When I first read this review in the New York Times last year, I said to myself, “Maybe, just perhaps I should go to London, it sounds like a pretty kick-ass exhibit.” But then life got in the way, I put the idea on the back burner and almost forgot about it.
But everything works, if you let it. And it wasn’t but a couple of months later that I discovered that the exhibit, Diaghilev and the Golden Age of the Ballets Russes 1900-1929 was going to be in Quebec City this summer. Sweet! While it is only a five hour plane ride from Montreal to London, it is only a three hour car ride from Montreal to Quebec City. Or in other words 40% shorter, and there’s room to stretch, and the food is better.
One problem, while I don’t know how to fly, buying a plane ticket isn’t too complicated. But as I also don’t know how to drive, trying to find
a sucker someone extremely kind, nice and generous who would drive me and my sorry ass down river so I could see a bunch of ballet costumes that were almost a hundred years old did almost prove to be an insurmountable obstacle.
In the interim this review came out in Le Devoir (unfortunately behind a paywall) where Catherine Lalonde wrote « Demeure donc une impression de rendez-vous manqué. » Or if you prefer, “One gets a sense of missed opportunity.” Which almost put a kibosh on my desires. But thankfully I am pigheaded, persistent, and kinda realize that my cultural connections are much more aligned with the New York Times than they are with Le Devoir. So on August 29, I got chauffeured down the 20, and boy am I glad I got so lucky.
But lets back up here for an instant. First, if you need to know who Sergei Diaghilev is start with this book by Sjeng Scheijen. Don’t come looking for me to explain anything. Second, if you need to know what Les Ballets Russes were get this book by Lynn Garafola.
Ballets Russes – Festival of Narcissus
That’s one of the things I didn’t like about the Le Devoir review, given that a hard copy review has serious space limitations to use more than 30% of the word count explaining the historical background is a decision I’m not quite sure I understand.
Now that we’re all on the same page, what made it across the ocean is a slightly smaller and modified of the exhibit from the Victoria and Albert Museum called Diaghilev and the Golden Age of the Ballets Russes 1900-1929. Basically there was a whack of stuff added from the Bibliolthèque de la danse Vincent Warren and they cut some of the antecedents and maybe (my memory is a tad sketchy on this) some of the stuff that happened after he died. In Quebec there were nine sections in three galleries, in England there were (I think) two more sections, and I don’t know how many more galleries.
To cut to the chase, what got me were the costumes
Now a) I’m used to seeing my ballet from the cheap seats and b) most of the dance performances that I see these days are not ballet. So being able to get this close to them and see them from all sides was surprisingly quite a thrill. The pictures don’t do them justice.
I was also fascinated by this piece of psychedelia, made more than 30 years before the invention of the word psychedelic.
Unfortunately, as I was initially planning on just enjoying the exhibit, and not writing about it, I didn’t take a single note, and as you can see am having to rely on pictures from other sources. However after going through the entire show I did ask a couple of questions of Jean-Pierre Labiau, curator of the exhibition, and he was quite gracious and generous with his time. I was also able to score one of the visitor’s booklets that they gave everyone, so I don’t quite sound so foolish.
They also gave everyone an audio guide, which only contained music. As M. Labiau pointed out there isn’t an awful lot of classical ballet in Quebec City and I guess that they wanted everyone to be able to hear the music that would have accompanied the performances. I was able to avoid the difficulties Ms. Lalonde had, by just saying “thanks, but no thanks,” and walking around the exhibit without headphones.
Also, I’m not sure if I was the one setting up the exhibit, that I would have done it thematically. Given how didactic it was (sorry about my consistent overuse and repetition of the word didactic, but I’m going through a phase. Not in this article specifically, but in life and in general I’m using it way too much).
I think, arranging it chronologically might have helped a bit, but no one thought to ask me. And then another thought that occurred to me on the ride back was that while being able to see the Picasso, Matisse and Braque designed costumes was pretty cool, artists today, or make that contemporary Quebecois artists who paint, don’t do work in textile.
I don’t know if this is a good thing – keeping your artistic output focused always helps in getting recognition – but it was kind of cool. It would be interesting to see someone like Adad Hannah, Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, Shary Boyle or Isabelle Hayeur design ballet (or theatre) costumes or more generally work with fabric.
And being able to see the sketches by Picasso, Matisse and Braque (and lots of others as well – heck I don’t think I have ever been that close to anything Coco Channel touched ever before (or will be ever again) in my life.
And this too was interesting, virtual reality before they invented computers, or make believe you were Diaghilev in your very own home.
And as this was my first visit to the Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec, it struck me as being much smaller than I imagined, at some point I’m going to have to try to
sucker convince or bribe someone to go back.
And then finally if you want to read someone else who is much more eloquent than I am on the exhibit, you should take a gander at Andrew O’Hagan’s review from the Guardian.