Seducer, dictator, charlatan, showman, fixer, scandal-monger, devil.
Serge Dia-ghilev was many things to many people during the 20 years he directed the Ballets Russes – a phenomenon that blew away old notions of dance, music and design with a force whose effects are still palpable today. For protegés such as Stravinsky, Chanel, Picasso, Matisse and Nijinsky he was a star-maker, too, with a nose for PR that makes Max Clifford look shy and retiring.
Yet the man himself is remarkably absent from the V&A's exhibition. Diaghilev and the Golden Age of the Ballets Russes, 1909-1929 is all about them, not him. As a man who lived in hotels and owned very little, a top hat and opera glasses (neither of them his) must represent his personal style.
There's no such dearth of material in terms of professional product. The V&A has some 500 Ballets Russes costumes in its permanent collection that rarely get aired, and 71 of them make it into this show. These include the ikat-weave outfits worn in the Polovtsian Dances (a signature work that featured in one in four Ballet Russes programmes over two decades), and costumes from the infamous, short-lived Rite of Spring (little used and still vibrant in colour). Telling, too, is a small selection of ballet footwear: satin pumps and an embroidered boot once worn by the great Tamara Karsavina, Alicia Markova and Lydia Lopokova, all child-size, a British size 3 1/2 at most.
Admirably, though, the curators have resisted the temptation to simply empty the V&A's store rooms and put the stuff behind glass. Real imagination has been applied to the problem of how to suggest the live essence of a wildfire stage phenomenon that in truth is the very definition of ephemeral, a wisp of exotic perfume that drifted across the cultural fault lines of the First World War and Russian Revolution, providing a heady escapism. Asking a stage designer to "set" the exhibition was a good move, and Tim Hatley does Diaghilev's spirit proud. You walk through moodily lit rooms whose walls are saturated with Ballets Russes colour: ruby red, a singing emerald green, and a long gallery in midnight blue whose exhibits lean on or hang from a backstage pile-up of blue-black step-ladders, bentwood chairs and upright pianos. It's highly evocative.
Scale is used strikingly, too. Inspired by the vastness of Picasso's frontcloth for the ballet Le Train Bleu (an upscaled copy of his Two Women Running on a Beach – magnificent), entire rooms are given over to giant audio-visual collages beamed on walls, insinuating the essence of The Firebird in an animated scrapbook of archive photos, letters and posters. Cleverly interspersed with these is a recent performance by ENB's Begona Cao, just her feathered head, then her fluttering hands and feet, arrestingly filmed in silhouette. Accompanied by Stravinsky's score blasted at full volume, it's a powerful experience.
Elsewhere, though, music is a problem. Though it's laudable to want to explain developments in composition in arts-TV format, the voiceover noise leaks so badly into other areas that you long for someone to pull the plug on it. Better (perhaps because screened in a room with fewer sounds to fight it) is a mini-documentary in which the amiable Richard Alston imagines what he would do if commissioned by Diaghilev to make a dance to a piece of Tchaikovsky. For visitors who have little idea how a work comes into being in a ballet studio, this offers valuable information in a friendly format.
The item that most tickled my own imagination was more mundane, though. It was the itemised Venice hotel bill of Diaghilev's final week of life in 1929. His laundry bill was huge. His consumption of lemonade, ditto. But despite being desperately ill, he never once took a meal in his room. Now there's a showman for you.
Exhibition continues to 9 Jan, 2011 (020-7942 2000). A season of Ballets Russes films is at the BFI Southbank (020-7928 3232) to 12 Oct
Jenny Gilbert has high hopes for Afterlight, a new full-evening dance work by Russell Maliphant, inspired by the legacy of Diaghilev