Long-lost footage of one of the most influential companies in dance history has been discovered – the only evidence of Diaghilev’s dancers on film.
The scrap of silent black-and-white news reelwas spotted wrongly labelled in the British Pathé online archive by a dance enthusiast, and identified by Jane Pritchard, curator of the recent exhibition about the company at the V&A museum in London.
In the archive, the film of dancers on an open-air stage, against a woodland backdrop, is captioned “location of events unknown”. Susan Eastwood, a member of the London Ballet Circle — which organised a private visit to the V&A exhibition earlier this month — had a hunch about it. She showed the clip to Pritchard, who was able to identify it as the Ballets Russes performance in June 1928 at the annual flower festival at Montreux, Switzerland.
She has even identified the lead dancer as one of the company’s handsome stars, Serge Lifar – infamous for his outrageous scene stealing from other dancers on the stage – and the ballet as Les Sylphides.
Pritchard, who has headed her blog post on the discovery “I eat my words!”, writes: “I have often commented that if the Fêtes des Narcisses was happening now everyone would be filming it surreptitiously and if only someone had sneaked a movie camera in. The film is poor quality (obviously filmed from a distance and almost certainly without permission from [Sergei] Diaghilev); very brief … But now I have to say Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes was filmed!”
The company was founded in 1909 by the Russian impresario Diaghilev with dazzling dancers such as Vaslav Nijinsky and Tamara Karsavina, and took the ballet world by storm.
Some of the choreography, including Nijinsky’s erotic writhing in L’Après Midi d’un Faune, and designs by artists including Picasso and Matisse were seen as so outrageous that productions sparked riots in Paris and London. Although early silent film survives of individual stars, including Karsavina, there was believed to be no film of the company performing; Diaghilev, a better spin doctor than business man, insisted no film camera could capture his dancers’ brilliance.
• This article was amended on 1 February 2011. The original stated that the film footage was of Giselle. This has been corrected.
Monday 31 January 2011