David Tibet meets Derek Jarman

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For the past week I’ve been reading the Strange Attractor Press edition of England’s Hidden Reverse by David Keenan, a book that’s not only a handsome volume in its own right but is also an excellent chronicle of the post-Throbbing Gristle Industrial scene in Britain from the late 70s to the present. There’s too much I could say about that side of the 1980s since it was a part of the decade I was fully immersed in. Not only the music either; I still have correspondence with some of the key figures (David Tibet among them), and accumulated a mass of newspaper and magazine features, reviews and interviews. The internet has rendered this aspect of the hoarding imperative redundant but pre-internet if you didn’t keep old papers and magazines then the information in them was effectively gone forever, especially if the publications were fanzines or small-run amateur mags that wouldn’t be archived by libraries.

Keenan’s book prompted me to dig in some boxes to see what clippings had survived various relocations. Most of the stuff was familiar but I’d forgotten this piece from David Tibet’s fleeting career as a music journalist before Current 93 established themselves. Derek Jarman gets a passing mention in Keenan’s book via his connections with Throbbing Gristle and Coil, two groups who provided soundtracks for his films. Tibet’s interview was occasioned by the publication of Dancing Ledge, Jarman’s diary/memoir that’s been quoted here on several occasions. Tibet was writing for Sounds on this occasion, an unusual venue for a piece about Derek Jarman (Sounds was always more rock-oriented than the NME) which no doubt explains the lengthy contextualising; I’m sure Tibet would have preferred to talk more about John Dee and Jarman’s magickal preoccupations. Not a great interview, then, but a curious meeting that reinforces some of the connections of the period.

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THIS JARMAN MAN by David Tibet (Sounds, February 11, 1984)

DEREK JARMAN. Where do I begin? Some people concentrate on the area they excel in (or think they excel in). Others try to dabble their fingers in any and every pie that presents itself—Bob Geldof as singer (ha!) and actor (double ha!)—and end up by proving their incompetence in all of them. And then there are that select few who effortlessly master every discipline they attempt, and who leave you with the feeling that they could do anything that they put their hands to, and do it well. Like Derek Jarman…

So, as I said before, where do you start with a man who first sharpened his nails on notoriety’s face with his production designs for Ken Russell’s infamous film of possession and oppression, The Devils? David Bowie christened him a “black magician” (if ‘christen’ is the right word…

He moulded the media’s consciousness and image of punk with the anarchic Jubilee, exploding myths and erecting new ones with as much alacrity as if legends were prefabs. Well, maybe they are! Petrol bombs crash into a policeman’s room… “No Future”. Good morning, this is your early morning
Molotov cocktail service. Where do you start? Easy. You go to interview him.

Derek Jarman lives in comfort, not the opulence that would be his if activity equalled wealth. His room is a testimony to his eclecticism, his fascination with areas alien, cloudy, dark. A vacant beaten aluminium clockface hovers on arches in the corner of the room, its hour hand a solitary coffin nail. On the hearth a huge sculpted head gates morosely, shades of Easter Island. On his double lined library shelves, alchemical texts rub spines with Nijinsky in a danse macabre. A cup of coffee is served. Time to recap…

The most recent occasion that Derek Jarman had our self-appointed moralists and ‘art-experts’ squealing and squirming was with his version of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, which he released in 1979. But that wasn’t an isolated incident, or an insular shock to a nation’s pomposity. As the blurb in his press release has it: “His films have been critically acclaimed internationally, while at home their political and sexual forthrightness has triggered only scandal.”

Not surprising either. Prophets are always without honour, and not only in their own country. For the benefit of the reader who isn’t quite sure of the impressiveness of Jarman’s track record, a quick history lesson follows. Although he had worked on stage sets and ballet before his excursions with Ken Russell, it was his designs in the two films he did with Russell that first brought him to the public’s blinkered eye. (Though perhaps not as much as it should have done; he recalls watching a documentary made for TV because of the topical shock of The Devils, and thinking, “Oh god, I’m sure they’re going to mention me now.”)

They didn’t, although they should have done, as it his sets as much as Russell’s over-the-top directing that gained the film notoriety: huge cruciform doors, priests wheeled along on movable lecterns by doting nuns.

