Christopher Cook and Sarah Woodcock talk about a costume designed by Nicholas Roerich for the 1913 ballet 'The Rite of Spring'
Part of the 2004 Proms Performing Art season of talks.
CHRISTOPHER COOK: The greatest of all 20th century impresarios died 75 years ago this year - Sergei Pavlovich Diaghilev and we're still celebrating his imperial legacy - ballets by Fokine, Nijinska, Massine, scores commissioned from Debussy, Ravel, Prokofiev, Satie, Poulenc, and above all Igor Stravinsky, five of whose ballets for Diaghilev's Ballet Russe are being played at this year's Proms.
There were painters who designed fro the company too from Bachs to Benoit, from Picasso to Matisse and one dance above all that changed the public perception of classical dance forever, The Rite Of Spring.
Stravinsky's music caused a scandal, Nijinsky's choreography horrified purists with turned-in not turned-out feet and then there were Nicholas Roerich's costumes - Russian and primitive.
This costume here was created for one of the maidens in The Rite Of Spring. It's in the Theatre Museum which is part of the Victoria and Albert Museum and here to talk about it is Sarah Woodcock, curator at the Theatre Museum.
Sarah, it's the sheer simplicity first of all of this costume. It's a kind of shift, down to the ankles.
SARAH WOODCOCK: Yes, in fact it wouldn't have been down to the ankles originally. It would've been bunched up around the waist with a little leather belt from which would hang little amulets, but so we can see the design in its full glory, we've left the belt off for today.
Yes, it is, it's basically just a T shape that is the most primitive of shift shapes. This one's slightly different in that it's got fuller arms than usual and they're graduated into what would have fitted onto the wrists, but underneath they've got the little coloured insets, which again is very characteristic of the primitive costumes.
CHRISTOPHER COOK :It is of course the colour that takes your breath away. Even the little colour insets below the arm are a kind of brilliant orange.
SARAH WOODCOCK: Yes.
CHRISTOPHER COOK :It's reds, yellows, purples, aquamarines…
SARAH WOODCOCK: Maroon.
CHRISTOPHER COOK :Maroons, it glows.
SARAH WOODCOCK: Turquoises. Really almost fluorescent colours in some cases. The colour is of course one of the things that the Diaghilev ballets major impact on Europe in its sheer colour, in its uninhibited use of colour and I think those are the two words that sum up what he brought to a world that had become very beige, very sort of lavender and genteel - both in Paris and in London. So, yes, this sort of thing has a huge visual impact. It must've been like looking through the wrong end of a kaleidoscope at the first performance. I mean, this is only one of many designs. There are ten maidens, ten women, there were three of these costumes and sort of seven of another, so the whole thing's asymmetric as well because there wasn't evenly balanced groups - the choreography was asymmetric and when you add that to the music with it's sheer pounding rhythms, it must've been just overwhelming. I think that's what happened to that first audience. It was just like being shot at, you know - it would be horrendous.
CHRISTOPHER COOK: You talk about asymmetry but the geometric patterns on the costume itself - the squares, the circles, the crosses, the dots, the diamonds, they're very symmetrical.
SARAH WOODCOCK: Within that, yes, each costume is symmetrical within that. I think if it wasn't, it would just have become a total mess. But no, that's a sort of defining still centre if you like within all this mayhem going on onstage and in the audience.
CHRISTOPHER COOK: And of course, we need to remember…
SARAH WOODCOCK: In Paris.
CHRISTOPHER COOK: We need to remember that this costume would've been seen in movement.
SARAH WOODCOCK: Absolutely. It's one of the problems with theatre costumes - they're taken out of their context and become something else entirely. So everyone looks on them as art objects. If I have another museum doing an exhibition on Diaghilev and the artists as though he were an art movement, I'm going to go spare because he's a theatre movement and theatre is the point where art becomes transmitted down to a much wider base, to a much wider audience. You know, art galleries don't need many visitors, in theatre you've got to fill a theatre, so you've got to have a number of like-minded people. So it's very good for filtering new ideas when they stop being cutting edge and are ready for transmission to a wider audience.
CHRISTOPHER COOK: I'm also puzzled by the necklace around…
SARAH WOODCOCK: Yes.
CHRISTOPHER COOK: That seems to be attached to the costume.
