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Exhibit from Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes is glorious art

By Alastair Macaulay
New York Times

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  • Changing the world

    “Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes, 1909-1929: When Art Danced With Music,” through Sept. 2 at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

    Details: 202-737-4215; www.nga.gov.



WASHINGTON Any exhibition honoring Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes is likely to be a blast of color. When the company was born in 1909, its designers Alexandre Benois, Leon Bakst and Nicholas Roerich combined hues with an intensity unknown on Western stages.

Its final premiere, in 1929, was George Balanchine’s ballet “The Prodigal Son,” whose designs by Georges Rouault had, deliberately, the glow of stained-glass windows. In between, great colorists like Picasso, Matisse, Sonia and Robert Delaunay, Mikhail Larionov and Natalia Goncharova passed through like a shower of meteors.

To visit the big Diaghilev show at the National Gallery of Art is to feel all this anew.

It’s well known that Serge Diaghilev, the Russian ballet impresario, brought together some of the greatest artists of the early 20th century to modernize and revolutionize theater and dance with his Ballets Russes. This exhibition, subtitled “When Art Danced With Music,” shows how he not only caught the waves of history but also kept causing new ones. In the visual arts, in music and in choreography, he was a vital agent in commissioning successive stages of modernism and in redefining classicism. Audiences went to the Ballets Russes to discover novelty, sensation, shock, the changing world of 1909-29.

One example: A costume in the first room could easily pass for 1960s psychedelic multicolor pajamas. Actually it was worn by a Polovtsian Warrior in the dances from the opera “Prince Igor,” the final and most sensationally galvanizing work of the company’s celebrated opening night in Paris.

Here we see allover tights worn by women in ballet (“La Chatte” and “Ode” in the late 1920s) and modern outfits by Chanel (“The Blue Train,” 1924); here, too, are radical scenic examples of neoprimitivism, cubism, constructivism.

No segment of dance history so lends itself to exhibition as Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. Diaghilev had begun his career by presenting, between 1895 and 1906, exhibitions that changed people’s views of the styles and history of art. He then applied this to opera and, finally and most famously, to ballet.

Ballets Russes is where Picasso met Stravinsky and Chanel; where Stravinsky met Nijinsky, Matisse, Cocteau and Balanchine; and where Nijinsky wore costumes by Bakst and Benois, was sculptured by Rodin, was photographed by Druet and de Meyer, was sketched by Cocteau and danced to new scores by Stravinsky, Ravel and Debussy.

No Diaghilev exhibition could ever be complete, however; neither can any Diaghilev book. The subject is too vast, too multifaceted.

This show captures many facets of his enterprise. Past ventures are not only present but freshly arresting. Miniature details – a pair of tickets for the 1909 season, the earrings worn by Nijinsky in “Scheherazade” – enchant. Pictures, costumes and designs make us speculate on the idioms of lost ballets.

As the world about him changed, Diaghilev kept changing the world and its history onstage.

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