On show at the National Portrait Gallery until the end of the week is a rare glimpse of ballet stars from a time when ballet created sensations by pushing the boundaries in terms of form, style and collaborative partnerships.

When most people think of 1920’s ballet, they think of Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. In fact there was a variety of dance being performed in the early 20th Century, and the home of British ballet was none other than Leicester Square at the Alhambra and Empire Theatre. This exhibition shows rare photographs of both British and Russian talents.

…the original “photographer to the stars” in the 1870s…

Portraits to watch out for include English dancer Phyllis Bedells captured before her heyday as a leading light, Anna Pavlova captured at her home and Madame Lillebil Ibsen, who was married to Tancred Ibsen, grandson of playwright Henrik Ibsen. See also Tamara Karsavina and Adolph Bolm posed to represent the ballet The Firebird, which brought the composer Igor Stravinsky fame upon its premiere in 1910.

There are three main photographers, including Alexander Bassano, who was the original “photographer to the stars” in the 1870s and became known for full-page illustrations in magazines such as Tatler and The Sketch. The photographs are stylised and posed and show something of the personality of the subjects.

The photos represent a dedication to the embodiment of the character in every line…

E.O. Hoppé  and Auguste Bert, whose work can be seen in Studies from the Russian Ballet, focus more on photographing the stars in character from various ballets. The photos represent a dedication to the embodiment of the character in every line and movement that is largely not seen in mass media ballet photography today.

This exhibition is well worth hurrying along to see, don’t miss the bust of Margot Fonteyn in Room 31!

The Exhibition runs until 24 July.

Admission is free.


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