One hundred years ago, Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes burned the stage of Paris’s Théâtre du Châtelet with its debut season. Dancers of unprecedented virtuosity performed ballets with exotic, Orientalist themes that expressed seething passions and defied the stiff formalism of the danse d’école. They wore extravagant costumes—harem pants and tunics as often as tutus and doublets—against scenery of a swirling, painterly beauty. For the next twenty years, the Ballets Russes would remain in the vanguard of ballet, winning ovations and outrage with groundbreaking collaborations among an elite cadre of artists. Its early aesthetic would yield to more modernist sensibilities; its legacy of artistic collaboration and experimentation—ballets such as Apollo, Petrouchka, The Prodigal Son, Parade, Les Sylphides, and Firebird—would live on in the repertoire of ballet companies today.
While it is impossible to witness the dancing firsthand and fully understand the company’s allure, there is now a unique opportunity to become immersed in Ballets Russes history. Diaghilev’s Theater of Marvels: The Ballets Russes and Its Aftermath, an exhibition at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, on view until September 12, commemorates the company’s centennial and its visionary founder. Curator Lynn Garafola, a noted dance scholar and professor of dance history at Barnard College, has gathered here a staggering array of artifacts. The effect, however, is of wise selection, not overload, with each piece providing special insight into the story as a whole.
That story begins at the front of the gallery, where the wall text describes Diaghilev’s artistic ambitions in late 1800s Russia for a revitalization of art amid the prevailing Imperial Theater regime. The years advance as the gallery space deepens with areas devoted to each of the signature choreographers—Fokine, Nijinsky, Massine, Nijinska, Balanchine—and their collaborators in turn.
Delights are to both eye and intellect. Gorgeous prints by Léon Bakst, George Barbier, Natalia Goncharova, and Jean Cocteau stud the gallery. Reconstructions of costumes by Nicholas Roerich (The Rite of Spring) and Picasso (Le Tricorne and the cubist/futurist inspired Parade) occupy the rear of the space. Continuous showings of rare performance footage—Anna Pavlova levitating in The Dumb Girl of Portici, for example—offer glimpses of the unrecoverable movement source. Diaghilev’s letters to Russian authorities concerning the disappearance of his brother and sister-in-law (they were arrested), a denunciation of surrealist painters Max Ernst and Joan Miró for collaborating on Diaghilev’s Romeo and Juliet (they were accused of selling out), artists’ notebooks and other documents deepen our understanding of the times.
Garafola treats Diaghilev with admiration, celebrating his professional achievements and largely avoiding his personal life (whereas Diaghilev seemed to barely separate the two). Yet the exhibit is not meant to be definitive. Instead, the treasures on view inspire reflection, raise questions, and stimulate the imagination. Happy Birthday, Ballets Russes!
L.J. SUNSHINE is a writer living in New York. She has written about dance and Italian cultural events for Oggi Sette.