“There was a definite puppet-like quality about [Vaslav] Nijinsky’s Petrouchka. He seemed to have limbs of wood and a face made of plaster, in which his eyes resembled nothing so much as two boot buttons. Only now and then did he make you aware that beneath this façade there was a tiny spark of human life, which you caught sight of by accident, as though it were something you were not meant to see. Gone were those fascinating features with the slanting eyes, that marvelous élévation—all had vanished, to be replaced by this wretched puppet—beaten, humiliated, and the sport of its fellows—a victim of cruel injustice, which moved by jerks and starts and hardly left the ground. Nijinsky’s Petrouchka was a puppet that sometimes aped a human being; all the other interpreters of the role that I have seen suggested a dancer who was imitating a puppet.”
"Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes, 1909-1929: When Art Danced with Music," at the National Gallery of Art through September 2, attempts to give its audience an experience almost as immersive and complete as the experience of the Ballets Russes itself. The exhibit is divided roughly by ballet, so that each gets its own room. The walls are a deep peacock blue, often painted with images that recall the dropcloths used in the ballets themselves. The big exhibit winds through two floors, journeying through time. And it doesn’t just showcase paintings, sculptures, and drawings of the Ballets Russes—by familiar names like Picasso, de Chirico, and Rodin—but includes magazines, posters, a wealth of original costumes, 3-D set designs, music composed for the company, and videos either re-creating the company’s choreography or reinterpreting it.
It’s ambitious, and it mostly works. Even the walk over to the exhibit feels like a part of the show: In the cool, white, high-ceilinged landing of the gallery, you walk past George Segal’s 1971 plaster sculpture The Dancers, in which a ring of four calm and focused women practice their moves. From this image of peace and clarity you suddenly enter the dark, exotic, lush world of the Ballets Russes exhibit: a world of inspiration and ecstasy. The walls are close, the music swells, and placid white is replaced by red and gold and blue.
It’s impossible to re-create ballet in an art museum, but this comes surprisingly close. Sculptures show the dancers in gravity-defying poses, every limb arched and crooked. Boris M. Frödman-Cluzel’s 1909 bronze of Adolph Bolm as the Polovtsian Chief from Prince Igor shows the dancer in a pose which is all angles and abandon: head thrown back, stomping, swooning, saber raised on high. Valentin Serov’s lithograph of Anna Pavlova from the same year shows the curves to Bolm’s sharp corners. She’s all lissome, regal control. And the costume designs by Léon Bakst are delirious works of art in themselves. His design for Nijinsky in Afternoon of a Faun, which serves as the exhibit’s poster, shows the black-and-white-spotted faun romancing a snaky, jewel-toned scarf and a Dionysian bunch of purple grapes. There’s more snakiness in Bakst’s sketch for a Bacchante from Narcissus.
All Bakst’s sketches are sultry, with more than a hint of danger. In contrast, Jean Cocteau’s poster for Nijinsky in Le Spectre de la Rose—and, seriously, it seems as if everybody who’s anybody is in this show—portrays the dancer in a soft, almost boneless, lilting pose.
There is also more direct representation: A 33-second clip of a Ballets Russes rehearsal from 1928 plays on one wall, showing Mikhail Fokine’s choreography and Serge Lifar just hanging in the air like a firework. Other, bigger screens show the Joffrey Ballet’s re-creations of the original choreography for Faun and The Rite of Spring. These screenings don’t quite work, largely because they’re physically too close together: You can hear the dulcet Debussy while you’re trying to watch the pounding, anti-dulcet Stravinsky, and vice versa. On the exhibit’s top floor, a 2010 short film inspired by The Firebird has some striking images of black and flame-filled women’s silhouettes. But it’s too didactic and respectful, too PBS. It pales in comparison to the original Natalia Goncharova Firebird backcloth which hangs on the opposite wall.
There’s a wealth—almost a surfeit—of provocative and gorgeous artwork in this show, but there are also glancing attempts to answer the underlying question: Why was Sergei Diaghilev’s transformation of the ballet so shocking?
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.