review by: Rachel Pafe
One of my childhood phases I like to call “prim little lady”. I refused to wear anything but dresses even in the coldest of climates. When the famed blizzard of ’93 struck, I remained stoic in my favorite tutu. For me, the image of the ballerina was the ultimate embodiment of femininity: always perfectly delicate in pale pink, impeccable satin slippers and graceful movement. The National Gallery of Art’s newest exhibition, Diaghilev and the Ballet Russes, 1909-1929: When Art Danced with Music, not only dispels this outdated perception of femaleness, but also any previous ideas of what ballet should and could be. Running from May 12th through September 2nd, the show explores the provocative dance company that shook Europe with collaborations between revolutionary artists, fashion designers, composers, choreographers and dancers. It features over 150 original costumes, set designs, film clips and drawings that create an immersive environment akin to a massive theater.
Originally part of a show organized by the Victoria and Albert Museum, the exhibition is divided into five segments that get progressively more fantastical. After explaining the history of how director Diaghilev got funding, initially an attempt to improve Franco-Russian relations, the first section is devoted to the Vaslav Nijinsky, the talented dancer and choreographer (conveniently also Diaghilev’s lover). Nijinsky caused uproar with his sensual and provocative dancing, exemplified in Afternoon of a Faun (1915) in which he plays a faun that fails to seduce a nymph and ultimately makes love onstage to her empty veil. Charlie Chaplin deemed Nijinsky a genius, audience members declared him offensive and today he is seen as an iconic gay cult figure.
The next two sections focus on the partnerships between the dance company and the Russian and international avant-garde movements. It introduced the audience to Russian Futurists, a movement obsessed with new technology and industrialism, which translated into costumes that evoked movement and speed. This is displayed in all of its glory with the production of The Firebird (1910), whose display includes a fifty-foot backdrop of a domed city. The international avant-garde was essentially focused in France and took traditionally two dimensional art movements and made them not only accessible to a wider audience, but introduced them to movement as well. Watch Picasso’s Parade (1920), which includes unnatural, mechanical movements and angular, massive costumes that helped in “coaxing the cubists out of their isolation”.
The last section explores Modernism, Neoclassicism and Surrealism. Standouts include De Chirico’s surrealist ballet, The Ball (1929), in which the costumes and backdrop resemble a crumbling Roman city. It also features costumes designed by Coco Chanel, who defied traditional female fashion through her embrace of typically male patterns, cuts and lengths.
Diaghilev’s dance company radically challenged conventions, expectations and art as we know it. The exhibition is a fitting homage that leads the viewer on a journey of awe-inspiring sensory overload. It provides a rare glimpse into an art form that many see as conventional, but in reality is quite the contrary. It’s time to look beyond tutus