Diaghilev & the Golden Age of the Ballets Russes

Earlier this week we attended a preview of Diaghilev and the Golden Age of the Ballets Russes, 1909 – 1929, a  must see exhibition that opens tomorrow at the Victoria & Albert Museum.

The exhibition captures the glamour and excitement of a revolutionary age in ballet, showing Sergei Diaghilev’s genius; his ambition and determination to generate entirely new ballets via key collaborations with the most avant-garde artists, breaking up with ballet’s past conventions. Through its many galleries we witness how each Ballets Russes work took up a large proportion of the company’s time and energy: inspiration boards, set designs, music sheets (new scores were commissioned for nearly half of Diaghilev’s ballets), memorabilia of legendary dancers, ornate souvenir programmes and posters, original costumes and even two magnificent stage cloths.

In this photoblog we give you a glimpse at the variety of objects on display. Most were sourced from the V&A’s own collections (out of 300 objects, only 100 are loans). Of course nothing replaces the awe and wonder of seeing them in person, which is why we highly recommend a visit.

Diaghilev and the Golden Age of the Ballets Russes at the V&A London

The exhibition begins around 1905, with the origins of the Ballets Russes in Tsarist Russia and Diaghilev’s life in St Petersburg. This is where Diaghilev started to work in promoting the arts, publishing the magazine Mir Iskusstva (The World of Art). Below are some of Diaghilev’s personal objects including his opera glasses, top hat, clock plus a caricature of him by Mikhail Larionov (1924).

Diaghilev's personal objects & Annual of the Imperial Theatre

A print depicting a London production of the Snowflake Ballet from Voyage to the Moon a ballet-féerie (fairy tale ballet) with music by Jacques Offenbach and choreography by Aimé Bertrand (1883). This is what ballet looked like pre-Ballets Russes…

Voyage to the Moon, Snowflake Ballet

… while this set model for 1924′s Le Train Bleu (Music Darius Milhaud, choreography Nijinska, designs Picasso, costumes Chanel) shows what ballet looked like after Diaghilev and his company presented their first full evening of dance in Paris (1909):

Le Train Bleu Set Designs

There are over 70 costumes including some from the very first seasons of Ballets Russes (1909-14). Below are pieces worn by Lydia Lopokova, Ida Rubinstein and by Tamara Karsavina in the ballets Salomé (designed by Serge Sudeikin – 1913);  Schéhérazade (Zobeide costume designed by Léon Bakst – 1910) and Chloé (designed by Léon Bakst – 1912).

Costumes from the Ballets Russes First Seasons (1909-14) - Overview. V&A Collections.

Léon Bakst‘s costumes stunned Paris with their radical use of colours in exotic and oriental fantasies. There are various intricate, heavily beaded costumes worn by Nijinsky – left to right: a costume for Albrecht in Giselle (by Alexandre Benois – 1910), two versions of a costume for the Prince in Le Festin – a series of divertissements which included The Bluebird Pas de Deux from The Sleeping Beauty (by Léon Bakst – 1909, 1914). Later Diaghilev would also collaborate with Natalia Goncharova, whose designs used a more acidic palette and drew heavily from popular peasant clothes.

Costumes from the V&A Collections.

Among the many pictures and drawings of legendary dancer Vaslav Nijinsky there’s this lovely 1968 quote from Marie Rambert: “When he danced Spectre he was the very perfume of the rose because in everything he extracted the essence.” Here a Jean Cocteau sketch depicting Nijinsky in Spectre de La Rose which belongs to the John Neumeier Foundation:

Nijinsky in Le Spectre de la rose by Jean Cocteau. Pencil on paper (1912).

Rite and Riot: At the time of its premiere The Rite of Spring caused more surprise than any other Ballets Russes production. Dealing with the sacrifice of a young woman to ensure the return of spring, Rite meant to shock the audience. Stravinsky’s music was thought disorientating, movements were radically different. The ballet was only given 9 performances in total: five in Paris and four in London.

Costumes from The Rite of Spring

Tamara Karsavina‘s tiny pointe shoe. Made by Nicolini and worn for a performance of Les Papillons (1914).

Ballets Russes Dance shoes display. V&A Collections.

