The main reason I took a side trip to Washington, DC was to see this exhibition, Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes: When Art Danced with Music. Ever since I saw some of the costumes at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut in 2006, I’ve been interested in how the costumes of the Ballets Russes influenced the fashions of the 1910s and 1920s. So when I heard that this exhibition was to be held at the National Gallery of Art, I was pretty excited. Originally organized by and shown at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, it was a big hit there in 2010.
I’m not going to beat around the bush. This is a must-see exhibition if you are interested in the art, music, ballet, and fashion of the 1910s and 1920s. The story of how Serge Diaghilev assembled the best of the avant-garde to transform ballet is a fascinating one, and the National Gallery tells it in a very engaging manner. The exhibition is multilayered, with not just the costumes and props that are on exhibit, but using them in combination with the original drawings, artworks that were an influence, historic photographs, and film clips of the actual dances (but not from the original 1909-1929 productions because Diaghilev did not permit filming).
I’m not going to try to tell the entire story of the Ballets Russes, as it would make this post much too long. For a brief overview, the V&A site has a nice page that was made for the original exhibition.
There is a one hour film that shows continuously that one needs to view before entering the exhibition. It tells the story of how Serge Diaghilev, who was not a dancer, not a musician, nor an artist, was able to put together his incredible ensemble. Born into a wealthy Russian family that lost its fortune due to the political upheavals in early 20th century Russia, he left his home in St. Petersburg in 1906, and eventually decided that what Western Europe needed was a good dose of Russian culture. He was just the man to supply it.
In Russia, Diaghilev had worked as a promoter of the arts, and had even published a magazine, World of Art. He was friends with many of Russia’s artists composers and performers, so he was in a good position to call upon their talents. From the beginning of the Ballets Russes in 1909, he had the support of Russians such as artists Léon Bakst and Natalia Goncharova, composers Sergei Prokofiev and Igor Stravinsky, and dancers Anna Pavlova and Nijinsky.
The Ballets Russes was a tremendous hit, and even during WWI the troupe continued working by touring North and South America. I find it amusing that the Ballets Russe never performed in Russia, but the people of Knoxville, Tennessee (about 90 miles from my home) were able to attend a performance in their town in 1916.
After the war, Diaghilev was able to bring in more artists to work on sets and costumes, including Picasso, Sonia and Robert Delaunay, and Matisse. Coco Chanel was also involved, making the costumes for Le Train bleu which were sporting clothes.
In 1929 Serge Diaghilev died. He had never accumulated a fortune, as all the money the company made was put into the next production. It was said that Chanel paid for his funeral and burial.
After the death of Diaghilev, the Ballets Russes disbanded and the dancers went on to be stars in other ballet companies, often using the old Ballets Russes dances and costumes. A group called the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo was formed in 1938 by some of the former members. The influence of the Ballets Russes was far-reaching and many of the writings I’ve read credit Diaghilev with pretty much inventing the modern ballet.
I’m indebted to the press office of the National Gallery of Art for the use of these photos of the exhibits. Photos were not allowed, but these are much nicer than what I would have been able to take. Most can be enlarged by clicking.
Please do not put these photos from my site on Pinterest nor on Tumblr.
This costume was originally designed for dancer Vaslav Nijinsky but this version is later, from 1922. The costumes often had to be replaced due to the hard wear on them.
This is Nijinsky wearing the costume as it was made for him in 1911. The petals were applied with him wearing the costume.
And here we see the costume as rendered by artist Jean Cocteau in a poster for a performance of The Spirit of the Rose.
A lot of thought and care went into all the costumes, not just those of the principal dancers. The designer, Nicholas Roerich, sourced authentic ikat fabrics for various Polovtsian dancers’ costumes, whose clashing colorful costumes were an important part of the overall spectacle.
The Afternoon of of a Faun was danced and choreographed by Nijinsky, and was an even bigger venture into the avant-garde. The costume for the Faun was mainly painted onto tights and body.
This costume was worn by one of the Nymphs. The ballet represented characters on a Greek vase brought to life, and the movements were intentionally two-dimensional. The first audiences to see it were understandably confused. Along with the costumes and artwork, the National Gallery has little theaters set up throughout so that many of the dances as interpreted by more modern dance companies can be viewed. The Afternoon of the Faun still looks very modern.
It was the ballet, Scheherazade, in 1910 that set off the fad for Orientalism in fashion. Paul Poiret always claimed that the Ballets Russes had no influence on him whatsoever, but I think he was protesting a little too loudly.
If you are familiar with the work of Sonia Delaunay, then you can see her theories of color at work in this costume. The exhibition also has the original sketch, which I forgot to request, but you can see it on the Metropolitian website.
Just so you will know that it was not just costumes, this is a three-dimensional model for the set of Les Sylphides. Click to see how wonderful it is.
My favorite object was not a costume, but was this back cloth from The Firebird. Even if you have not clicked to enlarge any of the other photos, you must see the larger version. When I stepped into the room where this cloth was hung, my breath was literally taken away. It is so large that the museum had to raise the ceiling in the room. To get a better look at its size, here is a photo with people standing before it.
This is just a very small taste of the exhibition. I spent hours, absorbed in the world of Diaghilev and his wonderful Ballets Russes. Then I had to buy the exhibition book.
And a little extra:
Today the costumes and set materials from the Ballets Russes are scattered across the world in museums and in private collections. You can look at the credits of the photos I’ve used to see a few of the collections that have Ballets Russes material. For years, many of the costumes and sets had been in storage, and in 1967 the first of many auctions was held. Over the next several decades the Victoria and Albert Museum amassed the largest collection of artifacts, but other museums such as the Wadsworth Atheneum and the National Gallery of Australia have noteworthy collections. You might be interested that the Australian collection was mostly bought in 1973 by an eleven-year-old boy. Well, sort of.