Steps Into Spectacle

Costumes, sets and video conjure the dazzle of the Ballets Russes

May 15, 2013

Ballet legend Vaslav Nijinsky dances in a 1910 production of “Scheherazade.”

We are blitzed by media and entertainment from so many sources and angles that being truly wowed seems like a quaint idea, maybe nearly impossible.

But a bit over a century ago, Russian impresario Sergei Diaghilev harnessed a dizzying array of artists — ballerinas, composers, choreographers, painters and fashion designers — to create the most influential dance company of the 20th century. Take that, Baz Luhrmann.

Diaghilev’s Russian-born, Paris-focused company spun its colorful web early in the last century. And through Sept. 2, the troupe gets an exhibit worthy of its scope and theatricality at the National Gallery of Art. Combining vivid costumes, massive backdrops and related art and video installations, “Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes, 1909-1929: When Art Danced With Music” recalls the spellbinding world it created.

“Nobody thought ballet could unify the arts,” says Sarah Kennel, co-curator of the exhibit, adapted from a similar 2010 show at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. “Painting, music, dance and costuming had existed before, but the Ballets Russes brought them together in a way that engaged all your senses.”

A walk through the show immerses you in the ballet’s eclectic, visually engaging history. Displayed in chronological order, items trace the company’s roots in folklore-heavy Imperial Russia (ikat robes from the 1909 opera “Prince Igor,” a beastie-filled night sky set for “Petrushka” recreated on a wall) through its forays into the fine-art world of early 20th-century Paris.

The company delved into art nouveau, cubism and surrealism in the 1910s and 1920s, documented in an abstracted costume for a 1918 “Cleopatra” and painter Natalia Goncharova’s 1926 backdrop for “The Firebird,” a fabric swath depicting onion-domed buildings that, at 51½ by 33½ feet, is the largest object ever displayed in the NGA.

“Diaghilev never wanted to rest on his laurels,” Kennel says. “He was always innovating and redesigning.” Such forward thinking drew some of the biggest creative forces of the era. Composer Igor Stravinsky created the dissonant score for the 1913 “The Rite of Spring,” a production that also meshed folk-arty costumes and dancer Vaslav Nijinsky’s sharp-edged choreography.

Artists and fashion designers made many Ballets Russes costumes. Henri Matisse created a yellow robe for 1920’s “Le Chant du Rossignol,” bearing free-form squiggles painted on fabric. And Coco Chanel’s flapper bathing suits for 1924’s “Le Perlouse” smack of the easy sportswear designs of the era.

Dancers get their due, too: A young Mikhail Baryshnikov leaps in a stylized toga in a video of a 1979 production of “The Prodigal Son” choreographed by George Balanchine (another Ballets Russes alum). “Firebird,” one of the company’s earliest triumphs, is projected on a huge screen, its dancers morphed into dramatic, building-height silhouettes.

It all makes you wish you’d been around to see these productions 100 years ago. But this lively exhibit is as close to a front-row seat as possible, and we’ll take it.

Extra Spectacle: As if the over-the-top costumes and sets of the Ballets Russes exhibit aren’t enough, the National Gallery is also hosting a summer’s worth of dance performances. All performances are free and take place on the East Building Mezzanine.

Bowen McCauley Dance riffs on the footwork of “The Rite of Spring” with backup from the Alexandria Symphony Orchestra.
Sun., 6:30 p.m.

Dancers from the Washington Ballet lead a ballet workshop. June 9, 1 and 3:30 p.m.

The Kirov Academy of Ballet performs excerpts from the sexed-up “Afternoon of a Faun” and the sultry “Firebird.” July 13, 10 and 3:30 p.m.

D.C. contempo force Dana Tai Soon Burgess & Company
 presents pieces inspired by the Ballets Russes. Aug. 11, 1 and 3:30 p.m.

National Gallery of Art, 4th Street and Constitution Avenue NW; through Sept. 2, free; 202-737-4215. (Archives)
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