This week Tate Britain’s Duveen Galleries have been buzzing with life as English National Ballet have been warming up, rehearsing their new Ballet Russes season and inviting the public to get involved in their residency programme which runs through to Sunday.
Tonight they’ll be performing three specially commissioned pieces inspired by works in Picasso and Modern British Art, footage to be posted soon – but we’ve got a peek at some of the rehearsals on Tate’s YouTube channel.
Picasso was one of the most significant artists to collaborate with the Ballet Russes. His work in London in 1919 on their production of The Three-Cornered Hat helped revitalise the company, paving the way for other celebrated artists including Henri Matisse and later Howard Hodgkin and David Hockney to take their work to the stage.
The Three-Cornered Hat was the largest ballet Picasso designed, and he made over forty studies for it in London, ranging from a drawing on a sheet of Savoy Hotel writing paper to a series of gouache and watercolour sketches and several hand-painted cardboard cut-outs. During the first weeks of his stay, Picasso regularly attended the Ballet’s rehearsal sessions in their dance studio in Chandos House on Shaftesbury Avenue, making a number of drawings of the dancers in rehearsal and several portraits of members of the Ballet and its entourage. Picasso also worked in a large top-floor room in a warehouse at 48 Floral Street, Covent Garden. As the plaque outside the building explains, this was the studio of Vladimir and Elizabeth Polunin, Diaghilev’s principal scene painters, and it was here that Picasso executed the set and stage curtain for The Three-Cornered Hat.
Intense work on the ballet meant that Picasso’s opportunities to explore London were few, but we know he was swept into a series of smart social events. Visits he may have made to museums and galleries are unrecorded – but his hotel was close to the National Gallery. Picasso was enthusiastic about the British Museum, and he may even have sought out paintings he was familiar with as a teenager such as Luke Fildes’s The Doctor c.1891 at the then Tate Gallery.
At Picasso’s request, the Bloomsbury critic Clive Bell took him to see the East End and he escorted the artist on a shopping expedition to Savile Row and Jermyn Street. As the photograph of Picasso and his new wife Olga outside the Alhambra Theatre reveals, Picasso took to being kitted out as an English gentleman, cutting a dashing figure in a fine suit accessorised with cane and pipe and topped off with what was to become his favourite headwear – the English bowler. Collaboration stimulated Picasso and he was recognised as the most professional of all the artists Diaghilev employed.
In the spirit of this fusion of art and dance and Picasso’s links to Britain, this unique collaboration offers a rare insight into how English National Ballet rehearse and create commissions. If you came to the rehearsals or are at the performance tonight, I’d love to hear what you thought or see your images.