More on Diaghilev and the film industry


Carlotta Brianza as Carabosse with her entourage of rats in the opening scene of The Sleeping Princess 1921 @ V&A Images

Following on from the entry A treat on screen and the interest aroused in the footage of Lydia Lopokova and the failure to film The Sleeping Princess in colour and with synchronised music described by Henry Miller in The Guardian here is a little more about Diaghilev’s dancers and film.

Diaghilev was clearly nervous about film – was it because of the quality or was it because he resented any ‘copying’ of his productions? Whatever the reason, clause 23 in Diaghilev’s standard contract prevented his dancers from performing in front of the camera during the period of their contracts. Nevertheless a number of his dancers appeared on screen in newsreels and feature films during periods away from the company or after they had left. As I point out in the book to accompany the exhibition, Vera Karalli became a major film star in early Russian film working with director Evgeni Bauer on productions including After Death (1915) and The Dying Swan (1916). Anna Pavlova not only allowed a number of her dances to be filmed but also featured in The Dumb Girl or Portici (1916). Tamara Karsavina appeared in The Old Wives’ Tale (1921), Lydia Kyasht in The Black Spider (1920) and Lydia Lopokova, Anton Dolin and George Balanchine were filming the dance sequences in Dark Red Roses in 1929 when they learnt of Diaghilev’s death. It is also worth remembering that Alexandre Benois, became a significant designer for films as well as stage productions and was art director on Abel Gance’s masterpiece Napoleon.

Anna Pavlova in The Swan, a solo in which she appeared on screen several times. Popularly known as The Dying Swan it was also performed, and filmed, by many dancers in the 1910s and 1920s.

In fact on several occasions preliminary plans were made to film the Ballets Russes. Soon after the debut of ‘Diaghilev’s dancers’ at the Théâtre du Châtelet, Paris, in 1909 it was hoped that the Polovtsian Dances from Prince Igor would be recorded. As Prince Peter Lieven recalled in The Birth of the Ballets-Russes ‘Everything was arranged, a field was found outside Paris to represent the Russian Steppes, and a day was fixed. Unfortunately, at the last moment the scheme collapsed over money matters, and a valuable and very interesting document was thus lost.’

This was followed by the plans to record The Sleeping Princess mentioned above, which was announced in The Times 29 December 1921. Finally in our archives at the V&A we have details of proposals to film the repertoire of the Ballets Russes when they visited the USA in 1928 – this would have been pioneering sound film – but the tour failed to materialise.

Tamara Karsavina in The Torch Dance the film of which may be seen in Diaghilev and the Golden Age of the Ballets Russes 1909-1929.

Meanwhile it is delightful to see such films as has survived of the dancers including the charming clip of Tamara Karsavina in the Pathé Newsreel series The Stars as They Are made clearly to promote her personal season at the London Coliseum – the release date for which was 04/08/1921