Russian Reflection

At BMA, costume, set designs of Ballets Russes illuminate influence on modernism

Baltimore Vivat!

February 12, 2003|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

It was one of musical history's most memorable nights. On the evening of May 29, 1913, the curtain at the Theatre des Champs-Elysees in Paris went up for the first time on Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, performed by Serge Diaghilev's Ballets Russes and choreographed by Vaslav Nijinsky. Almost before the first notes had faded, pandemonium broke out in the house.

Eyewitness descriptions of the evening (no two of which agree) include fistfights in the audience, objects hurled through the air, screams, fainting, invective, even a challenge to a duel. At times the hubbub was so great the music could not be heard by the dancers on stage. The riot was so traumatic for the composer that soon afterward he fell ill with typhoid fever and had to spend several weeks convalescing at a nursing home in Neuilly.

Of such stuff are legends made, and none in the world of music and dance is more enduring than that of the Ballets Russes, the celebrated company that brought modernism in music, dance and the visual arts together with world-shaking impact in the second two decades of the 20th century.

Now the Ballets Russes' unprecedented contribution to the birth of modernism is the subject of a magical exhibition at the Baltimore Museum of Art. The show presents nearly 80 designs for costumes and sets, along with more than 30 outfits created for the dancers of the Ballets Russes by some of the most renowned artists of the 20th century, including Picasso, Matisse, de Chirico, Miro and Gris.

Drawn from the greatest single collection of Ballets Russes material in the world, the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art's Lifar Collection of Designs and Costumes, the exhibit also includes exotic and sumptuous costume designs by the company's principal artist, Leon Bakst. (The designer also is creator of a private theater and decoration for Baltimore's Evergreen House, the former Garrett family mansion.)

Between 1909 and 1929, the Ballets Russes, founded by Diaghilev to bring modern Russian music and dance to the West, was one of the most spectacular cultural forces shaping the evolution of modernism in Europe and the United States.

Diaghilev envisioned his company as a total artistic enterprise encompassing theater, music, dance and the visual arts. To accomplish his visionary projects he gathered around him the most advanced artists of his day, whom he coaxed, cajoled, threatened and intimidated into collaborations that produced some of history's most incandescent theatrical performances.

The BMA show coincides with Vivat!, Baltimore's city-wide celebration of the 300th anniversary of St. Petersburg. It includes works from 25 productions performed over two decades by the Ballets Russes, including Stravinsky's first two ballets, The Firebird and Petrushka, as well as such traditional favorites (reinterpreted in modernist trappings) as Scheherazade, Romeo and Juliet and The Sleeping Princess.

An accompanying exhibit, The Brilliance of Bakst, highlights the bold and colorful textile designs of Diaghilev's longstanding (and, in the face of the impresario's mercurial temperament, long suffering) collaborator, Leon Bakst, who created many of the Ballets Russes' most strikingly original sets and costumes.

A pioneer in the worlds of both fashion and theater design, Bakst's creations won the unreserved praise of critics and commentators. "These settings are pictures such as our stage has hardly seen," remarked one dance writer. "They are backgrounds, too, against which the dancers are vivid or into which they seem to melt."

The BMA

What: Art of the Ballets Russes and The Brilliance of Bakst

When: Wednesday through Friday 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.; through May 4

Where: The Baltimore Museum of Art, 10 Art Museum Drive at 31st and North Charles streets

Admission: $7 adults, $5 students and seniors

Call: 410-396-7100

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