- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 1, 2003

Entering the "Art of the Ballets Russes" exhibit at the Baltimore Museum of Art is like walking into a melange of brilliantly colored, exotic stage productions. Flashes of yellows, oranges and blacks in the first gallery from costumes and sets as diverse as Leon Bakst's "Scheherazade" and "The Sleeping Princess" draw visitors into ballet and theater magic.

The exhibition of 80 stage and costume designs and 30 costumes, along with two auxiliary shows, "The Brilliance of Bakst: Theater and Textile Designs From Baltimore Collections" and "Gregor Piatigorsky: Virtuoso as Collector," are part of the Vivat! St. Petersburg celebration, Baltimore's citywide festival commemorating the 300th anniversary of St. Petersburg's founding.

The Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art of Hartford, Conn., organized and circulated "Art of the Ballets Russes," which first traveled to Japan.

So what is the show doing in an art museum? Impresario Serge Diaghilev reinvented the art of ballet with his Ballets Russes and the arts associated with it especially design and music. He entranced audiences for some 20 years when he used then-far-out artists Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Giorgio de Chirico, Georges Braque, Juan Gris, Nikolai Roerich, Georges Rouault and Pavel Tchelitchew, among others, as designers.

Diaghilev also used Russian artists Bakst and Alexandre Benois and avant-garde painters Natalia Goncharova and Michel Larionov (both on display at the Walters Art Museum in its "Origins of the Russian Avant-Garde").

Diaghilev also attracted such major choreographers as Russians Vaslav Nijinsky and George Balanchine (who later emigrated to the United States and revolutionized ballet here); composers such as Russians Igor Stravinsky and Sergey Prokofiev; and dancers Serge Lifar, Tamara Karsavina and Anna Pavlova.

Diaghilev's vision for a new ballet combined with avant-garde designs and music anticipated the performance and installation art of our own times. It's crucial for exhibition visitors to understand that the impresario's ambition was to unify all the arts and that he succeeded magnificently.


Diaghilev insisted that he was without talent but knew he could harness the gifts of others for his new vision of ballet. The independently wealthy Diaghilev (1872-1929) came to St. Petersburg as an 18-year-old to study law but quickly found artist friends. Fortunately, his cousin Dimitri Philosophoff knew the painter and art historian Alexandre Benois. Diaghilev also met the artists Bakst and Roerich. They and others banded together and formed the Mir Iskusstva (World of Art) group.

The impresario masterminded one of the most inventive periods in the history of artistic modernism. Alexander Schouvaloff, former director of the Theatre Museum of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, wrote in the handsome catalog: "The muster-roll of the artists, composers, conductors, directors, singers, choreographers and dancers who appeared with the Ballets Russes during its 20-year history … is a magic list of famous names compiled by Diaghilev, the chief magician."

Exhibit curator Katy Rothkopf, the museum's curator of painting and sculpture, initially illustrates the domination of Russian artists in the early days of the Ballets Russes. Diaghilev first used composers Tchaikovsky and Borodin, dancers Pavlova and Miss Karsavina and his friends Bakst and Mr. Benois.

Gradually, Bakst and Mr. Benois moved away from traditional design to brilliant colors, arresting silhouettes and exotic details. Miss Rothkopf first displays Bakst's designs inspired by the courts of Louis XIV and Louis V. Although the costumes may have been better suited to promenading than dancing, they provided large blocks of brilliant color against a neutral background which was Bakst's aim.

The curator further enhanced the drama with "bendies," foam mannequins sprayed with paint that looks like black velvet. First acquired for the exhibit's tour in Japan, each "bendie" was made specifically for positioning and bending with the different exhibit costumes.

Two wars cut short the growth of Ballets Russes. The company dispersed with the beginning of World War I in August 1914. Many returned to Russia. Diaghilev stayed in Switzerland with Bakst, Stravinsky and the young dancer-choreographer Leonide Massine. They toured America in 1916, with Mr. Massine as the new dancer and choreographer and Michel Larionov one of the younger Russians drawn to Diaghilev as designer.

The Russian Revolution of 1917 prevented Diaghilev and his company from returning home. It was then that he turned to non-Russian artists such as Matisse and Picasso for his set and costume designs. Their work on "Parade, Le Tricome (The Three-Cornered Hat)" and "Le Chant du Rossignol (The Story of the Nightingale)" brought design under the sway of Europe's avant-garde.

