How to Make a Museum Exhibit About the Beauty of Human Movement

The National Gallery of Art commemorates the Ballets Russes' famous 20th-century dance performances by displaying the material works they inspired—as both artifact and art.
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The back cloth for The Firebird, by Natalia Goncharova in 1926, hanging at The Victoria and Albert museum in London in 2010. It is now at the National Gallery of Art. (AP / Kirsty Wigglesworth)

Acclaimed writer and ballerina Toni Bentley once described ballet thus: "Dancing is, by definition, a conscious act of loss. A ballet dancer goes onstage on a given night, in a specific theater, in a specific ballet and executes, in a specific fraction of musical time, a movement that is already past just as it appears... these moments of nonexistence; they are not even fleeting, they are... a shadow in someone else's mind at best." Movement, in other words, may be the most fragile art, and much of the artfulness lies in its impermanence.

The National Gallery of Art's exhibition of curated pieces linked to the Ballets Russes, an itinerant European dance troupe from the early 20th century, underscores this fragility. Founded by the wealthy, visionary Russian impresario Sergei Diaghilev, the company toured widely and helped shape the aesthetics of its era, drawing artists from Auguste Rodin to Pablo Picasso, Coco Chanel to Igor Stravinsky into its sphere as artistic collaborators. The other art forms the Ballets Russes inspired--costumes, sets, music, paintings, sketches, sculptures--still bears witness to their influence, though the dancing itself was fleeting and has long dissipated.

Works on display in "Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes, 1909-1929: When Art Danced with Music" express the poignancy of that loss. What remains in permanent, tangible form is both artifact--a material remembrance of performances that existed briefly on a few stages in Europe and the Americas almost a century ago--and art in itself, work that transforms the dynamic to the still.

Take, for instance, Rodin's small, bronze sculpture of the dancer Vaslav Nijinsky--leg raised, mid-crouch--in his legendary role as the eponymous creature of The Afternoon of a Faun. No footage exists of Nijinsky's performances, yet reverence for him survives--for his choreography and performances with the Ballets Russes, and for bringing an excitement and vitality that we cannot now know. (When Faun premiered in Paris at the Théâtre du Châtelet in 1912, its suggestive, unusual movements drew an outpour of passions, from wonder at its vision to repulsion for its "vulgarity." The next year, another Nijinsky masterwork, The Rite of Spring, was received so divisively that a riot broke out at its first performance.) The Rodin sculpture is violent energy contained; it offers a glimpse of the animal virility Nijinsky's motions exuded and the shocking newness in the steps he created. Still, it can only be a glimpse.

Costumes and sets for The Afternoon of a Faun were conceived by the artist Leon Bakst, one of Diaghilev's intimate friends and a key collaborator. Deftly sketched, brightly water-colored costume and scenery studies that Bakst made for ballets like Faun and Scheherazade  exemplify a sensuous art-nouveau style seen throughout the Ballets Russes' early productions. They feature clean shapes bound by muscular graphite lines; deep, opulent colors; and metallic paint details.

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Boer Deng is a freelance writer in Washington D.C. She has written for The New Republic.

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