Art leads where it will. Leon Bakst had every intention of being a conventional artist. Indeed, he painted many portraits and other works of art which most museums would today be proud to display. But his claim to immortality comes from a different realm altogether, the world of dance. It was his work with the Ballet Russes and the titans of his age like Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Diaghilev, Nijinski, Anna Pavlova, Ida Rubenstein, Michel Fokine—and so many other titanic names that it strains credulity to see them listed—it was this work that broke the world of the theatre wide open and left Europe gasping at what miracles could be shown on stage.
He did not simply dress a dancer. He worked with dancers and choreographers so that each piece enhanced the motion of the dancer and reinforced the story itself. Audiences were shocked to see sheer fabrics beneath which the dancers wore no tights relying instead on color and movement to keep them just short of salaciousness.
His sketch for Nijinski’s faun is breathtakingly beautiful, and it must have been stunning to watch this wizard move across the stage. Bakst mastered all aspects of design. This description from Romola Nijinsky, the dancer’s wife, says it all: “The dancers were instructed by Bakst how to make themselves up. They had very whitish-pink eyes, like those of a pigeon. He painted them first, himself. They wore no tights and had nothing under their pleated gauze tunics, which were cream color and painted by him with the motif of Greek keys, some in light blue, others in apple green…They all wore tightly fitting wigs wound from cords painted in gold, their formal locks falling across their breasts. The girls really gave the impression of Greek statues in a frieze. Bakst took infinite pains to make them so and the effect was exquisite.” (Nijinsky, by Romola Nijinsky, Gollancz, London, 1937)
This bold, almost overdone theatricality simply blew away the audiences of the day. These were by far the finest dancers of their generation, and Bakst ensured that they spent every moment on the stage draped as their stature and passion deserved. It must have been wonderful to experience that incredible locus of aural, kinetic, and visual art thundering onto the stages of Paris like a dragon pouncing from the east.
His relationship with the Ballet Russes was a complicated one, with many on again-off again episodes as one might well expect when so many entitled egos go at it for a while. When he died he was no longer associated with the group. But his contribution is honored to this day, and his sense of design is virtually timeless; many a set designer or costumer, even now, will drag out these old prints and look for clues to see how they, too, might look really modern. If you doubt me, check out some of the edgier Manga some time. There’s nothing like a cutting edge.