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Book Review: The Ballets Russes and Its World
Edited by Lynn Garafola and Nancy Van Norman Baer
Yale University Press

By Patricia Boccadoro

PARIS, 2 April 2000 - Lynn Garafola is a widely published dance critic and historian, author of Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, and, according to Yale University Press, one of the foremost authorities on the period. All the more surprising then, that she has left herself wide-open to criticism by sweeping generalisations and inaccurate reporting in her personal contributions to her new book,The Ballets Russes and Its World, a collection of essays which confuse rather than clarify the impact of Diaghilev, the Russian genius who changed the whole concept of ballet in the last century.

At first glance, this appears to be an interesting work, with over two hundred very beautiful illustrations, and an impressive listing of Serge Diaghilev's ballet and opera productions.

The opening chapter, by Evgenia Egorova (would she be any relation to Liubov Egorova, the great Russian dancer and teacher who moved to Paris with the Ballets Russes, but who never had children, dying alone here in 1972 ?), is of a certain interest, but difficult to read because of the stilted translation .

John E. Bowlt's contribution, concerning the early writings of Diaghilev to people including his stepmother, Elena Valerianova Diaghileva, makes fascinating reading, throwing light on the young Serge's gifts as a writer, and acts as a reminder that first and foremost, he was an art critic before his fame as an impresario.

Joan Acocella, Sally Banes, and, in particular, Charles M. Joseph, in his compelling essay on Diaghilev's tangled relationship with Stravinsky, perhaps the most important composer of ballet music after Tchaikovsky, provide the highlights of the work.

However, the credibility of any factual account, however good, is inevitably compromised by the smallest error in research, and in Garafola's case, the mistake is considerable. In chapter twelve, Reconfiguring the Sexes, she wrote that Serge Lifar was dismissed from his post as director of the Paris Opera for collaboration with the Nazis.

If she had stated that he had been unjustly accused of collaboration, or even accused of collaboration, but re-instated shortly afterwards, it would have been acceptable, but such a comment proves that Garafola did not refer to archives in France, presumably relying on hearsay.

Claude Bessy, director of the Paris Opera School, and who knew and worked with Serge Lifar from early childhood said succinctly, "Lifar was not sent away as a traitor; the court which dismissed him was illegal and simply out for blood. The origin of the story, if Garafola had done the minimum of research, lies on the fact that when Hitler arrived in Paris he wished to visit the Opera. Soldiers marched to Lifar's home, and escorted him back to the Palais Garnier where he was obliged to show the Fuhrer round. There are still very many witnesses to prove that by remaining at his post, Serge Lifar saved countless lives, for each time the Nazis tried to round up the dancers many of whom were Jews, the director refused to continue with performances if the artists were sent to concentration camps. It's time an end was put to malicious gossip".

Such an error inevitably put me on my guard, and I subsequently read the declaration that Diaghilev's revolution "dethroned the ballerina" in amazement. I beg to differ. Granted, Nijinsky was the most famous star, but it is a well-known fact that Diaghilev not only admired but adored his ballerinas. He loved women. Has Lynn Garafola not heard of Tamara Karsavina, for whom Fokine created Firebird ? Anna Pavlova, for whom he created Dying Swan ? Olga Spessivtseva, possibly the most exquisite of all classical ballerinas, guest artist in Sleeping Princess ? Would Garafola really have us believe that the ballerina went into eclipse because Ida Rubenstein (who was not a classically trained dancer, but a young woman with a lot of money who simply wanted to join in the fun for a time), left the company, followed by Karalli (who danced in the famous programme at the Theatre du Chatelet in 1909, marking the birth of modern ballet), Geltzer, Preobrasjenska, Kchessinska, and others who went simply because they were knocking on forty and wished to turn to teaching?

There was a natural revolution towards working with people like Picasso and Cocteau, and no such phenomenon as "dethroning the ballerina". What happened was that the male dancer came to share the throne with her. Did Rudolf Nureyev "dethrone" Margot Fonteyn in the 1960's? Of course he didn't.

Before continuing with the author's not very new theory on homosexuality.... doesn't Garafola know that there were homosexuals around in dance (and elsewhere) before Diaghilev, after Diaghilev, today and tomorrow ? Is this really an issue ? I decided to start again at the beginning and read the introduction, believing I was going about things in the wrong way.

But matters certainly didn't improve as I read that most of the works produced by his company have supposedly gone out of repertory. They certainly haven't in France, where Serge Golovine, the French dancer and teacher, restaged Fokine's Petrushka in practically every theatre in the country before taking it abroad . Les Sylphides , regularly danced by most classical companies around the world was recently programmed in Paris not so long ago, as well as the complete version of Nijinska's Les Biches, and her entertaining Le Train Bleu. Fokine 's Firebird is being staged by the Opéra de Paris school in May, and I myself saw Spectre de la Rose, Narcisse , Daphnis and Chloe, L'après-midi d'un Faune, Sacre du Printemps, Le Tricorne, and Till Eulenspiegel to name but a few fairly recently.

Apollon musagète, which was danced in Paris by Lifar, with ballerinas Tchernicheva, Nikitina, and Doubrovska and hailed as the birth of neo-classicism is constantly being performed all over the world.

But before I put the book down in despair, I read yet another outrageous generalisation, implying that all artistic directors today belong to a "breed" who neither know what they want, nor how to bring it about. I really don't know what people like David Bintley, artistic director of the Royal Ballet of Birmingham, who has deservedly earned himself a devoted following there since he took over five years ago would think of such scathing criticism.. Is Lynn Garafola aware of his achievements ? The same can be said forCharles Jude, the 'local hero' of Bordeaux, pulling his troupe up to international level, whereas in Madrid, Victor Ullate is accomplishing miracles with his dancers, coaching them in his own home through lack of rehearsal studios. And then furbishing the world's companies with star dancers to the detriment of his own because of the bleak future in Spain.

None are as flamboyant as the legendary Russian impresario, except perhaps for Rudolf Nureyev, who took on the archaic organisation and petty rules and regulations of the Palais Garnier single-handedly to forge an unruly mob of dancers (yes, I'm afraid they were), by fair means and foul into the company they are today. What he wanted he most definitely got, and it didn't collapse after his death.

I suggest that if people wish to know the basic truth about the Ballets Russes, they read this offering with a great deal of discretion, or, preferably, that they invest in Mary Clarke and Clement Crisp's thoroughly researched and authoritative Illustrated History of Ballet , first published in 1973, which gives a short but accurate account of Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes. That, at least is a work of reference.

Yale University Press published The Art of Ballets Russes, by Alexander Schouvaloff two years ago which I found a very reliable reference book for readers interested in the period



Vaslav Nijinsky as the Faun

The Ballets Russes and Its World
Edited by Lynn Garafola and Nancy Van Norman Baer
Illustrated. 420 pp. New Haven - London
Yale University Press $45.00



Patricia Boccadoro writes on dance from Paris. She contributes to The Guardian, The Observer and Dancing Times and was dance consultant to the BBC Omnibus documentary on Rudolf Nureyev. Ms. Boccadoro is the dance editor for Culturekiosque.com.



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