Then he worked on the same director’s Savage Messiah, based on the life of Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, a brilliant sculptor who married a woman twice his age, he dying in the trenches in 1915, she dying soon after in a lunatic asylum. Then, time to shift, to stop. Despite the fact that he was asked to work on the overblown opus Tommy, he felt the time had come for change.

“It was time to go my own way”, he explains. Referring to his exhibition of painting at the ICA, he says, “I was eight years old when I knew I wanted to be a painter. People criticise me by saying ‘He’s a film-maker who’s messing around with painting.’ They completely miss the point. Painting was my first love; films are something I became involved with because it was an area which was open, and in which I wouldn’t feel that I was following in other people’s tracks.”

Having decided to develop his ideas, he started an intensive study of the subjects that he felt drawn to and which would later, influence his own work so strongly. At the same time, he began to keep a film-diary in Super 8 and a written diary record; the former more abstract, capturing his feelings and moods, the latter more precise: names and events.

His early films of this type, many of which are being shown for the first time at the ICA exhibition, were experimental, magical—Studio Bankside, Garden Of Luxor. In some ways a far cry from his later linear ‘plot’ projects, they stiil possess the same English, masque-like quality. The first major film of his to bring his name to the fore in its own right was Sebastiane. Its dialogue entirely in Latin (!), it was the story of a slave trained as gladiator who was executed for his Christianity, and subsequently became regarded by the church as a Christian martyr. For the soundtrack, Jarman brought in the talents of Eno, and the film also featured Lindsay Kemp, Bowie’s mime mentor, who had also worked in Savage Messiah.

Sebastiane was followed by Jubilee, which featured the cult punk bands of ’77 in their seminal underground phase: Adam And The Ants, Siouxsie And The Banshees, Toyah (then a pudgy skinhead) and Wayne (before he became Jayne) County. A revolutionary tale of the decline of the West set in a graffiti-jewelled London ruled over by Queen Elizabeth the First and a power-mad record tycoon, the plot became so surreal at the end that no-one could be sure what was happening! Then to The Tempest, again with Toyah and the honey-throated Elisabeth Welch.

Meanwhile, Derek was also working with [Throbbing Gristle], who provided the soundtracks for In The Shadow Of The Sun (soon to be released) and Psychick Rally In Heaven, and in filming William Burroughs at the Final Academy. Which brings us up to the present, more or less, and to my talk with Derek Jarman.

I asked Derek why he had called his book Dancing Ledge. “Because the period I’m writing about was a dancing time…one or two people have been very critical of this view, but you must think back to the period I’m writing about… The fifties were, actually, fairly grim here, and so when the sixties did happen, it was like a butterfly coming out of a chrysalis. It’s an affirmative title, but the things we were doing at that time were affirmative.

“Now, everybody has lived through the hangover of the seventies, and people can say. ‘Oh god, what an awful party it was. But if you think back to then, and think of the really grim post-war ’40s and ’50s; and then, suddenly everything is happening, here in London. There’s new clothes, new music—a whole new lifestyle—which was really delineated between 1964 and 1968. One danced, and that was in its own way a statement.”

Some people have felt that Jarman’s fiIm versions of ‘sexual forthrightness’ were too forthright. Does he feel that sexuality is important to his work?

“When I came to London and realised that I was gay, in those days it was only mentioned in the media; there were no clubs, it was illegal. I was terrified of it; all you ever heard of was trials in the newspapers. It’s difficult for people to realise how really, really grim it was then. There was nowhere to go, and even if there was, I wouldn’t have dared to go there. It was important to affirm we were enjoying ourselves, and that is something that is still important in the work that I do.

He flashes back to the early days, when he first moved down to London: “When we lived in a warehouse at Upper Ground, it was £2 a week. I’m certain that there were other people living in warehouses, but I was the first that I knew of. It was really cheap, and took you right out of all these dreadful Georgian row houses into space. So you had to give parties: it was open house down there all the time.”

The past—his experiences in London, his attendance at boarding schools when they were even more unpleasant than they are now—has obviously influenced his work, but I was interested as to whether there was any particular influence in his films and his paintings, an essential theme at the core of everything he did.

“It’s difficult to know. I think I’m unaware of it. What work is, perhaps, is to find it. I think it would be disastrous to really find it, because then you’d cease to work, as you would have completed the scheme, as it were. At this moment, I’m just beginning.

