Xinghe Chen

Xinghe Chen is a design historian interested in ballet, performance, Chinese export ware, transcultural exchanges, diaspora, and collective identity. With a previous background in the History of Art at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing, her research is a strong combination of visual analysis and material culture.

Research Project

Stage Britain in Ballet: An Analysis of the Influence, Impact and Design Evolution of The Sleeping Beauty, from 1921 to 1946.

My research explores how ‘Britishness’ was presented in Sadler’s Wells’ Sleeping Beauty (1946) through the notions of ‘Gesamtkunstwerk’ and ‘nostalgia’.

Performance, Modern, Europe, Media, Textiles, Methods of Documentation, Lived Experience, Conservation, Memory Studies

Margot Fonteyn as Princess Aurora in the Rose Adagio from The Sleeping Beauty (1946), Sadler's Wells Ballet (later The Royal Ballet). Photograph by Frank Sharman, © Royal Opera House
Margot Fonteyn as Princess Aurora in the Rose Adagio from The Sleeping Beauty (1946), Sadler's Wells Ballet (later The Royal Ballet). Photograph by Frank Sharman, © Royal Opera House.
This research explores the reception and impact of Sadler’s Wells’ Sleeping Beauty in 1946 and analyses Oliver Messel’s designs' role in it. It analyses Messel’s set and costume designs by comparing them with The Sleeping Princess, the previous production by Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, designed by Léon Bakst. 

The Sleeping Princess was involved in the formation process of a collective identity about ‘Britishness’; the tensions between Russian émigrés and British modernists behind The Sleeping Princess’ production and reception laid an initial foundation for Britain to present The Sleeping Beauty in 1946, and had enabled the persistence of ‘Britishness’. As for Messel, he differentiated his designs from Bakst’s. Meanwhile, his design had achieved the evocation of both the experience of The Sleeping Princess, as well as the perception of landscape in Britain and the collective memory of the Second World War; it thus contributed to the reception of The Sleeping Beauty. Messel’s designs took part in the formation process of ‘Britishness’, which helped Britain present a national art and persisted ‘Britishness’ in the post-war period. 
This research also depicts the cultural exchanges between Russia and Britain. The collective nostalgia of both Russian émigrés and British modernists functioned as a strong motivation behind the production and reception of The Sleeping Princess. Yet, the financial (massive budget with little income) and political (the establishment of the USSR and the rise of communism) context had impacted its reception. The latter has even affected the trajectory of British ballet indirectly. It demonstrates how the political, cultural, social and financial context highly influences the theatrical productions and their receptions, which bring the productions into a wider discourse, that even themselves may not intend to.

In conclusion, this dissertation discussed the design evolution of The Sleeping Beauty, which leads to the core argument that The Sleeping Princess had laid the foundation for later professionals to present The Sleeping Beauty, while the later production had inherited some of the previous elements and created something new, which eventually achieved to represent ‘British’ art in the post-war period.

Symposium Presentation ︎︎︎

In Addition

“Transcultural exchanges and the circulation of objects have always fascinated me, and as a design historian, such passion not only motivates me to dive into Ballets Russes but also Chinese export ware.”

Image information: Fan belonging to Julia Neilson (S.1226&A-1984), ca.1900, ©️Victoria and Albert Museum, London

In one of my research projects, I explored the circulation trajectory of a Chinese lacquer fan that once belonged to Julia Neilson, a renowned English actress in the late 19th century and early 20th century. Although made in China, this lacquer fan’s identity changed throughout different stages of its journey. Made in Guangzhou, China, during the mid-19th century for the export market, it has colourfully painted paper leaf with lacquered wooden sticks, which demonstrates the gold-paint skills of lacquer techniques and a combining style of both Chinese and western paintings. Its nature of mass production reveals the historical contexts of the Canton System and world trade.
The association with the export wave of lacquerware indicates its reception in the western world with the ‘Chinoiserie’ decorative style. As for its journey in the Edwardian era, it was used in a completely different context, from connecting with middle-class womanhood to being a representation of Edwardian opulence, which bonded with the duality of nostalgia and modernism from a view of orientalism, it made its way as a prop on London stage. Finally, here at V&A, after the campaign of establishing the theatre collection, it is stored in archives, far detached from its original production centre, functions and interactions.

©2022 by V&A/RCA History of Design MA