The Ballets Russes, which revolutionized dance and the entire art world a century ago, leaps back to life in a spectacular multimedia exhibit that’s such a hit at Washington’s National Gallery of Art, it’s been extended to Oct. 6.
The most innovative, creative dance company ever, The Ballets Russes sparked a riot with its premiere of “Rite of Spring” (Le Sacre du Printemps), composed by Igor Stravinsky, choreographed by the legendary Vaslav Nijinsky, and designed by Nicholas Roerich.
“Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes, 1909–1929: When Art Danced with Music” exhibition is sparking riotous enthusiasm, hardly the shouting and booing sparked by “Rite of Spring” at its May 29, 1913 premiere in Paris.
The sumptuous free exhibit is on a grand scale worthy of the world’s most impressive impresario and art director ever, Serge Diaghilev.
It presents more than 150 items, including almost 40 dazzling original costumes, set designs, paintings, sculptures, prints and drawings, photographs, posters, and filmed performances — including the only known film clip ever made of the company. The hugely controlling, dictatorial Diaghilev forbade filming.
The lavish exhibit demonstrates how the phenomenal Ballets Russes gloriously transformed the dance form, which had faded for more than half a century, into a total work of art, and even defined the entire avant-garde movement.
“Nothing of the kind ever existed before Diaghilev and…to him we owe the recent development of choreographic art in the entire world,” wrote Stravinsky in 1953.
The Russian-born impresario Serge Diaghilev, who based his company in Paris, combined the very best of the best 20th century masters in music — his first love — ballet, art, and design, expanding and improving each genre.
Diaghilev blended the enormous talents of:
- Composers Sergei Prokofiev (Diaghilev termed Prokofiev and Stravinsky his musical “children”, said famed dancer Serge Lifar in his biography of Diaghilev); Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov; Claude Debussy; Maurice Ravel; Erik Satie; Alexander Borodin; among others.
- Dancers-choreographers like the legendary Nijinksy and Balanchine.
- Artists Pablo Picasso; Henri Matisse; Léon Bakst; Natalia Goncharova; Georges Rouault; Giorgio de Chirico, for sets and costumes, and even costumes by Chanel.
Many of the company’s works caused scandals if not riots like “Rite of Spring”/Le Sacre du Printemps, which one critic dubbed “Le Massacre du Printemps“.
Another critic massacred the work as “committing a crime against grace”, with Nijinski’s stomping, pounding, primitive movements and Stravinsky’s scraping, dissonant score.
But the Rite, although performed only nine times by the troupe, became “an avatar of modernism” and the company overall “became a testing ground for modernism,” Sarah Kennel, the National Gallery’s associate curator of photographs, told a press preview.
“Diaghilev’s appetite for the new was insatiable.” His company premiered some 100 ballets.
“The Afternoon of A Faun” (L’Après-Midi d’un Faune), Nijinsky’s first choreographic effort provoked the company’s first scandal in 1912 due to its revolutionary, highly erotic, exotic movements. The faun, danced by Nijinsky, satisfies himself with a nymph’s scarf. Mon dieu!
However, the shocked audience and press were countered by renowned artists Rodin and Redon, wrote Boris Kochno in “Diaghilev and The Ballets Russes” (Harper & Row).
Rodin, whose sculpture of Nijinsky as the faun is in the exhibit, termed it “An evening to remember forever.”
So many of these pioneering works are not only remembered today, they are among the most-performed classics of dance and music, certainly including “The Afternoon of A Faun” by Debussy; “Rite of Spring”, “Petrushka”, “Firebird” and others by Stravinsky; “Prince Igor” by Borodin, to name only a few.
The entire exhibit is so memorable, immersing visitors in the theatrical experience of music and film excerpts, most from the Joffrey Ballet with Nureyev, as well as costumes, design drawings, and even curtains measuring about 50 square feet.
Stravinsky’s “Firebird Suite” plays while a 2010 interpretation of “Firebird” by Newangle Productions shows on a gigantic screen, next to an enormous back cloth of a gilded onion-domed medieval Russian town, along with costumes, all designed by Natalia Goncharova for the 1926 Ballets Russes production. Goncharova’s costume for the sorcerer is among the numerous intriguing designs.
Diaghilev (1872-1929) was quite the sorcerer and firebird. His words, emblazoned on the exhibit’s entrance, are the perfect prelude to the show and to the impresario: “I am at first a charlatan, but full of dash; secondly, a great charmer; thirdly, have a great sense of cheek; fourthly, a man…with very few scruples; fifthly, …with a complete absence of talent…My true vocation is to be a patron of the arts.”
Indeed, Diaghilev had failed at art, dance, music, and many other endeavors — he’d even been dismissed by Russia’s Imperial Ballet…
Rimsky-Korsakov once pronounced Diaghilev’s music ‘absurd'”, wrote Lynn Garafola in her introduction to “The Ballets Russes and Its World” (Yale University Press). But as a patron of the arts, Diaghilev commissioned Rimsky-Korsakov to compose “Schéhérazade”, a standard of music and dance, based on tales of “The Arabian Nights”.
Stravinsky praised Diaghilev’s “amazing activity as the inspirer, promoter, and organizer of a long series of artistic events…his extraordinary artistic flair…almost superhuman …enlightened despot…natural leader…” in “The Diaghilev I Knew” article for “Atlantic Monthly” in 1953.
Stravinsky and all Diaghilev’s co-workers of the Ballets Russes knew that “Working with him…meant working solely for the great cause of art.”
This must-be-seen exhibition works for, and splendidly serves, the great cause of art.
For more info: “Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes, 1909–1929: When Art Danced with Music”, National Gallery of Art, on the National Mall at Constitution Avenue and 6th Street, Washington, D.C. Free exhibit May 12 through Oct. 6. It’s the exhibit’s only U.S. venue. The exhibition was organized by London’s Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A), in collaboration with Washington’s National Gallery of Art. Catalogue “Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes 1909–1929”, edited by Jane Pritchard, curator of dance for Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A), London. Pritchard and Geoffrey Marsh co-curated the exhibit “Diaghilev and the Golden Age of the Ballets Russes 1909-1929” at V&A in 2010.