Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes: Art review

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.

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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.

Divided between two floors of the National Gallery’s East Building, the exhibition begins with a riot of color, Orientalism and imaginary, primitive fantasies of ancient Russia. The slightly faded but once glittering costume for “Boris” reminds us of the wonderfully productive but frustrating role of amateurism in Russian art. Composed by the talented, aristocratic drunkard Modest Mussorgsky, the opera is extraordinarily powerful but also diffuse and often inept, and one can never be sure if something that is arresting in the music is an act of brilliant invention or incompetence passed off as innovation.

The same might be said of the choreography of Nijinsky, who played a huge role in the early years of the Ballets Russes and figures large in the opening of the exhibition, where his star power and sexual allure is documented in photographs, lush costume sketches, a bronze by Rodin and a wonderfully overwrought painting by Jacques-Emile Blanche, depicting the dancer in Siamese costume around 1910.

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.

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.

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