victorian building: the archives of The Science Museum and The Victoria and Albert Museum. Blythe House would dominate the neighbourhood were it not for the looming mass of the exhibition centre. It was originally the headquarters of the Post Office Savings Bank and its grand façade, spacious court-yards and cool, shiny-tiled stairways have made it a recognizable backdrop to many films, most recently as the fictional headquarters of "The Circus" in the 2011 remake of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

Pauline Greene, who teaches music appreciation courses here at City Lit and arts management at Birkbeck College, booked her City Lit ballet-history students a private view of costumes from the archive holdings of the Ballets Russes that are not normally exhibited. The visit was organised in conjunction with her course ‘Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes’ and hosted by Jane Pritchard, curator of dance for the Victoria and Albert Museum and a Ballets Russes expert. Jane selected many pictures, drawings, documents and programmes, as well as two full rails of costumes for us to examine.

Pauline had particularly requested the spectacular costumes from Rite of Spring and The Sleeping Princess - and the first thing we saw, before we even got into the room, was a magnificent Sleeping Princess courtly costume worn by quite a minor character. This was a poignant reminder that the costumes had once bankrupted the company as no expense was spared even for the smaller roles. Over all we were treated to a selection of costumes both glorious and tatty - some with amazingly bright colours, like the Rite of Spring reds, and others much more faded and with obvious wear-marks which gave us an insight into how a dancer wears a costume and how on-the-spot mending is often necessary during a run of performances.

Jostling for attention among so many flowing robes and tunics were pieces of headgear - including a little pink cap from Le Chant du Rossignol, hand-painted by Matisse, a tall red, cream and black Rite hat by Roerich, and a spectacular towering gold affair, together with matching exotic costume, by Bakst, from Le Dieu Bleu. Nijinsky’s rose-petal hat from Le Spectre de la Rose (Bakst) was also there, as was the beautifully-made cream dress worn by Tamara Karsavina in the same ballet.

Image below: Exhibition of costumes

Exhibition of costumes

Throughout the afternoon we saw items from:

1909 Le Pavillon d'Armide - Music by Nikolai Tcherepnin

Choreography by Michel Fokine. Costumes and Sets by Alexander Benois.

1909 Prince Igor - Music by Alexander Borodin

Choreography by Michel Fokine. Costumes and Sets by Nicholas Roerich.

1909 Cleopatra - Music by Anton Arensky

Choreography by Michel Fokine. Costumes and Sets by Leon Bakst.

1910 Scheherazade - Music by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov

Choreography by Michel Fokine. Costumes and Sets by Leon Bakst.

1910 Les Orientales - Music by Christian Sinding

Choreography by Vaslav Nijinsky. Costumes and Sets by Konstantin Korovin.

1910 The Firebird - Music by Igor Stravinsky

Choreography by Michel Fokine. Sets by Golovine. Costumes by Bakst.

1911 Le Spectre de la Rose - Music by Carl Maria von Weber

Choreography by Michel Fokine. Costumes and Sets by Leon Bakst.

1913 The Rite of Spring - Music by Igor Stravinsky

Choreography by Vaslav Nijinsky. Costumes and Sets by Nicholas Roerich.

1920 Le Chant du Rossignol - Music by Igor Stravinsky

Choreography by Leonide Massine. Set designs by Henri Matisse.

1921 Chout - Music by Sergei Prokofiev

Choreography by Leonide Massine. Set designs by Mikhail Larionov.

1921 The Sleeping Princess - Music by Tchaikovsky

Choreography by Marius Petipa. Set and costumes designs by Leon Bakst.

1925 Zephyr et Flore - Music by Vernon Duke

Choreography by Leonide Massine. Set designs by Georges Braque.

During her classes Pauline had shown slides of the designs and dancers, and played the music, but in so many cases there was no film of the original choreography available for study. To see these costumes so close up, and to observe how the fabric moved as they were carried past us, was fascinating and overwhelming.

I asked Pauline to remember a few favourites from the visit:

  • the Matisse cap 

  • a pair of exquisite, embroidered boots worn in the Polovtsian Dances from Prince Igor.

  • the bright red of the Rite costumes the paint-on-fabric designs - presumably done by the artists themselves

  • the difference (pointed out by Jane) between the flimsy costumes from the earliest seasons and the better-made ones for the touring company in later years. The Spectre de la Rose dress had tiny pin-tucks and lots of detail.

Jane was also able to explode an oft-repeated myth about the puppet rider on the horse (danced by 2 dancers) in Parade through her curatorial detective work. According to most commentators, the rider fell off during a rehearsal, causing much laughter and so was not then used in public performances. Yet Jane has discovered (and preserved) a handwritten order for another rider, which suggests that this element of the ballet was restored and used in public performance after all. The next time we offer a study module about the Ballets Russes thisfascinating piece of research will be noted!

We would like to thank Jane Pritchard and her team for their warm reception and generous presentation of material.

This coming September Pauline will teach another course reflecting on an exhibition by the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Opera studies 1: Passion, power and politics

Linked to the V&A exhibition of the same name (Sept - Feb), we discover the story of opera by studying seven key cities and first nights, ranging from the Italian Renaissance to 1930s Russia.

Tutor:  Pauline Greene   MD997  

18 Sep - 27 Nov  
Mon   13:20 - 15:30
10 weeks
£189/ £151/ £115