National Gallery of Canada / Musée des beaux-arts du Canada

Bulletin 11 (VI:1), 1968

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Van Dongen's Souvenir de la 
Saison d'Opéra Russe, 1909

by Jean Sutherland Boggs
Director, The National Gallery of Canada

Résumé en français

Pages  1  |  2  |  3  

During the summer of 1909 the Dutch painter, Kees van Dongen, recorded an important event in the history of the dance, the two Russian ballerinas, Pavlova and Ida Rubinstein, dancing in Cléopâtre during the first appearance of Diaghilev's company in Paris (fig. 1). (1) It was Rubinstein's first season with Diaghilev and basically Pavlova's last.

The ballet itself had been staged in St. Petersburg by its choreographer, Michel Fokine, as Egyptian Nights. Its music by Aronsky, which Diaghilev found "feeble, somewhat commonplace and too reminiscent of the drawing room," (2) was changed in Paris by the injection of works by Rimsky-Korsakov, Glinka, Mussorgsky and Glazunov. Indeed as Diaghilev's collaborator, Alexandre Benois, was to remember later, it was criticized as "a sort of Russian salad of national composers." (3) Nevertheless Cléopâtre proved an enormous success at its first performance on 2 June 1909 at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris.

An important element in its success was Fokine's choreography. Undoubtedly this was influenced by Isadora Duncan who had a strong impact upon the Russian dance when she visited St. Petersburg in 1905 and toured Russia with her company about 1907. (4) Her effect was usually analyzed by her contemporaries as freeing the dancers from the restricting costumes of the traditional ballet and stimulating an insistence upon a unity of theme throughout any single dance. (5) In relation to this influence, which the Russians generously confessed, (6) it is interesting that Fokine described his frustration in St. Petersburg hunting costumes which had been made for an earlier version of Cléopâtre. which had never been performed, and finding only traditional filmy tutus. (7) He also emphasized the importance of the unity of the theme in 

Appropriately Fokine's other inspiration was Egypt. He tells us that he immersed himself in the Egyptian collections of the Hermitage and read innumerable books on Egyptian life and art. (9) He wrote, "When I staged 'Egyptian Nights' I was not thinking of the modernists, but had only one thing in mind: Egypt and the wonderful beauty of its art....These profile positions, angular lines, and flat palms were sustained all through the ballet." (10)

It was Leo Bakst who created the setting and costumes for this dance. Benois tells us that "Bakst's décor alone was outstanding-solemn in its composition, beautiful in its grey-pink and sombre violet! This background, perfectly suggestive of a hot, sultry Eastern evening, was an ideal foil for the purple costumes, the shining gold and the intricately-plaited black hair." (11) Reproductions of it make it seem so ponderously archaeological (it was also described as monumental and sinister) (12) that we can understand Van Dongen's eliminating it in his record of the ballet. On the other hand the painter was not indifferent to the costumes which Bakst designed. In 1911 a critic wrote, "M. Léon Bakst est le Delacroix du costume... L'emmaillottement de la reine d'Egypte dans plusieurs voiles de couleur... produit un effet magnifique...M. Bakst habille un mouvement et non un mannequin...le vêtement...extériorise l'âme, vibrante comme elle, et ses couleurs sont celles de la passion." (13)

In spite of the success of the setting and costumes Cléopâtre was largely a dancers' ballet. Benois comments that, although the plot was "absurd,...the talents of the performers also contributed largely to the success of Cléopâtre...Indeed it would have been difficult to find an assembly of such talented artists." (14) Among them were Karsavina and Nijinsky, and Fokine himself as the lover who was described as "passionate" (15) and a "hurricane." (16) But the two who triumphed and who were always considered in opposition to each other were Pavlova and Rubinstein.

Pavlova was the star of Diaghilev's company. It was a painting of her by Serov that was used for the poster announcing the 1909 season. In Cléopâtre she was given the leading role if, confusingly, it was not the title role: she danced Tahor as she had danced it in the St. Petersburg version, Egyptian Nights. Fokine who danced with her in both versions and was of course the ballet's choreographer described Pavlova's role: "Tahor is the fiancée of Amoun (the part I played). She is very pathetic in her love for the young hunter, and conveys dramatic anguish when he is unfaithful to her and gives his love and life to Cleopatra." (17) In preparation for the ballet in St. Petersburg, Pavlova had even rehearsed with a live snake to capture the quality of a snake dance Fokine had seen in the reproduction of an ancient Egyptian painting. (18) We are told by Benois that Pavlova was "divine" (19) in this ballet, by Fokine that she was "remarkably tragic," (20) and again by Benois that "next to this hurricane [Fokine] the image of the tender, flexible young girl created by Pavlova seems more frail and refined." (21) Another critic reported: "Très grand fut le succès que Pavlova qui incarnait l'esclave, remporta pour ses danses plastiques, pour ses poses pleines de style, pour son jeu séduisant - et puissamment expressif dans la scène mimique terminale." (22) It was this seductive, flexible, exotic Pavlova (so unlike the Dying Swan which is our conventional image of her) that Van Dongen chose to paint.

Pavlova was nevertheless unhappy with Cléopâtre and Diaghilev's company, and returned to dance with them only briefly in Giselle in London in 1911. Her reasons for leaving she explained tactfully as being a fundamental difference between her approach and Fokine's. She said of him, "the beauty of the scenes he combines, the splendors of the set ting and costumes, the charm  of the music, exercise so captivating and surprising an effect upon the public, that the dancer's individuality is lost sight of." (23) The dancer Serge Lifar presented the Diaghilev company's point of view in his biography of the impresario, writing that she "behaved much like a tenor who expects the orchestra always to follow his singing, and adapt itself to all his rhythmic vagaries." (24) A recent historian of the dance has stated it succinctly, "In Les Sylphides she had been eclipsed by Nijinsky, in Cléopâtre by the exotic beauty of Rubinstein...At the end of the season she left." (25)

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