Adventures with costumes

In the exhibition we show a short film incorporating material from the BBC’s Late Night Line Up: Diaghilev Scenery and Costumesoriginally transmitted on 22 July 1968 to help explain the acquisition of sets and costumes by the V&A. Of course the full story is somewhat more complex as they were purchased by Richard Buckle – with, as he liked to say, other people’s money, to establish a Museum of Theatre Arts in London. They were handed over to the V&A some six years later in 1974 when a number of collections came together.


In 1975 in conjunction with Salisbury Festival of Arts, and allegedly as a ‘preview of The Theatre Museum, which is to open next year’ (but that is another story), Richard Buckle mounted and exhibition As Worn By… which included 25 costumes from the Ballets Russes. (It also included Vivien Leigh’s Duel for Angels costume currently on the Theatre & Performance Gallery at the V&A.) To publicise the exhibition leading dancers were invited to wear and pose in Ballets Russes costumes for a photographic feature in The Sunday Times. There on the cover was Rudolf Nureyev in Vladimirov’s costume from The Sleeping Princess photographed by David Montgomery. Also included were The Royal Ballet’s Lesley Collier and Michael Coleman in the costumes of the Buffoon and his Wife from Chout and Anthony Dowell in Max Frohman costume for a lover in Le Dieu Bleu (not in the current exhibition) and Ballet Rambert’s Joseph Scoglio in the blue, white and brick costume for a guest in Le Bal.

The costume designed by Bakst for Scene V, The Wedding, of The Sleeping Princess, worn by Anton Dolin in 1971 and Rudolf Nureyev in 1975 V&A images

Writing about the costume Nureyev wore Buckle said ‘I suppose Rudolf Nureyev was almost the first person to wear the white and gold costume for Pierre Vladimirov designed for Bakst for the wedding scene in The Sleeping Princess since Diaghilev’s great, beautiful and disastrous production folded at the Alhambra in 1922 and Sir Oswald Stoll seized all the scenery and dresses. Bakst rather mixed his periods in this production and I found out rather too late that he had designed a rather romantic periwig of tumbling silver 1670 curls. Nureyev is therefore wearing an unpowdered Louis XV wig of his own.’


Bakst’s design for the Queen and pages in The Sleeping Princess

‘Almost’? What Buckle conveniently failed to say was that this very costume had been worn by Anton Dolin in The Sleeping Beauty divertissement in the Répétition Générale for The Greatest Show on Earth that Buckle had produced at the London Coliseum on 22 June 1971.(A Répétition Générale is a public dress rehearsal, but a preview that is something of a society event rather than a real working rehearsal.) The divertissement was performed against the Bakst-designed original backdrop for the last act of The Sleeping Princess (now another of the V&A’s possessions). Dolin must have revelled in the opportunity to take this part of the King (OK wearing the Prince’s costume) with Alexandra Danilova as his Queen and Stanislas Idzikowski and Ursula Moreton also on the cast. Dolin, under the name of Patrikeeff, had performed a series of minor roles, as a page, a village youth and dignitary of the court, in the original 1921 production. Earlier last year I received a fascinating account of a young dancer’s experience at The Greatest Show on Earth. Colin was Dolin’s page and noted that the Bakst costumes ‘must have been made for very differently shaped dancers than most of us who were wearing them that evening’. During the performance the one he was wearing started to fall apart and the fur trim of Mme Danilova’s costume was damaged. Nureyev who was dancing the prince (not in a Bakst-designed costume) indicated he needed more space so the thrones had to be pulled back (with Dolin and Danilova still seated). I’ll let Colin continue his delightful, and horrifying story. ‘As Margot and Rudi took their call, before their variations, I tilted Dolin’s throne backwards towards me and pulled it as hard as I could.[Danilova’s page] tried to do the same, but for some reason Danilova didn’t seem to move, and I saw what had happened. The fur-lined trim on her costumes, created by Leon Bakst, for Vera Sudeikina in 1921, had caught between the side of the throne and the stage, and was acting as a brake. I smiled; “Allow me!”I moved next to him, and gave the throne an almighty tug, I can still see Danilova face as she looked around in total alarm, but I moved her next to Dolin, and angled them so they could both be seen. It was one of those situations that probably didn’t last as long as 40 seconds but seemed to take forever. As I checked to see if everything was all right, I saw what looks like two dead mice on the stage. It was two lumps of fur from the hem of the costume made by Bakst….’

In reading this please remember it is ancient history we would not allow our museum objects to be treated this way any more! Nevertheless it is all part of the history of costumes in our collection.

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