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Two exhibitions

Posted on December 21, 2021

A Dressing Room at Drury Lane 1951

Main image: Laura Knight, The Dressing Room at Drury Lane (1922). Image reproduced with permission of The Estate of Dame Laura Knight DBE.

Designed by Isamu Noguchi (who was born in 1904 and died in 1988), a sunken stone garden and a giant tilted cube that balances on one corner form part of New York City’s permanent landscape, available all day every day to passersby. Noguchi’s Garden of Peace at UNESCO headquarters in Paris and his sculpture garden at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem are also permanently open to visitors and the elements.

Much of his output, however, is not so public, if you don’t count the ubiquitous paper lanterns that hang in student flats and chic dress shops, which in his hands became light sculptures of all shapes and sizes. The Barbican Art Gallery redresses this imbalance by displaying the full range of his extraordinary creations, including examples and images of monuments, masks, models and ceramics, along with free-standing scupture in marble, stone and wood.

Least visible to the general public are his dance designs. The first, executed in 1922, took the form of papier-mâché masks worn by a Japanese interpretive dancer, Michio Ito, in a play influenced by Noh theatre. In the late 1920s, when Noguchi was in New York producing portrait busts, he made two of Martha Graham, for whom he then designed his first stage set. Frontier (1935) launched an artistic collaboration that extended through 25 dances, including her majestic Greek cycle, and 53 years.

Photographs: Left Martha Graham with “Spider Dress and Serpent” for Graham’s Cave of the Heart, 1946. Photograph by CRIS ALEXANDER. The Noguchi Museum Archives, 01619. ©INFGM / ARS – DACS. Right Ruth Page in The Expanding Universe: Costume Sack, 1932.  Martha Graham in costumes designed by Isamu Noguchi. Photograph by F S LINCOLN.

Though her repertoire is invisible in the UK and seldom danced in Europe, the exhibition holds tantalising glimpses of it in short clips from black and white recordings of Frontier and Hérodiade (1944); Graham herself performs in the latter. For Frontier, a solo set against a rope and a fence, Noguchi explained, “I used a rope, nothing else. It’s not the rope that is the sculpture, but it is the space which it creates that is the sculpture. It is an illusion of space… And it is in that spatial concept that Martha moves and creates her dances. In that sense, Martha is the sculptor herself.”

Look at the simplicity of that design and how much it evokes – Noguchi described it as “emotionally charged space.” In Hérodiade, the carved, bone-like shapes of the setting “are symbolic or gestural tools she was using. They were an extension of her body.” Unlike any costume you’ve ever seen, Medea’s dress of brass tendrils for Cave of the Heart (1946) cages the character physically in her own legend; Noguchi called it “her flaming nimbus dress.” 

Unfortunately, there is no mention of his luminous designs for Balanchine’s Orpheus (1948), which regularly return to the stage at New York City Ballet. Yet Noguchi’s involvement with Graham represents a seminal facet of dance history that rarely sees the light of day in this country, and no dance enthusiast will want to miss the chance to examine it.

Lubov Tchernicheva 1921

Image: Laura Knight, Lubov Tchernicheva (1921). Image reproduced with permission of The Estate of Dame Laura Knight DBE.

Laura Knight was documenting history in another way, not by making it, as Noguchi did, but by sharing her intimate contact with wildly diverse subjects through her paintings. Born in 1877 and having achieved enormous popular success, she was the first woman to be elected to full membership of the Royal Academy and the first female artist to be made a Dame of the British Empire (at her investiture, she ran into Lilian Baylis, who, the same day, became a Companion of Honour). She died in 1970. A comprehensive retrospective at the MK Gallery in Milton Keynes celebrates the lively curiosity that propelled Knight from landscape paintings of Cornwall to vivid portraits of Roma gypsies and detailed depictions of women workers during World War II.

One room concentrates on her enthusiastic immersion in ballet and circus, bringing together paintings, drawings, china tableware, even a decorated lampshade. The dance pictures take us to Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, to Anna Pavlova’s house in Hampstead, and behind the scenes of well-known illusions produced in public. At the circus, Knight painted clowns, aerialsts, acrobats and horseback riders, often in performance, but the ballet paintings pinpoint moments of preparation and relaxation.

Knight took up dance lessons for fun at the age of 32 but quickly exchanged her casual interest for a close involvement with professionals. She gained permission to work backstage at London’s Empire Theatre after seeing Adeline Genée dance there, and maintained her vantage point in the wings during Pavlova’s performances at the Palace and several Ballets Russes seasons, both at the Royal Opera House and, later, at the Coliseum, where “No outsider but myself then haunted the stage. I was there for every show.”  

Fascinated by the bustle of the dressing room and the meticulous rituals of making up and warming up, she stretched her own talent in an attempt to do justice to the dancers, later claiming she learned from them while she learned about them. With a few exceptions, notably a portrait of the imperious Lubov Tchernicheva, she presents them in full costume or practice clothes, so we see such stars as Tamara Karsavina, Lydia Lopokova and Stanislas Idzikowski at work or mid-gesture as they rehearse or observe.

Apparently Knight’s facility for drawing and understanding of space were innate. At 15, when her family had no money, she was teaching at the Nottingham Art School where she’d been a student two years earlier. She wrote that “I could draw an elaborate piece of ornament – both sides simultaneously with two pieces of chalk on a blackboard.” As an adult, however, “I firmly believe that the most valuable study I have ever had was in my attempt to draw the ballet,” she declared. “Perfection of balance and line became my ideal.” The immediacy of her sketches, produced as fast as the movement they captured, stops time in its tracks, revealing the action, the dancer and Knight’s perception of them simultaneously.

 

Barbara Newman’s books about ballet include Grace under Pressure; The Illustrated Book of Ballet Stories for children; a volume of interviews, Striking a Balance, and its follow-up, Never Far from Dancing. She has written for Dancing Times since 1984 and served as the dance critic for Country Life from 1990 to 2016. She archives all her work at http://barbaranewmandance.net

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