Ballets Russes Centennial
One hundred years ago, Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes burned the stage of Paris’s Théâtre du Châtelet with its debut season. Dancers of unprecedented virtuosity performed ballets with exotic, Orientalist themes that expressed seething passions and defied the stiff formalism of the danse d’école. They wore extravagant costumes—harem pants and tunics as often as tutus and doublets—against scenery of a swirling, painterly beauty. For the next twenty years, the Ballets Russes would remain in the vanguard of ballet, winning ovations and outrage with groundbreaking collaborations among an elite cadre of artists. Its early aesthetic would yield to more modernist sensibilities; its legacy of artistic collaboration and experimentation—ballets such as Apollo, Petrouchka, The Prodigal Son, Parade, Les Sylphides, and Firebird—would live on in the repertoire of ballet companies today.
While it is impossible to witness the dancing firsthand and fully understand the company’s allure, there is now a unique opportunity to become immersed in Ballets Russes history. Diaghilev’s Theater of Marvels: The Ballets Russes and Its Aftermath, an exhibition at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, on view until September 12, commemorates the company’s centennial and its visionary founder. Curator Lynn Garafola, a noted dance scholar and professor of dance history at Barnard College, has gathered here a staggering array of artifacts. The effect, however, is of wise selection, not overload, with each piece providing special insight into the story as a whole.
That story begins at the front of the gallery, where the wall text describes Diaghilev’s artistic ambitions in late 1800s Russia for a revitalization of art amid the prevailing Imperial Theater regime. The years advance as the gallery space deepens with areas devoted to each of the signature choreographers—Fokine, Nijinsky, Massine, Nijinska, Balanchine—and their collaborators in turn.
Delights are to both eye and intellect. Gorgeous prints by Léon Bakst, George Barbier, Natalia Goncharova, and Jean Cocteau stud the gallery. Reconstructions of costumes by Nicholas Roerich (The Rite of Spring) and Picasso (Le Tricorne and the cubist/futurist inspired Parade) occupy the rear of the space. Continuous showings of rare performance footage—Anna Pavlova levitating in The Dumb Girl of Portici, for example—offer glimpses of the unrecoverable movement source. Diaghilev’s letters to Russian authorities concerning the disappearance of his brother and sister-in-law (they were arrested), a denunciation of surrealist painters Max Ernst and Joan Miró for collaborating on Diaghilev’s Romeo and Juliet (they were accused of selling out), artists’ notebooks and other documents deepen our understanding of the times.
Garafola treats Diaghilev with admiration, celebrating his professional achievements and largely avoiding his personal life (whereas Diaghilev seemed to barely separate the two). Yet the exhibit is not meant to be definitive. Instead, the treasures on view inspire reflection, raise questions, and stimulate the imagination. Happy Birthday, Ballets Russes!
L.J. SUNSHINE is a writer living in New York. She has written about dance and Italian cultural events for Oggi Sette.
Exposé·esBy Norman L Kleeblatt
MAY 2023 | ArtSeen
While recently in Paris, I saw a curious, complex, and riveting exhibition titled Exposé·es at the Palais de Tokyo. It was inspired by and named after art historian, critic, and activist Elisabeth Lebovicis highly personal book What AIDS Did to Me (Exposées: Dapres Ce que le sida ma fait dElisabeth Lebovici).
John Ferren: From Paris to SpringsBy David Ebony
NOV 2021 | ArtSeen
John Ferrens extraordinary biography can sometimes overshadow his achievements as a painter. Born in Oregon in 1905, he spent some youthful years in the 1930s in Paris, where he befriended Gertrude Stein, and was embraced by the Parisian avant-garde.
9. November and December, 1955, ParisBy Raphael Rubinstein
JUNE 2022 | The Miraculous
A German composer, who was deported from the United States seven years earlier for being, as one right-wing politician put it, the Karl Marx of music, is hired by a French director to score a documentary film about the Holocaust. From Paris, he writes home to his wife in East Berlin: The film is grandiose, horrible, showing monstrous crimes...regrettably, the film people here are putting me under pressure to finish the whole thing in ten days even though the film is barely finished.
Wardell Milan: Bluets & 2 Years of Magical ThinkingBy Joel Danilewitz
MAY 2023 | ArtSeen
Walking through Wardell Milans new show at Sikkema Jenkins, I felt among his fleeting figures. In his exhibit, Bluets & 2 Years of Magical Thinking, the collages, sculptures, and paintings produce an intimate atmosphere. The audience forms a loose communion as they wander the three large rooms of the gallery, apprehending his vast paintings upon entrance.