Monday, June 17, 2013

Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes

By Charles Kessler

In the last few weeks I saw two great shows that sadly will not be traveling to New York or anywhere else. Unfortunately, one closed last week (you were warned): Great and Mighty Things: Outsider Art from the Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz Collection at the Philadelphia Museum of Art; but the other, Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes, 1909–1929: When Art Danced with Music at the National Gallery in Washington, you can see until September 2nd. I'll report on the Diaghilev show now because there's obviously no rush on the Outsider Art show.
Serge Diaghilev and Igor Stravinsky, Spain, 1921. (Photo: Victoria & Albert Museum, London.)
A case can be made that the great Russian ballet impresario Serge Diaghilev (1872-1929) has had a longer-lasting influence than Picasso. Cubism isn't a factor in the art world any more, and neither is its progeny, Greenbergian reduction of each art form to its innate essence. But, for better or worse, Diaghilev's multi-media, collaborative approach prevails more than ever in today's art world, particularly with performance, conceptual and installation art.

And no one has ever been as great at discovering, choosing and guiding collaborators as Diaghilev: Picasso, Matisse, de Chirico and Leon Bakst all made sets and costumes for his dances; Stravinsky, Prokofiev and Satie wrote scores; and his choreographers were among the greatest ever – Mikhail Fokine, Vaslav Nijinsky, Léonide Massine, Bronislava Nijinska, and George Balanchine.
Dancers from the Ballets Russes in costume for the first ever production of The Rite of Spring in 1913. Choreography was by Vaslav Nijinsky, score by Igor Stravinsky. (From the Guardian.)
While he produced unorthodox dances in Paris earlier (The Firebird in 1910 and Petrushka in 1911 – both with a score by the young Igor Stravinsky), Diaghilev's real revolution in dance began in Paris in 1913 with his Rite of Spring, a dance that combined dissonant, rhythmically complicated music by Stravinsky; colorful, exotic stage designs and costumes by Nicholas Roerich; and strange, jerky, jumping up and down choreography by the greatest dancer of his time, Vaslav Nijinski – movement so radically different from the prevailing tutu/toe-shoe ballet that people were scandalized and, feeling insulted, actually rioted. Rupert Christiansen in the London Telegraph describes the impact well when he writes: For a generation struggling under the inherited weight of Victorian mahogany and gilt, the sensuality, brilliance and physicality of the Ballets Russes was seen as a liberation, always sensational and often scandalous, suggesting a new code of erotic possibilities (with Nijinsky’s bisexual appeal at its heart) and establishing the avant-garde as exuberantly glamorous rather than seedily bohemian.

Here is a video of the Joffrey Ballet 1989 Rite of Spring. Imagine what it was like 100 years ago.

(To put in a plug for the under-recognized Isadora Duncan as a precursor, Diaghilev saw her dance in St. Petersburg in 1902 and was impressed by her natural, fluid movements – so different from the moribund imperial court ballet of the time.)

The exhibition at the National Gallery (adapted from the original 2010 exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum) is impressively inclusive, containing 130 original costumes,
Henri Matisse, costume for a mourner from The Song of the Nightingale, 1920. Wool felt and velvet. (Photos: Victoria and Albert Museum, London.)
Costume for the Buffoon in Larionov and Slavinsky's ballet Chout, designed by Mikhail Larionov, Diaghilev Ballet, 1921.
Pablo Picasso, costume for the Chinese Conjuror from Parade, c. 1917; and Sonia Delaunay, costume for title role from Cleopatra, 1918.
many original and replicas of the stage sets, and also paintings, sculptures and archival photographs. (The NGA provides an invaluable free "digital companion" to the exhibition here.)

The installations are marvels of color, animation and invention, but unfortunately the NGA doesn't allow photographing the exhibition and I couldn't find anything on the web; but I did manage to sneak a photo (below) that somewhat captures what the installations are like.
Surreptitious photo of the installation of Mikhail Larionov's costumes for the ballet Buffoons Wife (Chout) from The Tale of the Buffoon, 1921, music by Sergei Prokofiev. 
Installing Picasso's front cloth for The Blue Train, 1924 (with a story by Jean Cocteau and costumes by Coco Chanel). 
As exciting as the costumes and sets are, I found them kind of static. For a better understanding of how everything worked together, the NGA provides film clips of many of the dances, most of them shown in their theatrical context.

Don't miss this enchanting exhibition.

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