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.
Yet the same exhibition illustrates how frequently aesthetics were discarded and replaced. The collection is marvelously wide-ranging, progressing from Bakst to Picasso's angular Cubism for 1917's Parade to Chirico's surrealist classicism for Diaghilev's last production, Le Bal, 12 years later, with many other styles in between.
A number of Ballets Russes productions still draw audiences today, while others have died out and reappeared as revivals. Clips of modern companies dancing some of these play on loops, enlivening and contextualizing the costumes on display. Even from a short film snippet, it's clear how perfectly Chanel's sporty suits for Le Train Bleu, in beachy rose (for the girls) and periwinkle (for the boys), complement the nimble choreography by Vaslav Nijinsky's sister Bronislava Nijinska and bright backdrops by Henri Lauren. You can feel how Alexander Schervashidze's front cloth for the ballet--a huge reproduction of Picasso's carefree Deux Femme Courant Sur La Plage--sets the mood as it hangs nearby.