SARAH WOODCOCK: Yes, it is, it's stitched down. That central medallion is stitched down. You couldn't have it flying up around the dancer in movement but these are loose, these aren't supposed to be attached so there would have been some amount of jangling and other noise that would be adding, on stage anyway, to the sheer mayhem of noise onstage. Because there wasn't just the music, the dancers were hitting the floor, they were pounding the floor with different rhythms, often opposed to the music, I'm sure. The counts were being shouted at them from the wings because they couldn't hear the orchestra at the premier because of the riot. This jangling around the neck wasn't; going to make much difference and most of the dancers hated it anyway.
CHRISTOPHER COOK: I have to say, for me, the most touching, the moment where I feel I'm close to the historical moment was the early first performances in Paris of the Rite Of Spring, was when I look at the neck and I can see there's a little repair where perhaps a dancer, in fury, had torn off the costume, which is perhaps by the wardrobe.
SARAH WOODCOCK: There are lots of little repairs all over costumes and it's quite difficult to work out whether they're historic and important or whether they're just cobbling together at a later date but the costumes saw very few performances. Of the Nijinsky ballet there were four performances in Paris, three in London. Later, Leonide Massine did new choreography for it in the 1920s so there was a little more use, but yes, people tearing costumes on and off doing three ballets in the evening, the mayhem of the dressing rooms which probably aren't big enough - yeah, accidents happen.
CHRISTOPHER COOK: Now, what do we know about Nicholas Roerich who designed this costume and designed The First Rite Of Spring?
SARAH WOODCOCK: Well, Roerich is one of the Russian painters at the end of the 19th century who's in rebellion against the intense realism of the previous generation. This is going on all over Europe. I think it's easier to think this is something in isolation, but it's not, every country is having this revolution of the young people against the old. And Roerich's one of the… Roerich's particular speciality was the study of ancient Russia and the primitive tribes and peoples. Not much was known about them, so you have to work very imaginatively through the few facts that are left. He only really did Prince Igor and Rite Of Spring for Diaghilev because they're the two ethnic tribal ballets.
CHRISTOPHER COOK: Prince Igor, is of course, the opera Diaghilev brings on his first visit to Paris which really sets people back.
SARAH WOODCOCK: The Borodin opera and it has this great dance sequence in the middle which is the slaves and is one of the entertainments for the captured prince. The Polovtsian Dance is the one thing that sets Paris alight in that first season I think. Again, it's Roerich's designs - wonderfully cut fabrics which are native to Russia, native to Uzbekistan - wonderful weaving patterns of great scallops and swathes of colour. And again, it was the uninhibited barbarism of Fokine's choreography and of the men's performances. Nijinsky was not really the great sensation of that first season. Adolph Bolm was, who danced the Polovtsian Dances.
CHRISTOPHER COOK: Roerich had been a friend of Diaghilev's for some way back. Indeed, the two of them had worked on that celebrated magazine, The World Of Art which is a kind of series of manifestos about a new way of looking at the arts in a complete sense.
SARAH WOODCOCK: That's right. I think there was a new burgeoning of interest in the cross fertilisation of the arts at this point and it's especially true of ballet because it involves the three arts - it involves music, it involves movement, it involves design, so it's a very good medium for sort of trying out new things, new experiments. Again, that was going on in cultures throughout Europe but yes, World Of Art is very important, yes it is - it's a manifesto for the new artists against, again, the old generation and it's very influenced by a lot of other European art. Aubrey Beardsley has a huge influence on the sheer quality and the design factor in the magazine. And it's aiming at, really at I think, I hate using the words, emotional truth. The previous generation had been a depiction of the world, realism. Now, what you're looking at is a sort of emotional response to things. And simplification, that's the other thing.
CHRISTOPHER COOK: So, when we look at this costume, we should see this as being about perhaps emotion rather than an attempt by Roerich to carefully reproduce what he's discovered about ethnic fabrics, ethnic pattern-making?
SARAH WOODCOCK: I think it's a mixture of the two things. I think, after all, there's not a huge amount known, and I don't know how much he had to base, in fact, on, but primitive design is pretty similar across the world - it's one of the things he found out when he started to look at it, that really it's pretty similar and after all, what are basic designs? Wavy lines, straight lines, squares, circles - you know, they're fairly basic to all cultures, if you pick up a pencil and doodle, though he puts it together in quite a sophisticated way. But colour, yes, is immensely important to him and of course, a lot of artists, if you look at a lot of art criticism, talks about painting in terms of music. It talks of harmony and construction and symmetry and harmony and colour - some painters and musicians see in colour - Nicholas Georgiadis, the great designer in the 20th century saw very much of music in terms of colour.
