The Rite of Spring and The Red Shoes

redshoes1.jpg

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.

redshoes2.jpg

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

sacre1.jpg

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.

sacre2.jpg

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.

sacre3.jpg

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

The art of Konstantin Somov, 1869–1939

somov01.jpg

Naked Young Man (1937).

The work of Russian painter Konstantin Somov has a decent presence on the web, albeit separated into his public works which comprised portraits, landscapes and illustrations, and his more private, homoerotic studies of voluptuous Russian men. The former can be seen at WikiPaintings or The Atheneum where there’s a recurrent theme of rococo fantasy similar to that being explored by Rex Whistler in Britain between the wars. (Whistler’s work was recently featured at Little Augury.) It is, of course, the other side of Somov’s work that concerns us here. This gives me an opportunity to put titles and dates to some of the paintings circulating on gay art sites with no details at all.

Somov was friends with Sergei Diaghilev, and provided illustrations and designs for Diaghilev’s Mir Iskusstva arts magazine. This year is the centenary of the first performance of The Rite of Spring so expect to hear more about the great Sergei and company in the coming months.

somov02.jpg

The Boxer (1933).

somov03.jpg

Portrait of A Man (1933).

somov04.jpg

A Reclining Man (1936).

Continue reading “The art of Konstantin Somov, 1869–1939”

Weekend links 55

shah1.jpg

From the Ornamental Age series (2009) by Seher Shah.

Seher Shah has recently updated her website giving us a better view of her extraordinary art.

The Demon Regent Asmodeus, my short film of Alan Moore’s reading from the first Moon & Serpent CD, has been posted to YouTube. In other self-promotion news, Mahakala, a drawing of mine from 1984, finds an audience on Tumblr.

• Yet more Moore: Alan Moore & Iain Sinclair “explore psychogeography” at the Cheltenham Festival in June. Alan will also be discussing science and fiction with Robin Ince. Then in July he’s performing with fine fellow Stephen O’Malley at Alexandra Palace as part of Portishead’s I’ll Be Your Mirror festival. They’ll be providing text and music for Harry Smith’s Heaven and Earth Magic.

In most countries, parents can tell their kids that if they work hard and do everything right, they could grow up to be the head of state and symbol of their nation. Not us. Our head of state is decided by one factor, and one factor alone: did he pass through the womb of one aristocratic Windsor woman living in a golden palace? The US head of state grew up with a mother on food stamps. The British head of state grew up with a mother on postage stamps. Is that a contrast that fills you with pride? (…) Earlier this month, David Cameron lamented that too many people in Britain get ahead because of who their parents are. A few minutes later, without missing a beat, he praised the monarchy as the best of British. Nobody laughed.

Johann Hari kicks the royals.

• Related to the above: Lydia Leith’s royal wedding sick bag.

Beautiful Century relates a dispiriting (and very common) encounter with Google’s blog prudery. The new Beautiful Century is now at Tumblr.

• In the future, everything will be on Tumblr for fifteen minutes. Among this week’s discoveries there’s Writers and Kitties, attractive men and vintage photos at Stuff Doer, and all manner of things at Maggs Counterculture including a picture by Jim Leon I hadn’t seen before.

shah2.jpg

From the Ornamental Age series (2009) by Seher Shah.

“Sidewalk cafés, free from conservative business attire…” Film of groovy Greenwich Village in the late 1960s. Related: groovier fashions in Art Nouveau Barcelona.

Ai Weiwei’s Blog: Writings, Interviews, and Digital Rants, 2006-2009, a book from MIT Press.

The Delian Mode, a film about electronic musician Delia Derbyshire by Kara Blake.

Austin Osman Spare, a biography of the artist and occultist by Phil Baker.

• Lando Jones is giving away three limited edition prints of his artwork.

Plano Creativo, a blog (in Spanish) by Alejandro Jodorowsky.

B Magazine is a new publication for gay Americans.

Diaghilev gets his due at Coilhouse.

Baby’s On Fire (1973) by Brian Eno | Baby’s On Fire (1976) by 801 | Baby’s On Fire (from Velvet Goldmine) (1998) by The Venus In Furs.

Weekend links 33

andrews1.jpg

Blue Sky Noise (2010) by Esao Andrews.

Franz Xaver Messerschmidt is the first exhibition in the United States devoted exclusively to the 18th-century sculptor. Related: an earlier post about the artist’s work.

• How are the team behind War Horse planning to follow up their smash hit? With a gay love story performed by puppets. Related: Achilles (1995) by Barry JC Purves.

• More great posts at A Journey Round My Skull: Czechoslovakian Expose VI and Black Cradle of Bright Life, fifteen works by the Macedonian artist Vangel Naumovski (1924–2006).

Top 10 Anti-Gay Activists Caught Being Gay. Related: “Fuck your feelings,” in which columnist Dan Savage gets righteously impatient when a correspondent complains. As Savage says, people who use their faith as a stick to beat gay people contribute to an atmosphere of intolerance in which kids are bullied for being gay (or appearing to be), or transgender, or merely different, and kill themselves as a result. Over the past couple of weeks there’s been an upsurge of US media attention to the most recent suicides; Savage inaugurated the It Gets Better project in order to help. Also related: God Loves Poetry.

andrews2.jpg

Meigh (2010) by Esao Andrews.

Antony Hegarty enthuses about Shoot Yer Load, one of the scurrilous 12″ singles released by my Savoy colleagues in the 1980s. Antony and the Johnsons have a new album out, Swanlights, on Secretly Canadian.

When the future of music was a rainbow hued parabola: book designer John Gall collects old synthesizer manuals.

Fantastic Memories (1944) by Maurice Sandoz, illustrated by Salvador Dalí.

Urban optometry: life as a London crane operator at BLDGBLOG.

• Today is 10/10/10 which means it’s Powers of Ten Day.

These New Puritans: a band like no other.

Art Nouveau: a virtual exhibition.

Diaghilev: Lord of the dance.

Flaming Telepaths (1974) by Blue Öyster Cult; Flaming Telepaths (2005) by Espers.