Exhibition Review: Bassano Ltd – Ballet in Focus; National Portrait Gallery, London

Puttin’ on the Ritz

Ruth St Denis, forever the wallflower, hams it up for Basssano. 1922.

At the turn of the twentieth century the London photographic studio Bassano Ltd was responsible for portraits of the great and the good of British society, including Queen Victoria and the famous image of Lord Kitchener used on First World War recruiting posters. The studio also photographed theatreland’s hoi-poloi, including classical dancers, which is where this small but fascinating exhibition comes in.

Recently re-printed from the original negatives the black and white images of passing and resident ballerati such as Anna Pavlova, Dame Adeline Genée and Phyllis Bedells are beautifully reproduced. There are very few blemishes, the smoothness of skin is astonishing and the detail picked out in the costumes is a pleasure on the eyes. Posed in a relatively formal style, the dancers (almost entirely women) often appear in evening dress, giving the overall effect of a series of society fashion shots rather than a set of dance portraits.

Though badly lit and difficult to locate in the spider-webbed tunnels of the National Portrait Gallery, Ballet in Focus is well-captioned. Each image is accompanied by a brief but useful biography and it soon becomes apparent just how international the ballet scene in London was in the early twentieth century. Dancers from Russia, Canada, America and across Europe abound and so apparently low was British self-confidence in the art-form that many felt compelled to change their names to be taken seriously; hence Hilda Munnings becomes Lydia Sokolova, Olive Craddock transforms into Roshanara and down-to-earth Notts lass Hilda Boot jumps into a telephone box and emerges as Hilda Butova.

Oh! Ninette! Are you sure this is the girl who started British Ballet? In a hat like that?

There is an unusually flattering picture of a young Ninette de Valois taken in 1920 for a production of Oh! Julie! As the international, Eurofying dancers parade around her in their glass cabinets it becomes easier to understand her motivation for wanting to build a British style of ballet that would stand comparison with the rest of the world. Simultaneously it reveals the challenges that lay ahead of her and the true scale of her achievement in establishing The Royal Ballet in such a short space of time.

Ballet in Focus is an excellent little show and runs at London’s National Portrait Gallery until July 24th 2011. It’s in Room 31, Level 1, bafflingly plonked in the middle of a large room dedicated to the artistic conundrum that is Camden Town.

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