“There’s magic—not particularly Crowley—but alchemical magic, like Marcel Duchamp and that area. Crowley was not selfless enough, too self-involved, unlike Dr John Dee (a magician and spy who served under Queen Elizabeth I). Crowley took it all down to his own physical body, although as a sexual libertarian he was extremely valuable.

“As I read Dee and Jung, I found that things I had been doing unconsciously which might have seemed slightly aimless actually had a centre; it gave me a way of interpreting my own work. The little drawings and notebooks that I did for my Super 8 films are very like Cornelius Agrippa (another Renaissance magician) did in his book Occult Philosophy. It distances you from the way most people are looking at things—it gives you an outsiders viewpoint.”

So is there a final message to the world, Derek?

“Yes. When a friend read my book he said, ‘You seem to be enjoying yourself too much, Derek. Well, I say, ‘Enjoy yourself as much as you possibly can. because you only live once’. This culture is so hung up on making people believe that having a bad time is serious, and it ain’t. It’s a whole Victorian puritanical attitude, and it’s coming back very strongly. Go out and dance. Dance against everyone who stops you.”

Derek Jarman pop-mage and visionary, I take my mitre off to you. •

Previously on { feuilleton }
Shooting the Hunter: a tribute to Derek Jarman
Derek Jarman’s landscapes
Derek Jarman album covers
Ostia, a film by Julian Cole
Derek Jarman In The Key Of Blue
The Dream Machine
Jarman (all this maddening beauty)
Sebastiane by Derek Jarman
A Journey to Avebury by Derek Jarman
Derek Jarman’s music videos
Derek Jarman’s Neutron
Mister Jarman, Mister Moore and Doctor Dee
The Tempest illustrated
In the Shadow of the Sun by Derek Jarman
Derek Jarman at the Serpentine
The Angelic Conversation
The life and work of Derek Jarman

Tamara Karsavina’s Salomé

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Salomé: portrait of Tamara Karsavina (1914) by George Barbier.

A slight return to the Russian ballet, and another Barbier portrait. Tamara Karsavina danced lead roles for the Ballets Russes, most notably with Nijinsky in the original performances of The Firebird. The pictures here are from La Tragedie de Salome, a ballet with music by Florent Schmitt, and costumes based on Beardsley’s illustrations by Sergei Sudeikin, another member of the Diaghilev circle.

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Tamara Karsavina as Salomé in the Beecham Russian ballet season, 1913.

Elsewhere on { feuilleton }
The Salomé archive

Previously on { feuilleton }
George Barbier’s Nijinsky

George Barbier’s Nijinsky

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An inevitable one this, given the amount of times that George Barbier’s work has been featured here. Designs on the Dances of Vaslav Nijinsky was a series of prints published in 1913 when the dancer was at the height of his celebrity. All of Nijinsky’s major roles are represented although this isn’t quite the complete set. There did used to be a Japanese site with several galleries of Barbier’s early prints but this has now disappeared.

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Schéhérazade.

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Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune.

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Schéhérazade.

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L’oiseau de feu.

Continue reading “George Barbier’s Nijinsky”

The Rite of Spring and The Red Shoes

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The Red Shoes: Moira Shearer and Léonide Massine.

Emeric is often too easily accused of basing the principal male character of The Red Shoes on Serge Diaghilev, to which he replies: “There is something of Diaghilev, something of Alex Korda, something of Michael, and quite a little bit of me.”

Michael Powell, A Life in Movies (1986)

Despite Emeric Pressburger’s qualificatory comments, there’s a lot more of the Ballets Russes in Powell and Pressburger’s film of The Red Shoes (1948) than first meets the eye. Or so I discovered, since I’d known about the film via my ballet-obsessed mother for years before I’d even heard of Diaghilev or Stravinsky. The most obvious connection is the presence of Léonide Massine who took the leading male roles in Diaghilev’s company following the departure of Nijinsky. He also choreographed Parade, the ballet which featured an Erik Satie score and designs by Picasso. The fraught relationship between Diaghilev and Nijinsky forms the heart of The Red Shoes: Anton Walbrook’s impresario, Boris Lermontov, is the Diaghilev figure while the brilliant dancer who obsesses him, and for whom he creates the ballet of The Red Shoes, is Moira Shearer as Victoria Page. That the dancer happens to be a woman is a detail which makes the film “secretly gay”, as Tony Rayns once put it. Diaghilev and Nijinsky were lovers, and fell out when Nijinsky married; in The Red Shoes Lermontov demands that Vicky choose between a life of art or a life of marriage to composer Julian Craster (Marius Goring). She chooses love but ends up drawn back to art, with tragic consequences that mirror the Hans Christian Andersen story. That story, of course, ends with a young woman dancing herself to death after donning the fatal shoes, a dénouement that’s unavoidably reminiscent of The Rite of Spring.

