It was an artistic renaissance laced with unexpected collaborations: Henri Matisse constructed costumes and Pablo Picasso used a stage curtain as a canvas. The Ballets Russes, the groundbreaking dance company founded by Russian impresario Sergei Diaghilev, was at the forefront of European art in the early 20th century.
One hundred years after the company’s premiere of Igor Stravinsky and Vaslav Nijinsky’s “The Rite of Spring,” the National Gallery of Art will exhibit “Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes, 1909-1929: When Art Danced With Music,” from May 12 to Sept. 2.
The 135-piece multimedia exhibition includes costumes, paintings, sculptures, set designs, prints, film clips and the largest objects ever to be displayed at the National Gallery of Art: Russian avant-garde artist Natalia Goncharova’s backdrop for the 1926 production of “The Firebird” and the front curtain for “The Blue Train,” designed by Pablo Picasso in 1924.
“We have not done a show like this before,” said Earl A. Powell III, director of the National Gallery of Art, of the 12,000-square-foot multimedia exhibition. “That moment in cultural history is a particularly resonant one when the performing arts, the fine arts and music came together. The show will touch many areas of cultural interest.”
Diaghilev created the Ballets Russes in 1909 after a presentation of Russian ballet in Paris. The founder of Russia’s first arts journal, he had dramatic influence on the art worlds in London, Paris and Berlin and initiated collaborations with the leading artists of the time, including composers Stravinsky and Claude Debussy, designer Coco Chanel, and artists Picasso, Matisse and Georges Braque. At the height of the company’s fame, the Ballets Russes toured Europe, the United States and South America. The company mixed elements of Russian and Western dance to create lavish productions that revolutionized ballet. It performed in Washington in 1916.
A version of the exhibition originated at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum in 2010, but the National Gallery’s adaptation will include more than 50 additional pieces on loan from museums around the world, including Dansmuseet in Sweden and the National Gallery of Australia.
“We’re not reprising the show but using it as inspiration,” Powell said. “We’ve added a lot of fine art to it — it’s truly a multimedia show.”
The exhibition will showcase costumes and sets designed by Leon Bakst, Chanel, Giorgio De Chirico and Sonia Delaunay. A section of the show will focus on Vaslav Nijinsky, the company’s most prominent choreographer, who is often called the greatest male dancer of the 20th century. The opulent costumes Nijinsky wore in performances of “Giselle” and “Le Festin” will also be on display.
Housing the blockbuster exhibition will be an additional challenge for the National Gallery. While opera houses and performing arts centers are designed to house massive stage sets, the gallery has never before displayed a work of this scale. In six weeks, the gallery will begin construction to raise the ceilings of the exhibition rooms to accommodate the 34-foot front curtain designed “The Blue Train” and 33.5-foot backdrop for “The Firebird.”
But the gallery is not ignoring the tiny details of ballet. The exhibition includes earrings worn by Nijinsky in “Scheherazade,” watercolor costume designs and original posters from performances.
As for whether the gallery intends to have more multimedia shows of this scale in the future, Powell points to the singularity of the Ballets Russes:
“You’d have to find another Diaghilev,” he said.