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Saturday, October 5, 2013

Ballets Russes to exit Oct. 6?

Natalia Goncharova, Russian, 1881-1962, costume for the sorcerer Kostchei from The Firebird, 1926. Dansmuseet- Museum Rolf de Mare, Stockholm/Patricia Leslie

If our paid representatives on Capitol Hill can get it together and reach agreement and stop wasting taxpayers' time and money on a congressional debacle about a law already passed which has been affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court, viewers will still have time to see a really big show at the National Gallery of Art, if the doors re-open.

It is an absolute must for all dancers, historians, art aficionados, musicians, any one with an art interest. Reason alone to stop the insanity on Capitol Hill, but, please, read on.

Sunday is the last scheduled day of the exhibition.  Since the federal government is closed and no one is working to deconstruct it, does this mean Diaghilev will be extended? We hope!

If you can get in the door, go.  If you are reading this, go.

Giorgio de Chirico, Italian, 1888-1978, costumes for Le Bal, 1929. Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, CT, and the Victoria and Albert Museum, London/Patricia Leslie

The large exhibition, Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes, 1909-1929:  When Art Danced with Music, encompasses it all: music, dance, film, costumes, set design, scenery.

The objects hang just a few feet from viewers permitting close inspection. Be prepared to be star struck at the National Gallery of Art, the only venue in the U.S.

On my first trip, my feet became concrete, and I fell into an art stupor, overcome by the ballet wonderland.

I exaggerate not.

Alexandre Benois, Russian, 1870-1960, costume worn by Lydia Lopokova as a Sylph from Les Sylphides, c. 1916. The poster behind the dress is of Anna Pavlova from Les Sylphides made for the first Russian season by Valentin Serov, Russian, 1865-1911, all from the Victoria and Albert Museum/Patricia Leslie

Captured at the entrance by the projected movement of the dancers in their costumes, and by film clips of the 1913 Rite of Spring dance which I could see in the distance, I was able to break the momentary hypnosis and move on into the exhibition. 

The original Ballets Russes Company created by Serge Diaghilev (1872-1929) of Russia lasted only 20 years until his death, significant that its short life could have such far reaching influence to command attention a century later.

Wikipedia says it is "widely regarded as the most influential ballet company of the 20th century."

Go and see why fancily-clad patrons rioted in Paris at Diaghilev’s 1913 premier of The Rite of Spring with music by Igor Stravinsky (whom Diaghilev discovered) and choreography by Vaslav Nijinsky. It was not a “good” riot, but a “bad” one (which naturally leads one to wonder:  Besides Miley Cyrus what would "outrage" us today?  Congressional members who act like marauding cats?).

Leon Bakst, Russian, 1866-1924, costumes for three Nymphs for L'apres-midi d'un faune, c. 1912.  National Gallery of Australia, Canberra. On the wall above the costumes is a scene from the dance film clip, complemented at the exhibition by the music of Debussy's memorable composition/Patricia Leslie

Before the political revolutionaries struck Russia, Diaghilev was already a dance revolutionary who with composers, designers, artists, and choreographers, introduced modernism to the world's stage, headlined by Russia.  Peter the Great would be proud.

Probably the greatest theatre producer who ever lived, according to the catalogue, Diaghilev's skills lay not only in his productions but his ability to assemble some of the twentieth century greats like Joan Miro, Pablo Picasso (who designed five of Diaghilev's ballets), Serge Prokofiev, Giorgio de Chirico, Leon Bakst, Georges Rouault, and Claude Debussy, who worked together to achieve the objective.

The Gallery show unfolds chronologically with the performances described in costume, show bills, photographs, and film.  Viewers may be shocked by some of the extreme and avant-garde apparel and wonder how the dancers moved about in intricate costumes weighing far more than one might imagine dancers to nobly carry.

Indeed, the “must-hear” tape (available for $5 until an hour before closing) reveals the dancers were none too pleased about some of their costumes.

Some of my favorite and most memorable dancers' attire are the athletic designs created by Coco Chanel for Le Train bleu (The Blue Train).  The outfits are unusual for a ballet with striped, knitted bathing suits that reach mid-thighs and so weird they are hard to visualize in a ballet, but a film clip of part of the dance does just that. 
Costumes from The Rite of Spring (1913) by Nicholas Roerich, Russian, 1874-1947, outline a view of the leaping manikin outfitted for The Spirit of the Rose (1911/1922) by Leon Bakst, Russian, 1866-1924. A reviewer for the Wall Street Journal called this Rose re-creation a "misstep" in the exhibition. The Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, CT, lent the Rose costume and the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Rite costumes/Patricia Leslie 

Although Diaghilev went to St. Petersburg in 1890 to study law, his interest in music led him to classes at the city’s music conservatory where a professor, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, almost squashed his dreams of a musical career by telling Diaghilev he had no talent.

The new graduate was not sidetracked by the prediction and went on to travel extensively in Russia, building up contacts with the art world, finding overlooked Russian masterpieces, staging theatre, and editing an art journal.

In 1906 he opened a major exhibition of Russian art in Paris, beginning a long love affair with France where he staged operas, ballets, concerts, and launched his multi-faceted company in 1909.

Mikhail Larionov, Russian, 1881-1964, costumes for Chout or The Tale of the Buffoon, 1921. Victoria and Albert Museum/Patricia Leslie

Sadly, Ballets Russes never performed in Russia but danced all over Europe, some South American countries, and in 56 American cities in 1916 and 1917, including Memphis, Nashville, Knoxville, Seattle, Portland, Atlanta, Omaha, Detroit, Tulsa, Wichita, Columbia, S.C., New Orleans, Richmond, and Washington, D.C. 

In Birmingham, Alabama the performance “Scheherazade was considered obscene,” said a paid Russian supplement to the Washington Post September 11, 2013, which quotes the stunning 270-paged catalogue and the National Gallery’s curator, Sarah Kennel.

(A map in the exhibition outlines tour stops, and the catalogue lists every performance, date, and location.)

After the 1917 Russian Revolution, Diaghilev never returned to his native land, and the Soviets dismissed him from their history books for 60 years. They executed his beloved half-brother, Valentin, a few weeks after Diaghilev died in Venice in 1929. 

Henri Matisse, French, 1869-1954, costume from The Song of the Nightingale, 1920.  Victoria and Albert Museum/Patricia Leslie

It is a privilege to see the exhibition and to read the catalogue, and guests have many donors to thank, especially ExxonMobil and Rosneft, and the U.S. taxpayers for making the opportunities possible.

The exhibition was initially presented in 2010 at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London which organized the presentation in collaboration with the National Gallery of Art. 

Since Diaghilev was able to gather up and successfully direct the disparate personalities well known for their quirks and sensitivities, who is to say another theatrical producer could take not command on Capitol Hill?  Does Steven Spielberg do politics?

WhatDiaghilev and the Ballets Russes, 1909-1929:  When Art Danced with Music

When: Now through October 6, 2013 (maybe) from 10 a.m. - 5 p.m., Monday - Saturday and 11 a.m. - 6 p.m., Sunday

Where: The National Gallery of Art, East Building

How much: No charge

Metro stations: Smithsonian, L'Enfant Plaza, Archives-Navy Memorial, or Judiciary Square

For more information: 202-737-4215

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