Not the same old dance: ‘Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes, 1909-1929’ at National Gallery of Art

“Astonish me!” theater producer Serge Diaghilev would sometimes challenge his collaborators at the Ballets Russes. And composers, stage designers, choreographers and dancers very often did just that.

But ultimately it was Diaghilev himself and his Ballets Russes that astonished the world by transforming not only ballet, but all the arts in the 20th century — an achievement celebrated with flair in an impressive new major exhibition at the National Gallery of Art: “Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes, 1909-1929: When Art Danced With Music.”

In the early years of the century in Paris, Diaghilev had at his disposal the greatest concentration of artistic genius ever collected in one place before or since. His own genius was in recognizing and employing this talent to create the most dazzling cultural enterprise of the age.

Diaghilev “not only jump-started Western ballet, but he staffed it,” New Yorker critic Jane Acocella wrote recently. Demanding, overbearing (Matisse called him Louis XIV) and an obsessive micromanager, he nevertheless managed to inspire — and sometimes bully— the best out of his collaborators.

His choreographers Mikhail Fokine, Leonide Massine and George Balanchine created a new and dynamic choreography in such classic masterpieces of dance as “The Firebird,” “La Boutique Fantasque,” “Les Sylphides” and “The Afternoon of a Faun,” which they were later to perpetuate in other ballet companies around the world.

It was Diaghilev who introduced the unknown young Russian composer Igor Stravinsky to the West with the score of “The Firebird” in 1910. Three years later, Stravinsky’s seminal modern composition “The Rite of Spring” caused a riot at its first performance, which French critics described as barbaric.

But Diaghilev also commissioned works from other contemporary composers including Debussy, Poulenc and Darius Milhaud.

Pablo Picasso created sets and costumes for six ballets for the company right up into the 1920s. Picasso even found a wife among the Ballets Russes corps de ballet, Olga Khokhlova (two portraits of her by the artist are in the show). Matisse, Miro, Braque, the Italian Giorgio de Chirico and the Russian Natalia Goncharova were among the other artists hired by Diaghilev to design his ballets.

Ballets Russes even influenced the Paris fashion world in style and color. The company’s use of purple and crimson created a vogue for those colors. Coco Chanel designed the costumes for one of the ballets (Le Train bleu in 1924) inspired by her own fashion creations. She became Diaghilev’s unofficial costume consultant and in 1920 financed a revival of The Rite of Spring with new choreography by Massine.

Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes” is comprised of some 150 original costumes, set designs, paintings, sculptures, photographs, prints and drawings curated by Sarah Kennel, the NGA’s associate curator of photographs, based on an earlier exhibition at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum (curated by Jane Pritchard and Geoffrey Marsh) and supplemented with additional material from Australia, Sweden and private collections. The sprawling exhibition traces the two-decade evolution of the legendary Russian company chronologically from when Diaghilev — born in Perm, at the foot of the Ural Mountains, the son of a wealthy vodka distiller — took a group of Russian dancers to Paris in 1909 to its dissolution at his death in 1929.

The early ballets were based on exotic Russian and Oriental themes like Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade,” complete with scantily clad temple priestesses, harem beauties and slave girls. The fact that Ballets Russes dancers performed without the flesh-colored body stockings that were considered obligatory for dancers at the time was an added titillation for Parisians, who had immediately taken to the new company.

The writer Marcel Proust, a regular, called the Ballets Russes “a charming invasion” that had “infected Paris with a fever of curiosity.”

But the exhibition portrays Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes shifting by degrees from Russian traditionalism to modernism — clean, dry and angular — and evolving through collaboration with the avant-garde into an integral part of the artistic ferment in Paris at the time.

Costumes designed by Picasso offer a fresh perspective on the artist’s range of skills; and one of the highlights in the show is the sublime, 30-foot-high “front cloth” designed by the artist for the ballet “Le Train Bleu.” The curtain, depicting running women, covers an entire gallery wall.

Another object of overwhelming size is the front cloth for “The Firebird” — a walled city of buildings, towers and onion-shaped domes piled on top of each other based on a design by Natalia Goncharova.

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