by Roberto Friedman
Dateline: Washington, D.C. Currently on show at the National Gallery of Art, the large exhibition Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes, 1909-1929: When Art Danced with Music is a celebration of the role Russian impresario Serge Diaghilev played in promoting modernism in dance, music, and visual art. Without Diaghilev and his Ballets Russes, modern ballet as we know it today would never exist. Out There caught the show last week.
Among his collaborators seen here are the artists Leon Bakst, Alexandre Benois, Jean Cocteau, Giorgio de Chirico, Sonia Delaunay, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, and Georges Rouault, and composers Igor Stravinsky, Erik Satie, and Sergei Prokofiev. His dancers and choreographers included Mikhail Fokine, Vaslav Nijinsky, Leonide Massine, Bronislava Nijinska, and George Balanchine.
Costume and scenic designs are plentiful, but there is movement and music in the galleries, too, with videos playing of the Joffrey Ballet performing Afternoon of a Faun and The Rite of Spring, and the New York City Ballet performing Prodigal Son. The show feels timely, with current 100th anniversary celebrations of The Rite's infamous premiere, and author Robert Craft's recent assertions that Stravinsky was a man who had sex with men – indeed, a composer who had sex with other composers (Ravel, supposedly).
On view for the first time in a museum in the United States are the largest objects ever exhibited inside the Gallery: Natalia Goncharova's backdrop for The Firebird (1926), measuring 51.5 feet wide by 33.5 feet tall, and the front curtain for The Blue Train (1924), 38.5 feet wide by 34 feet tall, designed by Picasso and painted by Diaghilev's principal set designer Prince Alexander Schervashidze. In watercolor, gouache, gold and silver, the Firebird back cloth is a riot of gilt onion domes and spires. The Blue Train curtain is a vivid enlargement of Picasso's "Two Women Running along the Beach" (1922). Both pieces are blockbusters.
These avant-garde artists were drawn by the exoticism of Russian folk past, and the eroticism of Orientalist fantasies. Rite is a conception of pagan Russia set to extremely aggressive music, performed with a large orchestra for ballet, and exotic rhythms. The Ballets Russes never performed in Russia, but Diaghilev was always loyal to Russian artists.
Photo: Wadsworth Athenaeum Museum of Art, Hartford, CT
The exhibition is presented in five parts: The First Seasons considers the company's first seasons in Paris (1909-12); Vaslav Nijinsky: Dancer and Choreographer centers on the first of Diaghilev's male proteges, a sensual dancer and choreographer celebrated for his technical brilliance; The Russian Avant-Garde; The International Avant-Garde; and Modernism, Neoclassicism, and Surrealism.
Nijinsky emerges as a focus of fascination; at five-feet four-inches, with a long neck and massive thighs, he had a body scaled for modernism and primitivism. He invented a new dance technique: inward, low to the ground, flat-footed. Think of his lecherous, feral yet somehow refined and elegant Faun.
Though the show originated at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, it is augmented by the National Gallery's own paintings (Modigliani , de Chirico) and sculpture (Rodin, of Nijinsky). It's the liveliest and most enjoyable art exhibition on view in the District today (through Sept. 2).