Sergei Diaghilev’s Les Ballets Russes presented the underwater ballet segment of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s 1898 fairytale opera Sadko in New York in 1916, with designs for costumes by the Russian artist and designer Natalia Goncharova and scenery designed by Boris Anisfeld. Goncharova imagined vivid marine creatures, such as the seahorse and the squid characters for this epic Russian folk poem set in Novgorod, Russia, in which Sadko, an impoverished musician, leaves his wife in search of his fortune. He plays his guslei by the shores of Lake Ilmen, captivating Princess Volkova, the youngest daughter of the King of the Sea. Following the spectacle of their wedding, attended by monsters of the deep and fantastic sea creatures, Sadko returns to his wife in Novgorod and the Princess is transformed into the Volkova River. This Ballets Russes dance interpretation of the story was based on the sixth scene of the opera, The kingdom under the sea, focusing of the festivities of Sadko and Volkova’s wedding.
Goncharova’s knowledge and love of Russian folk dress can be seen in her design of these costumes and in the shape of the headdresses for the marine characters. The seahorse’s dappled patterns and the squid costume’s undulating tentacles, outlined in metallic lamé over ultramarine silk, allowed the dancers to fluidly interpret Michel Fokine’s choreography, suggesting the movement of water and the shimmer and iridescence of marine creatures. These costumes are among the National Gallery of Australia’s extensive collection of costumes from the Ballets Russes companies of 1909 to 1940.
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2014
From: Collection highlights: National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2014