Tag Archives: Orientalism

Bayadères and devadāsīs

In 19th-century Europe, the term bayadère—derived from the Portuguese bailadeira—referred to a Romantic concept of the Hindu devadāsī, a female temple dancer.

“Who has not heard of the bayadères,” gushed Victor Dandré, Anna Pavlova’s companion and manager, “so graceful and of such incomparable beauty, dancing sacred dances in temples and secular ones at feasts?”

In fact, Europeans had virtually no information on this subject at all, but that did not deter some of the most distinguished names in classical ballet from conjuring up their own images of devadāsīs and presenting them on the stage.

Thanks to travelers’ tales and other writings, India appeared to Europeans as a fabled land, steeped in mysteries, and abounding in stirring narratives of love, hate, devotion, and valor. At a time when the real devadāsīs were scorned at home, their image functioned as an icon of Indian dance in the West.

This according to “Devadasis in tights and ballet slippers, what?” by Mohan Khokar (Sruti 154 [July 1997] pp. 21–26); this periodical, along with many others, is covered in our new RILM Abstracts of Music Literature with Full Text collection.

Above and below, excerpts from what has proved to be the most enduring example, La bayadère by Ludwig Minkus and Marius Petipa.

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Le style ballets russes

The influence of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes on the worlds of dance and music has been well-documented; less known today are the reverberations that the company’s productions sent straight to the heart of Parisian fashion and interior design. Schèhèrezade, the hit of the 1910 season, epitomized the exoticism of “le style ballets russes” for designers and their galvanized patrons.

The first, and perhaps the foremost, to espouse the company’s saturated hues, sumptuous fabrics, and seductive Orientalism was Paul Poiret, who daringly introduced harem pants and turbans (inset), with boldly colored silks and velvets. Poiret also popularized brightly colored interiors, replacing conventional furniture with divans and tasselled cushions.

The company’s visits to London had a similar impact. “Before you could say Nijinsky” Osbert Lancaster recalled in Homes, sweet homes (London: Murray, 1939) “the pastel shades which had reigned supreme on the walls of the Mayfair for almost two decades were replaced by a variety of barbaric hues—jade green, purple, every variety of crimson and scarlet, and, above all, orange.” He added that the style’s adherents had “a tendency to regard a room not so much as a place to live in, but as a setting for a party.”

This according to “The wider influence of the Russian ballet” by Stephen Calloway, an essay included in Diaghilev and the golden age of the Ballets Russes, 1909–1929 (London: Victoria and Albert Museum, 2010). Above, one of George Lepape’s illustrations for Les choses de Paul Poiret vues par Georges Lepape (Paris: 1911), a book commissioned and published by Poiret in a limited edition of 300.

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Liberace’s taste

Władziu Valentino Liberace’s Las Vegas home represented the democratization of aristocracy, a do-it-yourself coronation, the people’s palace. It is the apotheosis of décor as persona and persona as décor.

The Moroccan Room (above, click to enlarge) is a tile-and-glass atrium with Tivoli lights made from a sundeck that Liberace had always found either too hot or too cold. The large convex sofa in flame-stitch upholstery (foreground) sounds a proper note of sloe-eyed languor, while pairs of Italian-Baroque-style blackamoors—referred to by Liberace’s lover Scott Thorson as “harem boys”—support the fireplace mantel (left) and the candelabras that flank the bar (rear).

This according to “Liberace’s taste” by Grant Mudford and Susan Yalevich (Nest 10 [2002] pp. 588–590). Below, Liberace plays Tiger rag in 1969, when he was the highest-paid entertainer in the world.

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