An Irishman's Diary

 

ONE WOULD have given much to be a fly on the wall (temporarily) at the Majestic hotel in Paris on the night of May 18th, 1922. The supper given there that evening followed the premiere of the ballet Renard, with music by Igor Stravinsky and performed by Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. So naturally both these gentlemen were present. Pablo Picasso had done designs for the Ballets Russes, so he was also on the guest list. But the ambitions of the supper’s hosts, the British writer and critic Sydney Schiff, and his wife Violet, went far further than this: they also had their eyes on the literary world and to this end they managed to secure the attendance of James Joyce, a celebrity even before the publication of Ulyssesthe previous February.

One might have thought that any host or hostess would be reasonably content with a line-up like that: but the Schiffs went one step further and engineered the presence of Marcel Proust, who had only a few months to live and was at that time the lion of literary Paris. Proust slept all day and surfaced only at night, which he mostly spent, of course, in writing. So his presence in the Majestic hotel was a major coup. True to form, he turned up to the post-ballet supper at 2am. It’s to be hoped something was left for him.

Much of what happened at the supper now lies in the realm of legend, rather than history. (A whole book, Dinner at the Majestic, by Richard Davenport-Hines, has been devoted to it.) What actually passed between Proust and Joyce is not known with any confidence. One of the more plausible versions has it that both expressed their liking for truffles. It is also fairly well attested that the two shared a taxi home subsequently. Matters began badly when Joyce made to open the taxi window.

Proust, who abhorred fresh air, fearing it would kill him, was horrified. When the taxi arrived at Proust’s abode at the Étoile, Joyce, a true son of Erin, showed a mark reluctance to go home. The evening might have continued more convivially, but Proust quickly jumped out of the taxi and rushed through the perilous night air into his apartment. The two never met again.

The evening at the Majestic looms large in the exhibition Diaghilev and the Golden Age of the Ballets Russes 1909-1929, running currently at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. A few pages of the Rosenbach manuscript of Ulyssesare included, on the strength of Joyce’s presence at the dinner, but more relevant and more exciting is some of the corrected typescript of À la recherche du temps perdu, which actually deals with the impact of the Ballets Russes on the Paris artistic and fashionable scene.

Serge Diaghilev (1872-1929) was not himself an artist of any kind, being essentially an impresario, but he was nonetheless a major figure in the revolutionary eruption of modernism on the European artistic scene. Born near Perm in Russia, his early interests were in music and art, but his real talent as a ballet impresario soon emerged. The first Paris season of the ballet company he founded was in 1909 and it was immediately apparent that this was a radically new form of dance – and also of design, principally, in terms of scenery and costumes, created by Diaghilev’s friend and collaborator, Leon Bakst.

The most famous dancer with Diaghilev’s company was of course Vaslav Nijinsky; unfortunately because Diaghilev did not allow filming of his ballets, we have to rely on still photographs and contemporary accounts and reminiscences to gain an impression of the electrifying effect of his performances. Moreover, the period of his dominance was very brief: it lasted from about 1909 to 1919, when he succumbed to schizophrenia, and never danced again.

The most notorious and important moment in the history of the Ballets Russe was the premiere of The Rite of Springin Paris in 1913. With music by Stravinsky that fully matched the savagery of the scenario – a young girl is selected by the elders of a primitive tribe to dance herself to death in order to propitiate the gods at the start of spring – the opening night was marred by serious riots that nearly brought the performance to an end.

It was on this night that the Ballets Russes put an indelible stamp on the history of modernism.

The company, under Diaghilev’s autocratic control, continued to dominate the international dance scene until its founder’s sudden death in Venice in 1929. It seems emblematic of the entire enterprise that there was no question of continuing after Diaghilev’s departure: it was entirely his creation and it died with him, but its legacy – and his – lives on.

The Victoria & Albert Museum exhibition, which runs until January 9th, is a fascinating re-creation of a whole era. It includes what little film remains of the Ballets Russes performances, and of other performances, and also presents present-day reimaginings of these revolutionary works. It includes costumes, backdrops, and music from the first performances. It traces in both a scholarly and a highly accessible way the company’s history from its founding to its demise. (The book published to accompany the exhibition, with the same title as the exhibition itself, was comprehensively reviewed in The Irish Timesby Nicola Gordon Bowe on October 23rd last.) The show is also a useful scene-setter for the major display of modernism’s impact on Ireland, “The Moderns”, currently running at the Irish Museum of Modern Art.

One other useful purpose the Victoria & Albert show serves is as a reminder of the multi-faceted nature of modernism as a phenomenon: it encompassed all the arts, and it thereby poses a challenge for any interpreter who wishes to view it in its totality. But it is an exhilarating challenge and the richness of the material to be interpreted is amply indicated in this exhibition. The other blockbuster exhibition currently on show in London, Gauguin at the Tate Modern, may well draw larger crowds, understandably, but anyone who makes their way to the Victoria & Albert will be richly rewarded.