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Anton Walbrook as Lermontov.

Lermontov: Why do you want to dance?

Vicky: Why do you want to live?

Other parallels may be found if you look for them, notably the figure of Julian Craster who comes to Lermontov as a young and unknown composer just as Stravinsky did with Diaghilev. Craster’s music isn’t as radical as Stravinsky but The Red Shoes was already giving the audience of 1948 enough unapologetic Art with a capital “A” without dosing them with twelve-tone serialism. The film aims for the same combination of the arts as that achieved by Diaghilev, especially in the long and increasingly fantastic ballet sequence. This was another of Powell’s shots at what he called “a composed film” in which dramaturgy and music work to create something unique. The Red Shoes is a film that’s deadly serious about the importance of art, a rare thing in a medium which is so often in the hands of Philistines. In the past I’ve tended to favour other Powell and Pressburger films, probably because I’ve taken The Red Shoes for granted for so long. But the more I watch The Red Shoes the more it seems their greatest film, even without this wonderful train of associations. The recent restoration is out now on Blu-ray, and it looks astonishing for a film that’s over sixty years old.

Seeing as this week has been all about The Rite of Spring, here’s a few more centenary links:

Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, Visualized in a Computer Animation for its 100th Anniversary
• George Benjamin on How Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring has shaped 100 years of music
Strange Flowers visits the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées

Previously on { feuilleton }
The Rite of Spring, 2001
The Rite of Spring, 1970
The Rite of Spring reconstructed

The Rite of Spring reconstructed

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This week sees the centenary of the first performance by Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes of The Rite of Spring at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris. Everyone is familiar with the details of that momentous occasion, and Stravinsky’s score is probably performed more frequently today than any of his other works. Less familiar is the nature of the ballet which caused so much outrage. A combination of the hectic schedule of the Ballets Russes and the loss of choreographer Nijinsky a few months later meant that the choreography was never properly transcribed. This caused problems for subsequent revivals, and the only reason we have an idea of the radical nature of the ballet is thanks to a decade of research by Millicent Hodson and Kenneth Archer, a pair of cultural archaeologists who’ve specialised in reviving ballets. Hodson and Archer scoured archives looking for details of Nicholas Roerich’s costumes, and also traced surviving members of the 1913 company in order to verify their choreographic researches.

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The performance here is a recording of the Joffrey Ballet’s staging of Hodson and Archer’s reconstruction from the late 1980s. I first saw this in 1989 and was aghast at how strange and savage the dancing is compared to classical ballet. Hodson and Archer have since amended some of the performance details but there’s more than enough in this staging to convey why the ballet was so threatening and disturbing to the audience in 1913. Even today, after decades of modern dance it looks surprisingly crude with its dancers stamping their way across the stage. I was also thrilled to see the restoration of Nicholas Roerich’s costumes and decor. In addition to giving the ballet its distinctive look, Roerich contributed the pagan dramaturgy, something that tends to be overlooked when so many big names are competing for attention. (There’s more about Roerich and his involvement with the Rite here.) I always enjoy the way Roerich provides a link between this favourite ballet and the writings of HP Lovecraft. I’ve no idea what Lovecraft would have made of The Rite of Spring but he had a lot of time for Roerich’s paintings, and refers to them in At the Mountains of Madness.

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The recording linked here is annoyingly split into three parts (and the soundtrack is hissy mono) but if you’ve any interest in the original ballet it really needs to be seen.

The Rite of Spring: part one | part two | part three

Previously on { feuilleton }
Vaslav Nijinsky by Paul Iribe
Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes
Pamela Colman Smith’s Russian Ballet
Le Sacre du Printemps
Images of Nijinsky