Like Mussorgsky, who was a skilled pianist but largely an autodidactic composer, Nijinsky was a skilled dancer thrust into the business of choreography, which he practiced with daring and intuition, disregarding the often stifling inheritance of the imperial ballet culture in which he was trained.
But a 1987 film excerpt of a Joffrey Ballet reconstruction of his choreography for “Rite of Spring” mostly confirms Puccini’s withering assessment from one of the few original performances in 1913 that the choreography was ridiculous. Another short film shows Nijinsky’s awkward attempts to suggest a two-dimensional aesthetic of stylized gestures and flat profiles in “Afternoon of a Faun” (as danced by Rudolf Nureyev in 1987). This, too, seems rather silly today.
Silly but of course necessary, if only to enlarge the range of what was considered permissible onstage. The Ballets Russes, and dance audiences, needed the ephemera of Nijinsky so that the lasting legacy of George Balanchine, whose work is featured later in the exhibition, could one day shine forth.
On the second floor of the show, the lush exoticism of early designers such as Leon Bakst and Nicholas Roerich gives way to cubist, surrealist and expressionist experiments by some of the greatest artists of the early 20th century. One very intriguing juxtaposition places sketches by Picasso for a costume used in the 1917 collaboration “Parade” next to the costume itself, miraculously preserved in Poland through long years of war and depredation. The double sketch shows the costume from behind, almost as an abstract design, and then from the front, as worn by a human figure, evidence that Picasso was thinking from the very beginning about the obvious fact that his costumes would have to function in space, that they would be read in three dimensions through time, fitted onto flesh and blood, not just as sketches on the page. Not every designer was so alert to the exigencies of live theater.
Work by the Greek-born artist Giorgio de Chirico feels clever but deeply problematic as theater design. Creating costumes for a ballet called “The Ball,” de Chirico simply applied aspects of his signature style (a predilection for classical architectural motifs) to the bodies of the dancers, rendering the lower legs and forearms in brick and applying classical columns and arch figures to the rest of the body. It’s hard to imagine these costumes having much impact onstage other than to advertise the name de Chirico. There is a sad sense, seeing his work, that it is the progenitor of so many subsequent attempts to pass off a featured artist’s trademark designs as a substantial artistic intervention, like hiring glass designer Dale Chihuly to design an opera by Debussy.