The Victoria and Albert Museum find secretly recorded footage in the British Pathé archive of the beautiful and famously unfilmed Ballets Russes

Montreux, Switzerland in June 1928.

We’re so excited here in the British Pathé archive to hear that Jane Pritchard, curator of the V&A’s recent Ballets Russes exhibition, has made such an intriguing discovery in the British Pathé film archive, announcing on her blog last week that she had identified footage of the Ballets Russes, a phenomena considering previous claims from various respected corners of the dance world that no such footage existed.

The tiny fragment of film in our online archive is called ‘Festival of Narcissus’ and depicts the Ballets Russes performing Les Sylphides at the 1923 Fêtes de Narcisses at Montreaux in Switzerland. The influential director Sergei Diaghilev never allowed his incredible dancers to be filmed, claiming (quite cleverly from a financial perspective according to some cynics) that their brilliance could not be captured on camera, which makes this clip all the more rare.

Well evidently such beauty could be captured on film, and this beautiful fragment of a performance was hidden away for over 80 years in British Pathé’s Pinewood vaults under the misleading title ‘Festival of Narcissus’! Not only was the formidable dance troupe cited incorrectly, but the lead dancer Serge Lifar was noted down as being a woman, as a result of his rather splendid wig and finely toned legs, no doubt causing more confusion for researchers at the V&A as they tried to identify this piece of potentially groundbreaking or possibly extraneous footage!

It has now been confirmed, with the help of a London Ballet Circle member Susan Eastwood, that this mysterious (and secretly recorded) reel does indeed show the famous Ballet Russes, making it the only known existing footage of Sergei Diaghilev’s divine project.

Since British Pathé opened their archive’s doors to the public last year, giving free and unlimited viewing to over 90,000 historically protected reels, all sorts of fun discoveries have been made, and there is still a long way to go. Only last month footage of Mrs. Henderson at the Windmill theatre, and a great clip of Germaine Greer at a Rolling Stones concert were discovered.

The Pathé cameramen who wrote the original canister notes in pencil would have been stunned if they knew that the entire world would one day have access to their hectic reel notes, as would the groovey archivists of decades past who added their own mad and frantic scrawlings along the way!

If you are a dance or ballet enthusiast then please do have a good rummage on – it is a colossal digital archive, and as Jane Pritchard has proved, there is still much to be uncovered and understood within it.

Watch the Ballets Russes on film here:

Read Jane Pritchard’s wonderful blog post ‘I Eat My Words’ here:


Further Related links:

Maev Kennedy’s piece in the Guardian:

An article about this discovery in the Dancing Times:

Click on this image to view more ballet videos in the British Pathe film archive online.



Words: Jack Cullen

Author: British Pathé

British Pathé holds the world's finest newsreel collection. We also represent the Reuters historical collection. All 220K films are viewable on our website.

Leave a reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: