Sonia Delaunay, Costume for ’Cléopâtre’ , Ballets Russes, c. 1918
In the early twentieth century British modernists such as Ezra Pound and Wyndham Lewis scorned and satirised the oriental exoticism prevalent in the Ballets Russes productions that were becoming increasingly popular among the upper classes. These productions became associated with a ‘High Bohemia’ and decadence, and were deemed ‘regressive’ by the avant-garde, owing more to Victorian aestheticism than modern aesthetics. Pound’s poem ‘Les Millwin’ refers to Michel Fokine’s ballet Cléopâtre, which was first brought to life in London in 1911 by Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, with elaborate stage sets and costuming that delighted audiences. The Millwins immortalised in Pound’s poem were , for the poet, typical of the wealthy aristocrats who attended these spectacles.
The little Millwins attend the Russian Ballet.
The mauve and greeenish souls of the little Millwins
Were seen lying along the upper seats
Like so many unused boas.
The turbulent and undisciplined host of art students –
Was before them.
With arms exalted, with fore-arms
Crossed in great futuristic X’s, the art students
Exulted, they beheld the splendours of Cleopatra.
And the little Millwins beheld these things;
With their large and anaemic eyes they looked out upon this configuration.
Let us therefore mention the fact,
For it seems to us worthy of record.