Diaghilev: the Private View

Jasper Conran and Wayne Sleep exchange banter at the opening of the spectacular Diaghilev exhibition

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What makes Diaghilev a man worth devoting an exhibition to?


Jane Pritchard, Curator

Well I think that Diaghilev is one of the most extraordinary people in the twentieth century arts. He didn’t actually create anything very obviously himself but he created a whole company. He brought together a huge range of the leading talents in the day and that’s composers, choreographers and designers. It’s really the biggest names of the early twentieth century. So we have Stravinsky, we have Picasso, we have Matisse, we have Daron, we have Chanel, we have Nijinsky, we have Bonjean… the list just goes on and on.



One of the things that he said, or was reputed to have said was, “Astonish me.” Are there things that will still astonish people in this exhibition?


Jane Pritchard, Curator

I actually think one that really does astonish people is when they sort of turn the corner and see the Firebird set – I think partly because the publicity is focussed on Train Bleu, so they’re expecting to see the Picasso. They come along through what we call our “Props Store”, which is really giving a sense of backstage of the theater. They see four versions of the design for the Firebird backcloth, turn the corner, and there it is - the real thing. And there’s nothing like it. Everyone gasps.


Julian Barran, Gallerist and Dealer

When I first started as a porter at Sotheby’s in 1968, the first job they gave me was to go down into a warehouse in Fulham and sort out ballet costumes. I thought I was going to deal with art and furniture, but they said no, they were doing a sale of the Diaghilev ballet costumes on the 17th of July, 1968 in the Scala Theatre on Charlotte Street. They had the costumes but the wanted somebody to find the hats and the shoes and the stockings to go with the costumes. There was a vast array of baskets and panniers and I had to find which were Coq d’Or, which were Sleeping Princess, which were Sadko, and just try and put them all together.



At the time, was there a market for such things. What were they reaching?


Julian Barran, Gallerist and Dealer

Well, what was so interesting was that it was the time of swingin London so there were lots of, sort of, trendy people in the audience. I mean there were those shops on the king’s road called “Hung on You” and there was the Ormsby Gore girls and my mother bought a whole lot for her dressing-up box, but the main pieces were bought by the Victoria and Albert Museum and those are the ones which we’re going to see here tonight.



What’s the thing you’re most excited about seeing in the collection?


Tim Hatley, Exhibition Designer


Well, initially when the V&A called to say, “would I do this”, my initial reaction was, “no”. What I do is theatre and film and that’s what I love; that’s my passion. I’ve worked a bit in exhibition design and I just thought, “You know what, no. I’ll leave this.” They said, “Oh please, please, please”, and I went “No, no, no.” And then they emailed me the object list with photographs and I just fell in love with it. I thought, “This is fantastic!” And the thing that really struck me, I suppose, was the scale of the cloths – the scene cloths, the Gancharova cloth, and the Train Bleu cloth. I just thought, “Those are going to be in Northcourt – fantastic!” So I think those and a lot of the costumes were just costumes that I know and love from books, and I thought, “My goodness! There going to be in this exhibition.” And I think that’s really what clinched it for me, and I thought, “Let’s work on this; the material is fantastic.”


Sir Christopher Frayling

What they’ve done in this show is combine reconstructions of the dances on a huge set of screens with the backdrops, with the costumes, and you really get a sense of the liveliness of being there, which I think is quite something to crack. You know, it’s a famous problem in performing arts exhibitions – the Laurence Olivier Slippers Syndrome. And not everybody, you know, wants to Queue up to see Laurence Olivier slippers. It doesn’t feel like that at all. It feels like a night at the ballet.



What makes him still fascinating today? What makes him still relevant today, do you think?


Nina Lobonov-Rostovsky, Collector

Diaghilev? Because you can’t go to the ballet and not find some traces of Diaghilev. You can’t turn on Classic FM and not hear, at least several times a week music that was sponsored, ordered by Diaghilev. When you think of the single most important piece of music created in the 20th century, it’s the Rite of Spring. Who commissioned it? Diaghilev.


Jasper Conran, Designer

Well I am definitely a fan of Diaghilev. I mean, you know, it’s an extraordinary thing that he did and a very, very modern thing and bringing artists and all forms of art together in one place. He’s making moving paintings really – really delivering that for the first time.


Wayne Sleep, Dancer

He was the only one from our ballet world that represented painters, sculptors, artists, musicians.



What’s the thing that’s most impressed you about – you both about - ?


Wayne Sleep, Dancer

Right – the Karsavina film. I’ve never seen anything like it, because I thought in those days it would be fairly minimal for technique, but the strength in her feet jumping onto point and she’s holding a torch with a flame in it. Health and Safety wouldn’t allow that these days. But it just – and her curtain court is so gracious, so small, where you’d expect those ballerinas to be really over-the-top – a bit like me!




Sergei Diaghilev wasn't a designer what is it that makes him a giant among 20th century cultural figures? In this film shot at the exhibition's Private View  designers Tim Hatley and Jasper Conran, dancer Wayne Sleep, curator Jane Pritchard,

thinker  Sir Christopher Frayling, art dealer Julian Barran and collector Nina Radonov provide their own personal take on the great Russian impresario's achievements and pick out their favourite exhibits.