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Dance of Creation

The Ballets Russes and the dawn of modernity.

Jun 17, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 38 • By EVE TUSHNET
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The exhibit doesn’t hammer on this question, but it does offer a few possibilities. And these suggestions make it obvious that our own time is not far removed from Diaghilev’s age of revolution. Some of the suggestions have to do with sex, of course, in all its manifestations: The “star” performer is objectified by the audience, even as he (and with the Ballets Russes, it was often a man) compels and commands it; he’s often displayed in sexually provocative costumes, but he awes by the physical power of his leaps and turns. There’s a sexual ambiguity here which remains controversial. (The National Gallery’s captions are matter-of-fact about the offstage homo- and bisexuality of several of the men at the center of the company’s success.) But there’s a deeper current of human emotion, a yearning for ecstasy and escape, for which sex is only one of the many outlets or symbols. Sex isn’t the reason the premiere of The Rite of Spring degenerated into a near-riot. It isn’t the reason that, as the National Gallery notes, “many of the dancers were as baffled by the ballet as the audience was.”

Ballet, with its extreme stylization, seems to stretch the boundaries of the human. The pointed toes, the ferocious toe-stepping which combines the sound of drumming with the visual impression of floating, the huge leaps—all of it seems more than human. It is close to hubris. And it carries an unspoken threat: If we can make ourselves something more than human, we can make ourselves something less. By inverting the conventions of the ballet (turning the toes inward rather than out, decking the dancers in heavy cloth or huge, nodding surrealist boxes), the Ballets Russes sometimes suggested that the stylization of a man might make him a beast or machine, a faun or a puppet. The fact that this threat sometimes slips into view is the exhibition’s most unexpected achievement.

In the end, we’re returned to the white and merely pretty gallery spaces. The last room of the show—the final tent at the midnight carnival—is dedicated to The Blue Train, a confection about holidaying, with costumes by Coco Chanel. It’s a relief, but it’s not what visitors will remember.

Eve Tushnet is a writer in Washington.

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