After listening to Mily Balakirev’s piano fantasy Islamey (1869), orchestrated by Sergei Lyapunov, Mikhail Fokine was inspired to create a ballet based on the motifs of the Arabian Nights. The ballet was premiered at the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg on 10 March 1912, starring Pavel Gerdt as the Shah, Tamara Karsavina as the Shah’s favourite wife and Mikhail Fokine as the Arab. The passions raging on stage – love, anger, jealousy and despair – were reflected in the vivid colours of the sets and costumes, which were designed by Boris Anisfeld in 1911. Alexander Benois described them as a “kaleidoscope of green, pink, lilack, crimson and orange tones, floating before the eyes and forming unusual chords.” Islamey was part of the programme of a charity show held by the Society for the Support of Needy Writers and Arts (Literary Foundation), presided over by Vladimir Nabokov, father of the famous writer. Anisfeld’s set and costume designs later found their way into Nabokov’s private collection.

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