Diaghilev’s five principal choreographers were Fokine, Nijinsky, Massine, Nijinska and Balanchine. All made major contributions to the language of dance; adapting and rejecting traditional ballet, employing stylised gestures and character dances, creating inventive steps that extended modern dance technique. These dance patterns for Les Sylphides (Music by Chopin, choreography by Mikhail Fokine – 1909) form part of the Elements of Production section:

Dance Patterns for Les Sylphides. From the Pallant House, Chichester.

A large scale installation features ENB dancer Begoña Cao performing as the Firebird. This is presented alongside Natalia Goncharova‘s monumental backcloth for the 1926 production of this ballet…

Begoña Cao as the Firebird

… and also a video display with a stream of Goncharova’s original designs and pictures of Tamara Karsavina, who created the role of The Firebird.

From the V&A Collections.

Inspiration Board, Russian Fairy Tales. Clockwise from left: a souvenir print from Contes Russes featuring Massine’s Parade (1917), programme for Théâtre des Champs-Elysées based on a print by Fedorowsky (1913), a print featuring Kikimora, a tale that inspired Massine’s Contes Russes

Russian Folklore Images

Mikhail Larionov’s costumes for Chout (Music by Prokofiev, choreography by Massine – 1921):

Costumes from the V&A Collections.

Diaghilev promoted the finest associations of artists, choreographers and composers. Cut off from Russia after the  war and Soviet revolution, he turned to Paris-based artists, inviting Pablo Picasso, André Derain, Henri Matisse, Georges Rouault, Georges Braque, Giorgio de Chirico and Chanel to design for his productions. Below are de Chirico’s costumes for Le Bal (Music Rieti, choreography by Balanchine – 1929) and his modernist conception of a Sylph (1929):

Costumes from the V&A Collections.

Exhibition co-curator Jane Pritchard notes: “the designs from the Ballets Russes, still impact on the fashion and theatre worlds. That would come through particularly with the couture outfits of Yves Saint Laurent [...] and very appropriately, in terms of this being fashion week, they have influenced the current work of Erdem” Below Ballets Russes collections by Yves Saint Laurent. From left: Collection Opéra Les Ballets Russes (A/W 1976), Collection Hommage à Picasso et Diaghilev (A/W 1979), Collection Robe à Capuche, Le Manteau d’Organza. (S/S 1991), Collection La Blouse Roumaine (A/W 1999).

Yves Saint Laurent Ballets Russes Collections

All photos by The Ballet Bag ©. Additional images here:

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With many thanks to the V&A and to Sara at 1 Woman Band.

Not to be missed: “Diaghilev and the Golden Age of Ballets Russes, 1900-1929″ runs 25 September 2010 to 9 January 2011 at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London.

For further information and bookings visit the V&A website.

We started The Ballet Bag in April 2009 with the mission to prove that ballet is not stuffy, old fashioned and inaccessible; that it is quite the opposite: relevant, fresh and topical. With the aim to Give Ballet a New Spin we try to show it under a different light. When writing our capsule biographies, ballet fact cards, review roundups and commentary on social media, we cross it over with other art forms and cultural references (pop culture, cinema, rock music – ie. other things we love!).


  • [...] original The Firebird, set to Stravinsky’s marvelous score, was an iconic piece in Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes. This newly choreographed version by George Williamson does away with the underlying folktale and [...]

  • Que beleza. Vejam as fotos.

  • November 10, 2010


    Hi Abi, glad you liked the pics – do drop us a line by email (theballetbagATgmail.com) to remind us & we can search our files to see if there are any extras!



  • November 5, 2010


    I went to see this fab exhabition and thankyou for postign pics i have my sketches and post cards but wasn’t allowed to take any pics of my own.
    Out of curiosity do you have more? I’m doing a few pieces inspired by the exhabiton for my course and trying to track down some images.

  • [...] Diaghilev & the Golden Age of the Ballets Russes. [...]

  • September 26, 2010


    Excellent post, with some great pics – thank you for this. There’s a new biography of Diaghilev out, at least in the States: “Diaghilev: A Life” by Sjeng Scheijen. And the NYTimes blog has a related post that focuses on “The Rite of Spring,” and includes a video clip of a Joffrey Ballet performance: http://papercuts.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/09/23/the-ballets-russes-notes-on-a-scandale/ (skip the first 2:45 of the video if you don’t like reading credits)

  • September 25, 2010

    joanna hoke

    will this ever come to the states? if so can there be a posting somewhere?

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