A costume designed by LéonBakst for the 1912 production of The Blue God.
The National Gallery of Art’s new exhibition, “Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes, 1909–1929: When Art Danced with Music,” is dazzling the District with cultural riches from the archives of a beloved troupe, from Cubist stage sets by Picasso to daring costumes by Chanel.
On view through September 2, the exhibition showcases more than 150 original costumes, set designs, paintings, sculptures, prints, drawings, photographs, and posters from what has been called “the most innovative dance company of the 20th century.” The multimedia display will include video from nine ballets originally produced by the Ballets Russes, as well as the only existing clip of the troupe.
Founded in Paris in 1909 by Russian producer Serge Diaghilev, the company brought together the avant-garde artists, composers, choreographers, dancers, and fashion designers of the day and staged more than 80 ballets, including Igor Stravinsky’s illustrious The Rite of Spring, now celebrating its 100th anniversary. The Ballets Russes ignited an artistic revolution while touring the world, landing in Washington in 1916 and attracting ambassadors and members of high society to its electric performances.
“The company was the first to fully realize [Richard] Wagner’s dream of the ‘total work of art,’ not just reviving ballet but fusing the most cutting-edge elements of the visual, the aural, and the kinetic arts into a spectacular, cohesive, and modern whole,” says Sarah Kennel, associate curator of photographs at the National Gallery of Art. “As such, it formed a template for future generations, not just for dance and theater companies, but for all sorts of artistic collaborations.”
The presentation originated at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, but the National Gallery of Art reshaped it to focus on the aesthetics of the ballet, borrowing spectacular works from other institutions such as the National Gallery of Australia and Stockholm’s Dansmuseet, Kennel says.
Today, the exhibition is the only one of its kind to appear in the United States. It also features the largest works ever on view at the National Gallery of Art—including the Pablo Picasso–designed front curtain for 1924’s Le Train Bleu and Natalia Goncharova’s colossal 1926 backdrop for the company’s production of The Firebird. The ambitious installation required the museum to raise the ceiling in one of the upper-level galleries of the East Building to accommodate the size.
This show is also the East Building’s last before it closes for a three-year renovation. And in an international city where the arts are broadly supported, this presentation especially resounds. “The [dance] company was cosmopolitan like Washington, where we have embassies and cultural outposts from all over the world,” Kennel notes. “The exhibition takes a global outlook on an artistic phenomenon.” “Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes, 1909–1929: When Art Danced with Music” is on view through September 2 at the National Gallery of Art, 6th and Constitution Ave. NW, 202-737-4215