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Art Preview: “Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes, 1909-1929: When Art Danced With Music”

A comprehensive and extraordinarily detailed look at the most influential dance company of all time.

A curtain by Alexander Schervashidze after Pablo Picasso from “The Blue Train.” Image courtesy of the National Gallery of Art.

There are a wealth of contradictions underpinning the National Gallery’s extravagant new show, “Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes, 1909-1929: When Art Danced With Music.” The show explores the incomparable legacy of Serge Diaghilev, a pioneer of the avant-garde and a man who shaped the way ballet would evolve throughout the 20th century but who also freely described himself as one “with a complete absence of talent.” This is a show focused on Diaghilev, but there is very little of him in it, given that he didn’t dance or sketch costumes or choreograph ballets or compose music. A sense of him emerges only fleetingly, as a mustache-twirling impresario curating art in a thoroughly fascinating way.

Another contradiction: Despite the nomenclature, the Ballets Russes never performed in Russia. Before 1909, when the troupe was formed, Diaghilev (who was independently wealthy) had worked as an art critic and curator and had produced concerts and operas in St. Petersburg and in Paris, where the first Ballets Russes production was staged. His choreographer was Michel Fokine; his principal dancers included Vasily Nijinsky and Anna Pavlova. For the next 20 years, the company traveled around the world, presenting more than half of its productions in Britain and collaborating with talents as diverse as Igor Stravinsky and Coco Chanel. It is impossible to imagine modern dance being the same without it.

“Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes” is a reimagining of an exhibition that ran at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum in 2010, and while the Washington exhibition has more of a visual art bent to it than the British show, it’s still an unexpectedly broad undertaking for the National Gallery. The institution literally raised its roof in order to display two key items: a backdrop painted by Natalia Goncharova for a 1926 production of The Firebird, and a curtain designed by Picasso in 1924 for The Blue Train, both of which are more than 30 feet tall. Although the two items are imposing, visually, they feel curiously flat taken out of context. Like cubism, the show deconstructs ballet down to its composite parts and presents them as individual masterpieces, when by their very nature they were designed to play as part of an ensemble.

The same goes for the costumes, which seem to make up the majority of items on display. Most are extraordinary, both in their construction and their heritage, but to see them displayed on mannequins is only a small part of the story. The exhibition includes video footage of modern reconstructions of Ballets Russes performances featuring companies such as the Joffrey Ballet and the New York City Ballet, but the two-dimensional projections don’t quite evoke the sense of ferocious energy and sweat that live dance does. The heaviness and intensity of the early Ballets Russes costumes in particular provoke a hundred practical questions about their nature in performance that remain unanswered. As works of art, the costumes pale in comparison to their elegantly rendered designs, including the gorgeous drawings and watercolors by Alexandre Benois and Léon Bakst.

Still’s there’s plenty to marvel at, from the oppressive, faceless costume for a mourner designed by Matisse for 1920’s The Song of the Nightingale to the flagrantly bonkers designs re-created from Picasso sketches for Parade (one resembles an American skyscraper, the other a Parisian street). And the exhibition is rich in artifacts and relics, particularly photographs of the alluring, heavy-lidded Nijinsky, whose relationship with Diaghilev ended abruptly (and led to the dancer’s booting from the company) when Nijinsky unexpectedly married a woman. One notably ominous work on paper is by Nijinsky himself, sketched in colored pencil when he was recovering in a mental institution, and depicting a masklike geometric structure resembling a face. The frantic repetition in the circles and heavy lines is troubling, especially when compared with Auguste Rodin’s tiny bronze sculpture of the dancer in an animalistic pose or the elegant, brazen photographs of Nijinsky in performance.

Toward the end of the show, the question hanging in the air is whether Diaghilev himself was an artist, a patron, a tastemaker, or an extraordinarily lucky man with an exemplary eye for talent. “I am at first a charlatan, but full of dash; secondly, a great charmer; thirdly, cheeky; fourthly, a very reasonable man with few scruples,” said Diaghilev in 1895, long before the Ballets Russes had sprung onto the world stage as a unique and impossibly influential collaboration between artists and dancers. By its very nature, an exhibition exploring performance will offer up only fragments and leave imagination to fill in the rest. The National Gallery’s take on Diaghilev brings together design, costume, music, art, photography, and historical context to offer a thoughtful and comprehensive tribute to the company more than a century after it debuted. It’s a tantalizing and almost-fulfilling glimpse into a remarkable manifestation of genius, regardless of whether you count the founder in that category.

“Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes, 1909-1929: When Art Danced With Music” is in the National Gallery’s East Building from May 12 through September 2. More details are available at the National Gallery’s website.

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