About halfway through the National Gallery of Art’s new exhibition “Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes” the visitor learns that the company only danced Vaslav Nijinsky’s choreography of the “Rite of Spring” nine times, which is something of a shock. The legend of its riotous premiere before a deeply divided Parisian audience, and the collective memory of Stravinsky’s score as one of the foundational works of musical modernism, leaves one expecting it to have been a staple of the Ballets Russes repertoire. But no. Internecine rivalries in the company, the beginning of World War I and the tremendous logistical challenge of mounting the work made it essentially a one-off.
Much of what this large and engrossing exhibition, which opens Sunday, reveals about the famed ballet company and its daring impresario, Serge Diaghilev, is similar. While making a strong case for the obvious — that the Ballets Russes fostered some of the most radical and influential artistic collaborations since the Renaissance — the experience is frequently disappointing, with frayed, faded and inanimate costumes bearing mute witness to the missing element of living performance. Though ambitious and beautifully presented, the exhibition is full of small deflations as the record is set straight and reality is seen just a bit too up close. The legend of the Ballets Russes was always a bit better — and better tended — than the reality of what the troupe and its lead artists left behind.
Drawing on archives and collections from around the world, the exhibition uses costumes, drawings, film and musical excerpts to present a chronological overview of Diaghilev’s efforts to invent a new theatrical aesthetic, from a touring production of Mussorgsky’s opera “Boris Godunov” (seen in Paris in 1908) to the producer’s death in 1929 and the dissolution of the company shortly after. The company emerged, in large part, because of failures in Russian foreign policy. After the country’s crushing defeat by Japan in the 1905 Russo-Japanese War, the csar was eager to see Russian culture favorably represented in the West, especially in France, which was helping keep his regime solvent. But it was the withdrawal of that official patronage in 1909 that launched Diaghilev as an independent arts entrepreneur outside of Russia.
The exhibition begins with a glass-bead and faux-pearl encrusted costume for the magnificent Russian bass Fyodor Chaliapin, who sang the title role in the 1908 “Boris,” and ends with the blue shorts and simple sporting tops for a ballet called “The Blue Train,” which featured costumes by Coco Chanel and music by Darius Milhaud. More than two worlds are represented by these book ends, more than a transition from the 19th century aesthetic of stately, political opera to the frothy milieu of health, wealth, sport and narcissism seen in “The Blue Train.”
In less than two decades’ time, one sees the invention of something so familiar we take it for granted, the free mixing of commercial entertainment and more traditional forms of art, the valorization of branding and fashion within the intellectual realms of culture, and the troubling, persistent and essential fracturing of art into style and substance. “The Blue Train,” with its annoying music-hall pastiche by Milhaud and its vapid but exuberant choreography, belongs to our own age, in which the spectator is presumed to be bored, stupid and cursed with a short attention span. To get from “Boris” to “The Blue Train” requires creating an audience that thrives on novelty, spectacle, scandal and transgression, and Diaghilev was just the man to do it, first by selling Russianness as exotic, and after exhausting that conceit — and many others — by convincing people in the audience that they were themselves worthy subjects of interest.