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Ballets Russes Comes to National Gallery in Multimedia Form

A century ago this month, an avant-garde ballet troop scandalized Paris with a primeval portrayal of human sacrifice set to dissonant music that seemed designed to provoke audiences and repudiate entrenched artistic conventions.

The Ballets Russes production of “The Rite of Spring” caused a near riot at its premiere on May 29, 1913, but over time would prove to be a transformational moment that both revolutionized dance and reconceived the performing arts as a synthesis of choreography, music, fine art and fashion.

The company’s defiantly contemporary approach and the way it fed off Europe’s burgeoning modernist movement in the first decades of the 20th century are the focus of a sprawling exhibit opening May 12 in the National Gallery of Art’s East Building. It features 150 original costumes, broadsides, paintings and theatrical objects from Ballets Russes productions, including a huge curtain and a vivid scenic backdrop that constitute the largest items ever displayed in the gallery.

The show documents how a who’s who of artists working in different media, including Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Coco Chanel and Jean Cocteau, gravitated to projects conceived by the Ballets Russes’ maverick impresario, Serge Diaghilev. The collaborations injected stylistic breakthroughs such as cubism, surrealism and neoclassicism into stage designs, costumes and ballet scores.

The cross-cutting nature of the exhibition, “Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes, 1909-1929: When Art Danced With Music,” attempts to capture an obsession with “total spectacle … the unification of arts on stage,” according to Sarah Kennel, the gallery’s associate curator of photographs, who assembled the exhibit. “The appetite for the new was insatiable,” she said, citing a daring 1917 production of the ballet “Parade” as an example of “the avant garde’s willingness to set its fortunes alongside dance.” Classical dance was falling out of vogue and becoming an outlet for wealthy patrons to ogle women’s legs when Diaghilev stormed out of tsarist Russia and began building his early successes around daring designs and his star male dancer and lover, Vaslav Nijinsky.

A demanding man with a habit of banging his cane to show displeasure and a preternatural fear of water, Diaghilev lived hand-to-mouth to fund his enterprise, which premiered more than 100 ballets and established numerous dance schools.

The producer at first seized on the then-prevalent view of Russians as non-Europeans to stage lavish, jewel-bedecked spectacles on Slavic and Oriental themes, including “Scheherazade,” “Prince Igor” and “Cleopatra.”

Diaghilev, who had launched Russia’s first arts journal before leaving the country, was no slouch as a publicist and built Nijinsky a near cult-like following. The outbreak of World War I drew more forward-looking Russians to Diaghilev’s camp. Their inclination to blend traditional folk art and cubist forms into futuristic mosaics of planes is captured in the largest piece in the exhibition: Natalia Goncharova’s 51.5- foot-by-33.5-foot backdrop for a 1926 production of Stravinsky’s ballet “The Firebird.”

Film clips and photos show how the company’s choreography incorporated stamping, pounding and often awkward movements and created a more visceral experience that synced with the wartime public’s growing revulsion with the status quo.

By war’s end, the Ballets Russes was turning international, enlisting French avant-garde figures such as Matisse, who designed a 1920 production of Stravinsky’s one-act “The Song of the Nightingale.” The company’s artistic circle would expand further in that decade to include modernists and surrealists. One high point was the adventurous 1924 ballet “The Blue Train,” a parody of sexual mores set in a beach resort that featured the music of Darius Milhaud and costumes by Chanel. The exhibit includes the imposing drop curtain Picasso designed for the show, depicting two frolicking, rotund women.

The final section of the exhibition details George Balanchine’s emergence as the company’s last choreographer, including designs and costumes from the 1929 surrealist ballet “The Ball.”

The exhibit is adapted from a 2010 show at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum with 50 additional pieces loaned by private collectors and museums, including the Dansmuseet in Sweden and the National Gallery of Australia.

Keeping with a recent trend of pairing museum exhibits with themed menus, the gallery asked chef Michel Richard to assemble a Russo-French bistro serving blinis, caviar, borscht and other favorites that will operate out of the West Building’s Garden Cafe. The experience aims to show how a single artistic institution changed modern culture. “Its legacy is found on fashion runways, in glossy magazines, concert halls and art galleries,” Kennel said.

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