Serge Diaghilev (1872-1929) was neither artist, musician, dancer or choreographer, yet contributed crucially to all the arts with his realization of a modernist Gesamtkunstwerk (total work of art, or merging of the arts), an idea made famous in the mid 19th-century writings of Richard Wagner, which has been an influence on the visual and performing arts ever since. His company, the Ballets Russes, definitively brought modernism to the world of ballet.
Ballet Russes was known extravagant, highly original performances
The Ballets Russes was unlike anything its audiences had ever seen: larger-than-life, unconventional, multi-sensory, and often highly-sexualized. It was ballet on the scale of grand opera, and was the creative product of one man’s administrative and visionary genius. Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes 1909-1929; When Art Danced with Music at the National Gallery of Art through Sept. 2, 2013 brilliantly tells the artistic story of the company over its twenty year life.
You don’t need knowledge of ballet to appreciate the exhibition, but an interest in the theatrical would help. The first room is darkened, as in a theater, and the huge wall opposite the entrance is decorated with an enlarged sketch by Alexandre Benois for the stage cloth for Petruskka (1910). Its delightful bats flying across a night sky might have escaped from a children’s book. Next to it is a monitor with 33-seconds of surreptitiously-filmed footage of Les Sylphides, the only known moving record of a Diaghilev production, since he opposed filming.
The exhibition successfully highlights Diaghileve’s highly original and collaborative approach
Each of the exhibition’s sections, devoted to a single production, is brought to life with either an enormous, original stage cloth (Goncharova’s for The Firebird, above, and Picasso’s for The Blue Train) or huge enlargements of sketches for stage cloths or sets. Every gallery includes music as well as video of a modern production (one memorable moment shows Rudolf Nureyev playing the part of an articulated, wooden puppet in Petruska). All of this is remarkably successful in conveying Diaghilev’s multi-dimensional, artistic productions.
Diaghilev’s contribution was to bring the artists together, make sure they did their best and the results played well, and then to ensure they were realized. He was a tyrant, but the artistic process he sponsored was highly-collaborative. Most of his productions were performed outside Russia (the company was based in Paris, and then Monte Carlo), and he was a sensitive booking agent, designing specific programs to appeal to audiences in different countries, and playing up the exoticism of traditional Russian culture, which also appealed to post-revolutionary, Russian émigrés. And the Ballets Russes was always on the road. They played annually in Paris (except for one year during WWI), and frequently in London, but also did multiple tours to Buenos Aires, Budapest, San Sebastién, and Leipzig. Their 1916-17 tour of the United States made more than 50 stops, so the company was seen in Dayton, Knoxville, and Wichita as well as New York and Chicago.
The artists Diaghilev brought together were of the first rank, even when, as in the case of Georges Balanchine, they were too young to have achieved a reputation. His other choreographers included Mikhail Fokine, Léonide Massine, and Vaslav Nijinsky. The most notable composer was Igor Stravinsky, but he also worked with Satie and Prokofiev. And the list of artists includes the Russians Léon Bakst, Nicholas Roerich, and Natalia Goncharova, as well as Sonia Delaunay, Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, and Giorgio de Chirico. The dancers included stars from the Russian Imperial Ballet, Maryinski Theatre and the Bolshoi, including Anna Pavlova and Nijinsky .
A huge array of artifacts, sets, and costumes from the Ballet are on display
The artifacts in the exhibition consist of costumes, sketches for costumes and sets, posters, programs, period photographs, and several painted and sculpted portraits, most of them featuring the androgynously charismatic Nijinsky.
The most powerful of these, though only slightly more than 7 inches high, is by Rodin, who portrays him as the faun from L’Apres-midi d’un Faun. Rodin was fascinated by the relation of sexuality and creativity, and captures the magnetism behind Nijinsky’s awkward pose. The dancer choreographed L’Apres-midi himself and took the profile imagery from Ancient Greek vases. The melding of the arts extended to more than collaborations on ballets. There’s a film clip of Nureyev re-creating the role, and his lascivious expression, even in profile, is unforgettable.
Diaghilev was one of the first gay men to unapologetically acknowledge his preference. This would have been illegal in Russia, but if that was also the case in countries where he toured, his foreign-ness protected him. He had romantic relationships with several of the dancers and created a corps of virtuosic men that was unknown in previous Russian ballet, where the danseurs mostly functioned as third legs for the ballerinas. As the composer, Nicolas Nabakov commented, “I think one should never forget that Diaghilev was an assertive homosexual, and the extraordinary thing about Diaghilev was that he was perhaps the first grand homosexual who asserted himself and was accepted as such by society.”
Many of the costumes are extraordinary, and Bakst’s costume drawings stand on their own as exciting works of art with compositions that capture the movement of dance. Beyond the obvious example of Picasso’s designs for Parade, many of the costumes will likely interest any artist working in three dimensions. They also tell a complicated story of the interest in traditional peasant clothing, both Russian and foreign (see Roerich’s designs, above), as well as an interest in international dress designed specifically for dancers.
Bakst’s sets and costumes for ballets such as Scheherazade were Orientalist fantasies. They combined that mixture of sexuality and violence that Delacroix captured so memorably in The Death of Sardanopolis. The Orientalist mode also suited Nijinsky’s unconventional sexuality.
Several of Bakst’s costumes for him featured dangling earrings and, in the case of The Blue God (below), a short tunic with a revealing neckline and nipped waist, although the artist had made serious study of artwork at the Musée Guimet, Paris to create authentic costumes and sets for that production.
The influence of the Ballets Russes has been profound for subsequent dance and other arts. Perhaps the most surprising homage came from Charlie Chaplin, who met Nijinsky on an ocean voyage to the U.S. The exhibition includes a short clip from Sunnyside (1919), that is his version of Rite of Spring.
Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes 1909-1929; When Art Danced with Music is on display at the National Gallery of Art through Sept. 2, 2013.
For readers interested in more information on the Ballest Russes, the excellent exhibition catalog has essays by scholars from the many disciplines covered, beautiful illustrations, a bibliography, as well as a chronology for the company’s productions and another of their tours. There’s also a website sponsored by the Russian Ballet History Collection that features extensive period photographs and information on the Ballets Russes.