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National Gallery Exhibit Highlights How Ballets Russes Revolutionized Dance

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Set designer Alexander Schervashidze enlarged and reproduced a Picasso painting, to serve as a front curtain for "The Blue Train" (1924).
2013 Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS)
Set designer Alexander Schervashidze enlarged and reproduced a Picasso painting, to serve as a front curtain for "The Blue Train" (1924).

If your idea of ballet is a flurry of tutus and toeshoes, a new exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in Washington will expand your vision. "Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes" shows the revolutionary impact a group of dancers, composers, artists and choreographers made on classical dance at the start of the 20th century.

The exhibit features silver and red painted designs for costumes, gold- and pearl-encrusted princely robes, a flat curtain conceived by Pablo Picasso, and a film of the Russian dance company's most famous — and controversial — dance, The Rite of Spring. Choreographed by Vaslav Nijinsky to music by Igor Stravinsky, the dance was scandalous when it was first performed in 1913.

"The Rite of Spring was something completely different, rhythmically so complex, tonally so difficult," says curator Sarah Kennel. "Nijinksy's choreography was just baffling to audiences. Here was Nijinsky, one of the greatest dancers in the world, and he was forcing his dancers to stamp, to turn in, to jump up and down. Their movement was so difficult and strange it was the antithesis of everything that ballet had ever been."

No tutus? No gracefully lifted legs? No lighter-than-air leaps? Sacre bleu!

"There was a riot on opening night," Kennel says. "Some people felt that they had been insulted. That they came to see the ballet and what they got was mud pie thrown in the face."

No surprise the original was performed just nine times in Paris. But the buzz delighted Sergei Diaghilev, the Russian impresario who was responsible for the entire, shocking production.

Diaghilev was "a cultural entrepreneur" and an "opportunist," Kennel says. "He had a great nose for talent. He was very well cultured himself. He had extensive training as a musician but his teacher essentially told him he didn't have enough talent."

So, in love with the arts, Diaghilev presented Russian artists in concerts and operas in Paris — with funding from the czar, for a while, anyway. When the money suddenly disappeared, Diaghilev turned from opera to ballet. Kennel explains: "Ballet was much less expensive than opera to produce."

If Diaghilev was going to do ballet, he wanted to get beyond the imperial court dance traditions — the classical tutus and such. He had watched American dancer Isadora Duncan in St. Petersburg and had been impressed by her natural, loose and modern movements.

"That freedom of movement — the idea that movement comes from within the body and is expressed through the entire body, not just hands and feet, was very influential," Kennel says.

Diaghilev knew some Russian choreographers and dancers who were also eager for something new. In 1909, he cabled a theater manager in France with his pitch. He said he would bring the best ballet company in the world to do three performances a night. By 1911, the company was based in Paris and touring the world.

The National Gallery Ballets Russes show is subtitled "When Art Danced With Music" because avant garde artists designed the sets and costumes. Picasso created cubist jackets; Henri Matisse made a tinseled, yellow satin robe; and Coco Chanel, who was a patron, did little wool bathing suits for one dance.

The Ballets Russes became the thing to see. And the real magnet — the one who kept the seats full — was Nijinsky, the dancer and choreographer. Gorgeous, with blazing dark eyes, fabulous cheekbones and a dancer's body, he became a major star.

"Nijinsky was an incredible talent," Kennel says. "He was technically very well trained. He was incredibly strong. He could jump in the air, seemingly able to stay there. The story is that somebody asked him once, 'How do you jump so high?' And he said, 'It's simple. You just jump up there and wait a little while.'"

Nijinsky was worshiped by men — it was a moment when gay culture became visible in Paris — and by women, who got the chance to really look at a man and be seduced by what they saw. Slithering sensuously, having his way with a scarf to Claude Debussy's Afternoon of a Faun, Nijinsky's choreography scandalized Parisians who thought the movements were just wrong.

"Some people said, 'Well, he's Russian. He just can't understand our French music,'" Kennel says.

Nijinsky spoke with his body, and as dancer and choreographer, created a universal language. Kennel says Nijinsky and company represented one of the great turning points, not just in ballet, but in modern culture: "The Ballets Russes transformed the future of ballet in the West and really in the world. By bringing dancers with great traditional training to look at modern forms of movement, great music — and bringing music and design and dance together into a cohesive whole."

"Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes, 1909-1929: When Art Danced With Music" is at the National Gallery in Washington through early September. Lavish, colorful, seductive, shocking: It's a show that quickens the imagination — not to mention the blood.

The closing date for Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes: When Art Danced with Music, 1909-1929 has been extended from September 2 to October 6, 2013.


[Music: "Afternoon of a Faun" by Claude Debussy]

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