The exhibition is tightly focused in chapters, most centered on one particular ballet. Visually, there are two stunning theatrical screens, one a 1926 backcloth by Natalia Goncharova for the final scene of Stravinsky’s “Firebird,” the other a front cloth “The Blue Train” based on a Picasso painting. The sheer scale of these two pieces makes their presence in an exhibition something of a virtuoso feat, but they also dwarf the museum visitor. Their impact in a small space is greatly exaggerated in relation to their likely impact in the theater. The impact of the “Firebird” screen is, unfortunately, vitiated by one of the worst elements of the exhibition, a 2010 film that gives audiences a ridiculously superficial sense of the ballet interspersed with idiotic special effects.
Much of what is on display falls into the category of holy relics: Costumes worn by dancers who are legendary names; programs and photographs and publicity posters from tours of the company that are still spoken of in reverential terms by those who remember or knew someone who was there. Theater, including ballet, invites hero worship, and there are many objects in this exhibition that appeal to our celebrity pleasure receptors more than our artistic ones.
It’s worth considering, just for a moment, whether this is the right kind of exhibition for the National Gallery to host. A small, mostly inadequate effort has been made to connect Ballets Russes material to substantial works of art, including a lovely 1917 Picasso portrait of dancer and choreographer Leonide Massine as Harlequin (borrowed from Barcelona), which captures the peculiar backward and forward glances of the Ballets Russes aesthetic, its origins in an theatrical tradition, plus its youth and liberating naivete. But these are occasional gestures. It’s easy to imagine this exhibition — which ultimately does justify its presence in an art gallery — used as precedent for bringing material even more remote from the core obligations of the National Gallery.
That said, it is fun. Any intelligent person today would happily forgo a year in the opera house for one night of time travel back to the heyday of the Ballets Russes. We might be shocked to discover how pretentious and raggedy it was, but at least we could say we were there. And that’s the difference between performance and the plastic arts. The allure of the former is all about the moment, the luck of being present, the willful illusion that magic is happening. Diaghilev sold that dream, perhaps more effectively than any impresario before or since.
Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes
“Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes, 1909–1929: When Art Danced With Music” opens Sunday and runs through Sept. 2. National Gallery of Art. Fourth Street and Constitution Avenue NW. 202-737-4215. www.nga.gov.