"The Spirt of the Rose" by Jean Cocteau. (Courtesy of the National…)
The National Gallery of Art's "Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes, 1909-1929: When Art Danced with Music" is a must-see exhibit for dance fans. This exceptionally beautiful exhibit takes you step by step through one of the great periods in dance history. A distant era is made to seem fresh again.
Dance is such an ephemeral art form that a great performance one night typically exists only as a memory by the next night. Today's dance companies fortunately are good about filming performances and maintaining a visual archive, but there were major companies and performers in the early 20th century that now seem more legendary than real.
The famous Russian dancer Vaslav Nijinsky, for instance, had a relatively brief career during the first two decades of the 20th century. There are no surviving films that show him in action, so dance scholars and choreographers examine still photographs to see how he looked and presumably how he moved.
In doing such research, they read memoirs and newspaper accounts, study whatever notated dances exist, interview living links with the past, and basically try to piece together performances that were, of course, quite fluid. It can be a frustrating exercise.
"Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes, 1909-1929: When Art Danced with Music" is much less frustrating than the scholarly norm, because this particular company was blessed with so many notable dancers, choreographers, composers, designers and artists that their fame helped ensure the survival of a great deal of dance-related material.
Indeed, this exhibit contains 150 original costumes, set designs, posters, other artwork and even ticket stubs. There's also a rare 1920s-vintage film showing the Ballets Russes in rehearsal, as well as more recent films showing dances associated with this company being done by contemporary performers.
By far the largest single lender to the show is the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Its costume holdings are sumptuous proof that Nijinsky and his peers were visual knockouts even before they started moving. Reflecting a dizzying assortment of stylistic influences, these costumes are great art.
The over-the-top quality of the costuming reflects the sensibility of the impresario behind the Ballets Russes. Serge Diaghilev (1872-1929) had a knack for cultivating talent, merging Russian and western traditions, and producing dances so exciting that people still talk about them.
By way of celebrity talent, Diaghilev worked with composers including Igor Stravinsky and Sergei Prokofiev; artists and designers such as Leon Bakst, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Jean Cocteau, Georges Rouault, Alexandre Benois and Giorgio de Chirico; fashion designers such as Coco Chanel; and choreographers, including a young George Balanchine.
Their celebrated collaborations brought a modernist spirit to the tradition-weighted world of classical ballet. Sometimes the results literally were riotous, as at the 1913 premiere of "The Rite of Spring" in a Paris theater. Many audience members shouted their disapproval of composer Stravinsky's disturbingly primitive-sounding music and the dancer Nijinsky's equally primal choreography.
The exhibited costumes by Nicholas Roerich for "The Rite of Spring" make it plain that he wanted its maidens, tribal elders and other villagers to be earthy peasants. To say the least, this wasn't the usual refined elegance associated with ballet.
Roerich created eye-catching costumes for a number of ballets. One of the most striking is for a Polovtsian Warrior in "Prince Igor" (circa 1909). The silk ikat fabric has linear patterns and vibrant colors that make the costume itself seem primed to move.
It's all about movement, of course, and many of the costumes are designed to make a powerful visual impression when worn by dancers. For that matter, a sense of movement even comes across in the works on paper. Jean Cocteau's poster advertising "The Spirit of the Rose," a ballet done in Paris in 1913, features a lithographic depiction of Nijinsky wearing a skimpy outfit. Nijinsky's limbs jut into the pictorial space with such force that your imagination is prompted to make him take flight.
If Nijinsky is the dominant figure in the early history of the Ballets Russes, its talent roster and identity became quite eclectic in its later years. Various strands of modernism can be seen in its ballets from this period.
The Russian avant-garde is represented by a number of works by artist Natalia Goncharova, including her cityscape-themed painted backdrop for the Coronation scene from "The Firebird" (1926). Incidentally, this backdrop is approximately 51 feet wide by 33 feet tall, so you're entitled to stand and gawk.
Among those active in the French avant-garde, Picasso designed the sets, costumes and curtains for "Parade" (1917). He also designed the front curtain for "The Blue Train" (1924), which is nearly as large as the Goncharova backdrop.
In "The Blue Train," Picasso designed dancing figures that reflect his turn toward classical figuration in the 1920s. His collaborators on this project were choreographer Bronislava Nijinska, who was Nijinsky's sister; composer Darius Milhaud; and fashion designer Coco Chanel, whose sleek bathing suit-evocative costumes still look modern.
"Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes, 1909-1929: When Art Danced with Music" runs through Sept. 2 at the National Gallery of Art, Fourth Street and Constitution Avenue, in Washington. Call 202-737-4215 or go to http://www.nga.gov.