Matisse's Chinese-derived satin costumes for "Nightingale" are charming and particularly appropriate to this miraculous songbird story. Two are shimmering peach-colored costumes for ladies of the court, one with typical Chinese cloud patterns. The artist painted yellow roses, accented with orange and outlined in black, for the other. They're identical to the rose motifs he was using in paintings of the same year.

Diaghilev finally was able to set up a home base for the Ballets Russes in Monte Carlo in 1923. There, the company embraced modernism in all of the arts it used. Bronislava Nijinska, Nijinsky's sister, took over as choreographer, and Mr. Stravinsky continued to write the music.

The impresario commissioned designs from artists working in Paris, including Mr. Braque, Andre Derain, Rouault and Marie Laurencin, but also turned to Spaniards Joan Miro and Juan Gris, the German Max Ernst, the Greek-Italian Giorgio de Chirico and younger Russian artists such as Miss Goncharova and Naum Gabo.

The company attracted dancers from all over Europe, and dancer-choreographers Serge Lifar and Mr. Balanchine joined Diaghilev in 1923. Mr. Balanchine turned the classical ballet tradition upside down by combining technically expert ballet dancing with modern music. He thus insured ballet's survival in the 20th century as an exciting and innovative art form.

Diaghilev died in 1929, and the official Ballets Russes company disbanded. Mr. Lifar joined the Paris Opera as ballet master, then formed his own company in 1933. The Ballets Russes de Monte-Carlo was formed in 1932 with many of the old members. It was considered the true reincarnation of the original company.

Mr. Lifar made this "Arts of the Ballets Russes" exhibition possible. He joined the company in January 1923 at age 17 and remained remarkably close to Diaghilev. He collected many of the Ballets Russes designs and other materials but had to sell them to the Wadsworth Atheneum when he went broke during an American tour. Fortunately, Atheneum Director A. Everett "Chick" Austin Jr. was looking for work from an art form that expressed "unity in the arts." He liked the theater, was an actor himself and loved ballet. Austin snapped the collection up for $10,000.


There are two companion exhibits to the "Art of the Ballets Russes." One is "The Brilliance of Bakst," a small display of stage and set designs created by Bakst in Baltimore near the end of his life.

At the urging of art patron Alice Garrett who has been called Baltimore's answer to Washington's Duncan Phillips Bakst arrived in Baltimore in 1922 to design decorations, sets and costumes for her private theater. She and husband John Garrett, president of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, lived in Evergreen House, a neoclassic mansion, and she wanted a theater for her own performances. The colonnaded house is now a museum owned by Johns Hopkins University.

The Bakst exhibit includes a large multipaneled stage of a romanticized Spanish street scene and designs for stenciled decorations of the theater's walls, columns and ceilings inspired by Russian peasant art.

The artist created a series of textile designs, rare for him (he intended them for commercial distribution) while teaching at what is now the Maryland Institute College of Art. Several stencils inspired by a book of antique cake molds and textile designs echoing those of American Indian ceramics round out the show.

Don't miss "Gregor Piatigorsky: Virtuoso as Collector," the second adjunct exhibit. Organized to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Mr. Piatigorsky's birth, the one-gallery show displays select works from the collection of the world's leading 1940s and '50s cello virtuoso.

He enjoyed surrounding himself with powerful objects. His taste was varied and ranged from African art and Russian coins to European modernist paintings.

The show highlights a large circuslike Picasso painting and two psychologically forceful portraits by Chaim Soutine.

Also displayed are one of two Stradivarius cellos (dated 1714) owned by the cellist, and a suite of music commissioned by Mr. Piatigorsky from 20th-century English composer William Walton.

WHAT: "Art of the Ballets Russes"

WHERE: Baltimore Museum of Art, 10 Art Museum Drive, Baltimore

WHEN: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. first Thursday of every month, through May 4

TICKETS: $7 adults, $5 seniors 65 and older and college students, free for children 18 and younger. Free first Thursday of every month

PHONE: 410/396-7100

WHAT: "The Brilliance of Bakst: Theater and Textile Designs From BaltimoreCollections"

WHERE: Baltimore Museum of Art

WHEN: Through May 4

WHAT: "Gregor Piatigorsky: Virtuoso as Collector"

WHERE: Baltimore Museum of Art

WHEN: Through June 8

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