CHRISTOPHER COOK: But there's dissonance here too, isn't there? If you look at those on the sleeves, the triangles with the aquamarine, they clash.
SARAH WOODCOCK: That's right and of course you've no way of knowing how this all looked under the lights en masse but I think this all ties into similar colours used on other costumes as well.
CHRISTOPHER COOK: Is that sense of dissonance, of clash, again perhaps part of a wider movement, which is, in the early 20th century a desire to escape what are thought to be refined traditions of western art, western painting, a desire to incorporate, I use the word advisedly and in inverted commas 'the primitive'?
SARAH WOODCOCK: There's certainly a greater awareness of the primitive I think, that comes in towards the end of the 19th century. After all, it's the age when people really become aware of, I'm talking about the average person, becomes aware of abroad, I think that happens at the beginning of the century and the opening out of Africa of course, and African culture and the starting of sciences of the 20th century, archaeology and anthropology studies and so on. I think it's all part of that. I don't think that it's really anything… We were getting a lot of new influences in but it's difficult to say how much it's conscious to say we deliberately went to make it. Stravinsky's doing something he feels he wants to do, which happens to tie into the time.
CHRISTOPHER COOK: But is he proposing, Stravinsky, and indeed Roerich and others, a kind of critique of civilised perhaps decadent values in western society?
SARAH WOODCOCK: I'm sure that's what comes in because that's what every younger generation thinks it's doing to be honest. That's why they're called revolutions - they just come round again. But it's very difficult to say… That's a Terry Pratchett quote. It's very, very difficult to say this because you don't know. It's easy to look back and say 'That's what I was doing' but at the time, you're just living your life and getting on with what you feel and the people we remember are the people who best encapsulate, and make into an icon, the changes that are happening. Stravinsky is very much one of them.
CHRISTOPHER COOK: Do we know…
SARAH WOODCOCK: It's being there at the right time.
CHRISTOPHER COOK: Do we know what the dancers felt about having to wear this costume?
SARAH WOODCOCK: They hated it. They hated the ballet. Don't forget these were dancers trained very much in the classical ballets like Swan Lake and they'd already gone through the revolution of Fokine's choreography which is very much you use classical technique and use classically trained dancers because they can move so well but you're making them do very different things. And it's one thing dancing to, say, The Firebird, which is pretty revolutionary for a lot of them. Pavlova refused to be in it, that's why she walked out because she thought she was going to have to dance to that.
CHRISTOPHER COOK: Of course it's Stravinsky's first score.
SARAH WOODCOCK: Yes, Stravinsky's first score for Diaghilev. They were all used to nice little waltzes, the mazurka, something very simple, so faced with this, they hadn't got a clue how to go about it - neither had Nijinsky and that's why Diaghilev brought in Marie Rambert.
Rambert had been trained by Jacques Dalcroze, who'd developed this extremely efficient way of teaching movement and rhythm through the body, so that in fact different parts of the body reacted in different ways. It's interesting that both Marie Rambert and Ninette De Valois were both Dalcroze aficionados and it's a very good way of teaching dancers to respond to music and rhythm.
So, she was brought in to help Nijinsky with it and just worked their way through it, so the dancers hated it. As you said, they were all turned-in rather than turned out, the hands were like that for a lot of the time.
CHRISTOPHER COOK: Your hands, one kind of poking at your cheek and the other across - almost as if they were leaning on their elbows.
SARAH WOODCOCK: That's right, that's one of the famous poses, one of the only images we have of it - they didn't like that, it was very complicated to do and these costumes, in fact this looks quite lightweight but it is in fact wool - bunched up round your waist, the heat of the stage lights - these lights are bad enough, a battery of stage lights and you're sweating like mad, you're having to concentrate like mad trying to hear the orchestra count, you're trying to count yourself. Anyone who's seen Les Noces at Covent Garden and is close enough, can hear the dancers counting because that again is complicated, it's another Stravinsky score.
So, the dancers loathed the whole thing, they were hot. The men had a worse time - their costumes were even heavier and they were again bunched up around the waist and to get the belts on, to get them into it's proper shape, they had to put in cotton bands around the centre because otherwise, they just wouldn't have been able to move.
CHRISTOPHER COOK: So it was even thicker by the time they put cotton bands in?
SARAH WOODCOCK: Even thicker.
CHRISTOPHER COOK: And they were even hotter.
SARAH WOODCOCK: Well, yeah, the men were really having a bad time of it, yes and you had wigs and you had hats on and it was a nightmare. It was chaos on stage.
