Special Report

When Art Overwhelmed Dance

Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes, now on display in a must-see exhibit in Washington, D.C.

By 6.7.13

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For those unfamiliar with dance history, the Ballets Russes was the legendary Russian ballet company that at one time included Anna Pavlova and Vaslav Nijinsky, created a riot with its premier of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, and gave George Balanchine -- the greatest ballet choreographer of the 20th century-- his start. Led by Russian impresario Serge Diaghilev, the Ballets Russes broke new theatrical ground with its avant-garde fusion of music, art and dance. It wowed audiences from Paris to Portland, and beyond. Following Diaghilev’s untimely death in 1929, however, the company collapsed in debt. Now there’s a National Gallery of Art exhibit in Washington, D.C., Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes, 1909-1929: When Art Danced with Music, which provides a rare opportunity to step into a time machine and glimpse what it must have been like to actually see the famed company in its heyday. The exhibit features original Ballets Russes costumes, set designs, photographs, and artifacts, gathered from museums and collections all over the world, along with filmed re-creations of some of the company’s most famous ballets.

As the title of this exhibit implies, there could have been no Ballets Russes without Serge Diaghilev. Originally, his passion was art and music, not dance. He was an art critic, co-founded and edited Russia’s first fine arts magazine, and curated successful exhibitions of Russian painting in St. Petersburg and Paris. He also staged opera -- his production of Boris Godunov was a huge hit in 1908 Paris. (One of the ornate costumes from his production is on display in this exhibit.) But Diaghilev’s ambitions were forever altered by the chaos and repressions of the Russian Revolution. He immigrated to Europe, and began to produce ballets for his own company. They were cheaper to stage than opera, there was less competition, and it wasn’t difficult to convince major talent from Russia’s imperial ballet system to work abroad.

As a ballet impresario, Diaghilev’s highly cultured tastes in art and music were the key elements in developing the distinctive aesthetic that characterized his company. He jettisoned evening-length story ballets in favor of a pastiche of shorter, colorful, diverse works. And he elevated the musical, scenic, and costume design elements of his productions to an equal partnership with dance; so much, in fact, that they often overshadowed it. He hired Russian avant-garde painters -- and then artists who would become some of the most celebrated painters of 20th century -- to work on his productions. Léon Bakst, Alexander Benois, Nikolai Roerich, George Raoult, Henri Matisse, Giorgio de Chirico, Salvador Dali, Joan Miró and Pablo Picasso, among others, designed scenery or costumes for the Ballets Russes. There are beautiful examples of some of their work in this exhibit. My favorites are Bakst’s costumes for Schéhérazade, and his gorgeous watercolors for Afternoon of a Faun and Narcisse.

To create scores for his new ballets, Diaghilev engaged a veritable pantheon of 20th century composers, including Sergei Prokofiev, Igor Stravinsky, Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel, Eric Satie, Manuel De Falla, and Francis Poulenc. Theatergoers, who came for the spectacle of seeing exotic dances staged in rich and colorful settings, found themselves listening to music they might never have approached in a concert setting. Diaghilev became the avatar of the avant-garde and the leading artistic trend setter of his day.

To give viewers an idea of the excitement generated by the stars of the Ballets Russes, this exhibit devotes considerable space to artifacts celebrating the company’s biggest superstar, Vaslav Nijinsky. Through these objects, it’s possible to judge his approximate height and weight, and get a feeling for the intense reaction his performances generated. No videos of Nijinsky dancing are known to exist. But I could have done without the exhibit’s stuffed mannequin, suspended from the ceiling in a grand jeté, dressed in one of the costumes Nijinsky wore in Le Spectre de la rose. A much more meaningful relic of this great dancer is on the wall near the stairs to the exhibit’s second floor: Nijinsky’s agonizing self-portrait, drawn while he was hospitalized during a mental breakdown.

For all its legendary reputation in the dance world, however, dance may have been the weakest element of the Ballets Russes, which this exhibit unintentionally points out. The company’s roster of dancers did include many celebrated soloists. But after Diaghilev fired Nijinsky, and Russia staunched the exodus of its artists to the West, the Ballets Russes had to make do with much lesser talent, particularly in the corps de ballet. An example is provided at the beginning of the exhibit, in the only video clip of the company known to exist. It shows the Ballets Russes rehearsing Les Sylphides in 1928. Principal soloist Adolph Bolm bounds around the outdoor stage with soft limbs, no line and unpointed feet. The corps de ballet behind him shuffles about in uneven lines, with arms out of sync -- hardly the stuff of legends.

