Sunday, July 7, 2013

Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes, 1909–1929: When Art Danced with Music

Where: National Gallery of Art, East Building

When: through September 2, 2013

This is truly an overwhelming show.  It's enormous - room after room of sets, costumes, videos, photographs, posters - you name it.  By the end, you feel immersed in the ballet, not only the dance itself, but the art that accompanied it at the Ballets Russes.  The show is arranged chronologically, so the first floor is concerned with the founding of the company and the fantastic career of Nijinsky, its first great star performer.  Sadly, no video of any of his performances now exist, but contemporary descriptions mention his tremendous athleticism and his androgynous sexuality.  Note that although he was Diaghilev's lover, he married a ballerina - how's that for androgyny?

Diaghilev, the mastermind behind the company, was not a dancer, an artist or a musician.  What he had was the vision to bring together great dancers, artists and musicians to create tremendous ballets over the course of twenty years.  Interestingly enough, he moved from opera to the ballet as a result of financial pressures when Tsar Nicholas II withdrew his monetary support.  Amazing how much great art has been created as a result of money, or the lack of it.

The upper floor is devoted to the shows of the later period, with each ballet getting its own room - you are surrounded by the artwork, so you feel as if you are part of the show.  Two huge tapestries (I think I read that they had to raise a ceiling in order to accommodate them) are featured, one a backdrop and the other a curtain.  Their size and the fact that they are still in good shape (as is almost everything on display, amazingly enough) warrants a trip all on their own.

The videos on display are, for the most part, modern performances of the company's works.  Diaghilev refused to allow any filming of his company; the only video clip of the troupe was a clandestine film of a rehearsal - so bootlegging is not a modern-day invention!

Diaghilev's influence lives on through the lives of the performers with whom he worked, and those whom they taught.  As Stravinsky said of him, "his passionate devotion to the cause he served...won the hearts of his co-workers."

Verdict: Do not miss this show - make plenty of time, as you'll want to linger in the many rooms, and watch the videos.

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