CHRISTOPHER COOK: We have virtually no idea, though people have endeavoured to recreate Nijinsky's original choreography for those first scores, but we really don't know much about it, but do we know what the starting point for this extraordinary way of shaping classical dance was for Nijinsky?
SARAH WOODCOCK: Are you wanting me to tell the story about the duck?
As you know in Paris there was a riot on the first night. In London, London was always well behaved, they got a lecture. Diaghilev brought on a music critic called Edwin Evans to explain the ballet to the audience and Evans had known Diaghilev and Nijinsky from their early seasons and he always said Nijinsky had quite a childish streak in him and he one day saw a toy duck in a shop - I don't know what it was, I don't know if it had triangular wheels or if its feet flapped up and down going round, I don't know whether the wings moved - but after the first night of… well, after Rite Of Spring, Nijinsky dashed up to Evans and said 'Did you recognise it?' And Evans said 'What?' And Nijinsky said 'I got most of the movements from the duck'.
SARAH WOODCOCK: Now, that is a story which shocked some people. The ballet, he's a genius. You know, that's where it can start. Obviously there were other factors involved.
CHRISTOPHER COOK: What do you think it was that really shocked that first Parisian audience?
SARAH WOODCOCK: Well, it takes a lot to shock a Paris audience but they do like a nice scandal and a nice riot and they rioted on the first night of L'Apres Midi d'un Faun, of course, as well. I think it was just… As I said we can't think now what it must've been like to sit in on that first… it must've sounded like pure cacophony to a lot of people. It was, as you said, total antithesis to… I mean, they hadn't been doing classical ballet all the time. By 1930, very few of Diaghilev's ballets had been performed on point - they are on flat feet or… so they'd be used to that. I just think it's a combination. A combination of the sound, this very strange music, music with the sound of kaleidoscopic…
CHRISTOPHER COOK: Do you think it was also the subject matter? After all, there in the audience wa one of the most hierarchical societies in western Europe where people still genuinely knew their place up and down and what they were being shown was another hierarchical society on stage that culminates in a murder. You know, in a sense it becomes a terrifying dark version of their own world.
SARAH WOODCOCK: Oh, that's very deep, that's very Freudian. I don't think I can go into that one. I think that might be looking back with hindsight. I just think it was just the sheer strangeness of it that on one level got to them and once somebody starts shouting, the rest of the audience will do it. It's possible Diaghilev planted people for all we know.
CHRISTOPHER COOK: Well, it was of course very much to his taste. There are stories of him consoling Stravinsky, who was desolated by what had happened, and putting his arm around him and saying 'Just what I wanted'.
SARAH WOODCOCK: Just what I wanted, exactly! There's nothing like a good scandal for publicity - free - it's all free, you see, they didn't have to pay for it.
CHRISTOPHER COOK: Sarah, how did this wonderful costume find its way to the Victoria and Albert Museum, to the Theatre Museum?
SARAH WOODCOCK: I must say here and now it's only one of about 500 Diaghilev costumes that we have - that includes the shoes.
It's quite complicated actually. After Diaghilev died, a lot of his repertory and costumes were taken over by the other companies that we now know as the Ballet Russe companies, especially the de Basil ballet. De Basil's Ballet's hugely influential in the 1930s, in really spreading ballet across a really wide range of the population. Certainly it was never elitist as people now like to think of it. And that company really went on until about 1950, by which point it was a very sad shadow of what it had been and the costumes all went into store in Paris and then in the 1960s, the owner of the costumes decided to sell them and they were sold in a series of highly spectacular and publicised sales at Sotheby's. And Richard Buckle, an expert on Diaghilev, who did the wonderful 1954 Diaghilev exhibition, which really promotes Diaghilev as an icon, as we now accept him, Buckle was brought in to do the cataloguing and he suddenly realised 'These costumes, who's going to buy them, where are they going to go?' And he clubbed together with a lot of friends to get money to buy them to found a museum of the performing arts and he bought a whole lot. Later, other people who'd bought gave him their costumes - what do you do with a costume like this in your own home? Having said that, one person who has a Matisse costume has got it framed as a room divider.
CHRISTOPHER COOK: Some people have more money than sense.
SARAH WOODCOCK: And so, he acquired a lot more and eventually they did come to what is now the Theatre Museum which Dickie had a big hand in establishing
CHRISTOPHER COOK: Sarah Woodcock, thank you very much indeed.