In addition, the quality of the dances produced for the company was adversely affected by Diaghilev’s fickle and idiosyncratic relationship with his choreographers. He developed the habit of promoting dancers who were his protégés and lovers -- Vaslav Nijinsky, Léonide Massine and Serge Lifar -- to the position of choreographer, with mixed results. Mikhail Fokine, a bona fide dance innovator whose work helped put the company on the map, left the Ballets Russes after being passed over for plum assignments in favor of a Diaghilev paramour. Diaghilev even let set and costume designers create the dances for several of his ballets, as noted in this exhibit. And Diaghilev was diffident about George Balanchine, whose contract was reportedly renewed only after the intervention of the company’s régisseur.

The uneven quality of Ballets Russes choreography can be seen in the filmed re-creations that are part of this exhibit. The clip of the Joffrey Ballet’s recreation of Nijinsky’s Rite of Spring shows dancers jerking, stomping and shrugging in angular frenzy, trying to keep up with the music’s shifting rhythms. Stravinsky complained it was a mess-- a simplistic attempt at rhythmic mimicry, with no discernible structure of its own. The same is true for the re-creation of Nijinsky’s Afternoon of a Faun. The exhibit film shows dancers walking around in profile, imitating poses from Greek and Egyptian art -- a dance vocabulary completely at odds with Debussy’s impressionist score. And while Massine went on to have a successful career as a choreographer after the Ballets Russes, his creations have largely fallen out of production. Even Fokine’s ballets for Diaghilev are infrequently performed, and then primarily as novelties. Only George Balanchine’s work for the Ballets Russes survives in repertory, and then for a grand total of two ballets, one of which has been revised and stripped of its Diaghilev trappings. The other one, Prodigal Son, is still performed close to its original version; a film clip is included in this exhibit. It’s instructive that after he left the Ballets Russes, Balanchine went in exactly the opposite direction of his mentor, creating signature works with no story, no scenery, and no costumes except for practice clothes. Such is the choreographic legacy of the Ballets Russes.

So it’s curious that the documentary accompanying this exhibit extols Diaghilev as the father of 20th century dance innovation. If nothing else, this exhibit illustrates that design, not dance, was king of the Ballets Russes. And indeed, some of the design elements are captivating, as art. There are two magnificent, full-length Ballets Russes backdrops -- Natalia Goncharova’s city of golden cupolas for The Firebird, and Alexander Schervashidze’s copy of Picasso’s The Dancers, created for Le Train bleu. But some of the costume designs, while extraordinary, are also downright bizarre. Take, for example, the towering cubist cardboard cut outs Picasso designed as costumes for the ballet Parade. Apparently, no one at the time was concerned that only the dancer’s feet and arms were visible and capable of moving. Or Pavel Tchelitchev’s dresses for the corps de ballet in Ode, featuring rigid, full-length skirts, long gloves, headscarves, and mesh fencing masks covering the face. The visual impact was reportedly stunning, but was there any dancing involved? Then there are Mikhail Larionov’s costumes for The Tale of the Buffoon; they are colorful cubist textile art, but their stiffness restricts freedom of movement. This preference for visual impact over movement quality helps explain why very few of Diaghilev’s celebrated productions survive in modern repertory.

So what were the unique contributions of the Ballets Russes to 20th century dance? First, it positioned ballet as a serious art form worthy of the highest artistic collaboration. Second, it introduced thousands of people around the world to classical ballet, paving the way for its explosive development in the 20th century, especially in the United States. Third, it germinated one of the most celebrated artistic partnerships of the 20th century -- the collaboration between Igor Stravinsky and George Balanchine. For these and many other reasons, it’s worthwhile for dance lovers -- and anyone interested in 20th century art -- to attend this exhibit, which runs until September 2, 2013. Like an archeological dig, it’s a rare opportunity to view artifacts from the nearly lost legacy of the legendary company that brought together some of the greatest artistic figures of the 20th century.

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About the Author

Laura Genero served 20 years in senior government positions, including Associate Deputy Secretary of Labor, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for International Organizations, and spokesman for the U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services.