After the turn of the twentieth century, Serge Diaghilev invented something so magical and so unique and fresh, that it forever changed the art world and how art would be created and displayed. In 1909, the Ballets Russes was formed by Diaghilev, combining the traditions of Russian and Western European culture in modernistic forms of dance, music and visual art. Diaghilev also made a point to involve famous artists of the time including: Lèon Bakst, Natalia Goncharova, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Igor Stravinsky, Erik Satie, Mikhail Fokine, Vaslav Nijinsky, Bronislava Nijinska and even Coco Chanel. He called on these artists, experts in their respected crafts, and collaborated with them to create the performances that would leave a mark on the art world for generations to come. Even legendary Vogue Editor-in-Chief, Diana Vreeland felt that Diaghilev and his troupe brought life to Paris at the turn of the century, with their eccentric colors and choreography and story lines.
On May 12 of this year, the National Gallery of Art of the Smithsonian Institute opened an exhibit in the East Building, dedicated to the Ballets Russes. The Exhibition is called “Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes, 1909-1929: When Art Danced with Music.” Many of the displays in this exhibit mimic the exhibition that was shown in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. This collection includes many works from the Ballets Russes, ranging from costumes and designs for sets to video clips of reenactments of the choreography of the ballets and even artwork that related to the artists involved with the Ballet Russes.
I had taken a graduate class a few months ago, specifically focused on Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. It was an intriguing course because I had never heard of an art history course that involved ballet, art and music all into one. Feeling like I had a good understanding of the innovative artistic risks, and overall inspiring work that the Ballets Russes offered to the art world, I wanted to view this exhibition for myself.
As you walk towards the front of the exhibition, the viewer is given a written paragraph of the importance of the impact of the Ballet Russes on art during the turn of the century. Walking in further, there is another paragraph of Serge Diaghilev’s origins up until his founding of the Ballets Russes. The first work that the viewer comes across is a grand costume created by Aleksander Golovin for the ballet Boris Godunov in 1908. The next section the viewer comes to is a display of a costume, poster, and design of a set for the ballet Les Sylphides (1909).
Walking further into the exhibition, the viewer then gets a chance to watch one of Diaghilev’s better-known ballets Petrushka, choreographed by Mikhail Fokine. The costume and set sketches follow alongside towards the video clip of the Joffrey Ballet bringing the piece to life. Petrushka is a wonderful ballet that involves a magician and his Russian-style puppets, one being the puppet Petrushka. The clip lasts 2 minutes and 47 seconds, and shows snippets of the first act of the ballet.
Moving on, I noticed something odd with a display case that involved the costumes of two different ballets, Scheherazade and Prince Igor. To me, it felt like these costumes should not have been together, but I’m sure it was the best way for the museum to include all of the different pieces they had acquired for this exhibit. Walking past the set and costume designs of Scheherazade, the viewer then comes to the display case that holds the magnificently tailored costume for Le Dieu bleu (Blue God). You are able to closely observe the fine fabric used for the costume, and the impeccable stitching that hold the fabric in place. There is some visible wear and tear at the bottom of the skirt, but that is easily overpowered by the intensity of the colors and patterns used in the design of the costume. It is definitely a work that you should take your time with. If anyone appreciates clothing design and tailoring, this is a piece to see.
As you move on, you enter a room that is most definitely worth observing for a while. It contains two of Diaghilev’s most innovative and modern ballets of their time. The first is L’aprè-midi d’un Faun (The Afternoon of a Faun). Based off of a poem by Stéphane Mallarmé, Vaslav Nijinsky choreographed a ballet that was based on dancing in a two-dimensional form on stage for the entire show. A video clip of how the ballet looks (reenacted by the Joffrey Ballet) sits in the middle of the room with three nymph costumes displayed right below the video. The music to the ballet is played along with the video, which shows the beginning clips of the ballet as well. The room is separated slightly by a wall that holds the video of L’aprè, and on the other side is a section dedicated to the ballet and score that had caused a riot in the audience in less than 10 minutes.
Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring) was Stravinsky’s greatest work that was quickly disgraced by the audience at the opening performance, along with Nijinsky’s modernistic approaches to the choreography. The ballet holds a more primitive Russian folk storyline than Diaghilev’s previous ballets. It follows closely to the theme of “springtime,” but a young maiden is chosen to be sacrificed. In the center of this section of the room, five costumes from the ballet are displayed in a circle, a variety of maiden costumes and male villager costumes. This is also a great way to observe the costume design and tailoring up close. The patterns weaved into the fabric are very intricate and the colors really pop out. Another video clip shows the beginning scenes of Le Sacre, which gives the viewer an idea of how different the choreography and music were at the time, compared to what other dance companies were performing.
As you walk up a flight of swirling stairs, you enter a grand room that first displays a few set designs for the backdrop cloth from the ballet Firebird, and then as you turn more into the room, the actual backdrop cloth is hanging right in front of you. Not to exaggerate, but this cloth could make anybody feel insignificantly small. It is a design of Russian towers that overlap each other, but the quantity of the towers and the use of gold cloth that runs throughout the backdrop could overwhelm a person, if not prepared for it. Across from the cloth is a video montage of scores from the ballet along with a visual, which shows a ballerina dancing to the music, but you only see her silhouette against a fiery background.
Moving along, more costumes and designs are presented from Sadko and Cleopatra. There is even a section that shows the tours that the Ballets Russes traveled and a 23-minute clip from the actual video about the great influences of the Ballet Russe ballets, narrated by Tilda Swinton. The next great section that viewers should take a look at is the room dedicated to the ballet Parade. The costumes and set designs were created by none other than Pablo Picasso. Two of his designs from the ballet sit on either side of the room. They are about twice the size of the dancers who wore them, and their design was considered very cubist during this time period. A video clip of the Europa Danse Company practicing this ballet gives the viewer an idea of what it would have looked like to the audience at the time.
The last ballet that I would like readers and future viewers to take note of is Le Train Bleu (Blue Train). This section shows a clip of the Paris Opera Ballet performing in 1994, along with a poster that reads “Monte Carlo” showing two figures that are also main characters in the ballet. One major display shows two costumes that were designed by Coco Chanel herself. She is considered the costume designer for the ballet, and her designs were said to start the trend of French women wearing clothing that resembled menswear or were designed in a masculine form. The front cloth for this ballet is also displayed in its own room and almost, if not, the same size as the Firebird backdrop. Alexander Schervashidze created it, but it is a larger version of Picasso’s work “Two Women Running Along the Beach” made in 1922.
At the end of the exhibition, a paragraph describes the legacy of Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes. It explains his sudden death after the 1929 season, and how many had tried to revive the Ballets Russes, but no one could come close to the creative level that Diaghilev put forth. Of course, after the exhibition, you are thrown right into the gift shop, which holds adorable trinkets, books, scarves, and more. I myself couldn’t resist getting something while I was in there. As I left the exhibition, I felt like I was leaving a part of something close to me, even though I was never involved with the Ballets Russes other than a graduate course I had taken 3 months ago. I would recommend this exhibition to anyone who is a lover of art, dance, music, fashion, Russia, Paris and anything in between. It is different from any kind of art exhibit I’ve seen, and it will surely grab your attention from the moment you walk in.
Sponsorship and additional funding was provided by: ExxonMobil, Rosneft, Sally Engelhard Pingree and The Charles Engelhard Foundation, Jacqueline B. Mars, Leonard and Elaine Silverstein and The Exhibition Circle of the National Gallery of Art. Support to the exhibition was given by Adrienne Arsht, and by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities. The National Gallery of Art is part of the Smithsonian Institute, which has always been a non-profit organization for over 150 years.
WHEN: May 12, 2013 – October 6, 2013
The National Gallery of Art
6th Street and Constitution Avenue NW
Washington, D.C., 20565
TICKETS: Tickets are not required for this exhibit