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.

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.

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.

But the costumes remain on their mannequins, the curtains remain undrawn; something is missing. Without the presence of movement, there is a disconnect; it is like being shown a Stradivarius and through it, asked to imagine the symphony.

The real genius of a design sometimes becomes apparent only when you can see it within the whole moving spectacle. It takes Balanchine's choreography for Song of the Nightingale to appreciate what Henri Matisse envisaged in the patterns of his "mourner" costume, to picture what Stravinsky was hearing when he composed the music. The Ballets Russes, despite their name, were not creators of dance theatre, but of a greater body of Gesamtkunstwerk--works of art that offered a total sensational experience unlike any before.

"When Art Danced with Music" cannot present the Ballets Russes' works in their totality, but it does elicit a longing to experience them that way. The original sensations they inspired, though, cannot be repeated. A 1919 crayon-on-paper drawing called Mask by the dancer Nijinsky, in particular, evokes that wistfulness: At the time, Nijinsky had been committed to a psychiatric institution, and would spend the rest of his life unable to dance as his schizophrenia advanced. Abstract blue and red arcs in Mask intersect to form a face. The corners of its eyes appear pinched with anguish, its mouth open as if crying out--a drawing that recalls a genius that once was, but can never again be.