Ballet in Focus, National Portrait Gallery, London

2.00

Dancers in the music halls of time

What do we know about ballet in England at the turn of the 20th century? Well, this was the moment – the exact year was 1911 – when the Ballets Russes took London by storm. And if you want more on this ever-popular subject, an exhibition is running at the V&A which not only explores in considerable detail the achievements of Sergei Diaghilev, but also tells the story of the creative collaborations between the company and a panoply of extraordinary talents that included Cocteau, Picasso, Man Ray and Matisse.

By comparison, this show at the National Portrait Gallery is a relatively small-scale affair, hidden at the back of Room 31, in the midst of a display called Camden Town and Beyond. Ridiculous. And yet these two long, double-sided cabinets, containing about 40 black and white portrait photographs, tell an important story.

With Diaghilev came a new prestige, a sense that ballet held a vibrant role in educated society, and the advent of the male ballet dancer as a subject for awe and reverence. What has been forgotten, however, is that long before the Ballets Russes arrived, ballet was a popular form of entertainment in the music hall.

The NPG exhibition displays photographs of some of the ballet stars who trod the boards of the Empire and the Alhambra, Leicester Square. All were taken by Bassano, a fashionable Baker Street studio. The display shows us some of the heroines of ballet as popular entertainment and makes clear that at least some of those who took the world by storm in the Ballets Russes had been dancing regularly in London already.

Before the costumes of Léon Bakst, there were other kinds of exoticism to marvel at. Here are two photographs of Olive Craddock, who was born to Anglo-Indian parents and who performed as a fabled Indian princess, Roshanara. We see her posing, arms snaking up and around her head, hands in the pose of serpents about to strike us dead. Her rings are the serpents' eyes. Nearby is Dame Adeline Genée, famed for her light, precise footwork (and no slouch as a mimic, either) and remembered for her starring role as Swanilda in Coppélia, in 1906. Sometimes the ballerinas are posed as if for action, bent like bows or with arms swept over heads. At other times they look like demure dames, posing for their portraits.

In the last section of the exhibition we see a recently acquired portfolio of sepia photogravures that features some of the stars of the Ballets Russes, photographed by EO Hoppé and Auguste Bert and published by the Fine Art Society in 1913. Tamara Karsavina, playing the lead in Fokine's Firebird, shudders her wing-like arms beside Adolphe Bolm, who plays the crossbow-wielding Prince Ivan Tsarevich. The crossbow is pointing straight at her. Bakst's costumes exoticise Russian peasant dress extravagantly. Nijinsky, in a body stocking complete with appliqué rose petals, is nearby, looking like a super-energised pin. History is in the making.

To 24 July (020 7306 0055; www.npg.org.uk)

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

music
Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Strictly
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
    La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

    Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

    The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
    10 best high-end laptops

    10 best high-end laptops

    From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
    Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

    Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

    The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
    Adam Gemili interview: 'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

    'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

    After a year touched by tragedy, Adam Gemili wants to become the sixth Briton to run a sub-10sec 100m
    Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
    Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

    Meet Racton Man

    Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
    Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

    Garden Bridge

    St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

    An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
    Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

    Joint Enterprise

    The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
    Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

    Freud and Eros

    Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum