Monday, October 21, 2013

Diaghilev & The Ballets Russes @ The National Gallery

Serge Diaghilev
There is always a certain contained excitement when walking down Fourth St. to the East wing of The National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. An anticipation of knowing the greatness of beauty, artistic achievement and perpetual awe that is housed there is about to explode before your very eyes.
  I hadn’t been to the museum for a few months and I knew there would be new exhibits to discover. When approaching the main entrance the first object seen is a marvelous but very familiar Henry Moore Bronze (one from a series of works he based on the bone structure of elephants.) The opposite wall always features a 50’x 80’ poster of the current featured exhibition. Looking in passing for a glimpse of what to expect; a preview of sorts, I recognized the exuberance of a Leon Bakst costume design but the title didn’t feature Bakst’s name. The bill board sized ad read: “Diaghilev (in huge bold letters) and the Ballets Russes, 1909 – 1929: When Art Danced With Music.” Who was Diaghilev? This was something of a mystery that had some possibilities. I was to find out in a grand way.
I walked inside through the revolving doors, past Miro, Naguchi and Motherwell to stand below the gigantic Calder attached to and hanging from the massive ceiling. I stopped to spend some time with the small French Impressionist works in an adjacent gallery and from there on to the second floor and Diaghilev! I walked into what was one of the most incredible, extensive and phenomenal exhibitions of the museums history. This was a multi-medium extravagance comparable to none the NGA has presented before. Original costumes, designs, drawings, backdrops, models, posters, video and music all just as a beginning. 

This was a land of enchantment filled with visitors from around the world and across the nation; Serge Diaghilev the promoter, the entrepreneur, the man who revolutionized the world of dance and inspired the great artistic creators of his time was an undeniable; “Hit.” The exhibition itself was of such proportions to cover three floors of the NGA and some interior walls literally had to be removed to bring many of the pieces into their display spaces.      

 Diaghilev’s talents were those of the promoter, the organizer, the pitchman. He was very much a Russian born P. T. Barnum of the arts. Diaghilev; the impresario knew how to stage a production and enlist the services of the great creative talents of his time, many of them the greatest artists of all time. Leon Bakst, Henri Matisse, Georges Roualt, Eric Sati, Coco Chanel, Pablo Picasso and George Balanchine were among those enlisted by the man and created many of their most famous personally celebrated works.  Anna Pavlova and Vaslav Nijinsky would dance for the Ballet Russes as they toured the world and changed dance and theatre forever.

Igor Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring and The Firebird,” Maurice Ravel’s “Daphnis et Chloe” and Eric Satie’s “Parade” all seminal pieces, all Diaghilev commissions.    Modern companies like the New York City ballet, the Joffery and the Dance Theatre of Harlem regularly perform works originally commissioned by Diaghilev for the Ballet Russes. Contemporary artists/designers including Julie Taymor and Nick Cave are under Diaghilev’s spell and show elements originating with the Ballet Russes in their work.    

 In conjunction with this informative, enlightening and thoroughly entertaing exhibition the NGA has produced videos, held lectures and even included on site live performances of such works as the “Fire Bird.” I was to visit “Diaghilev and the Ballet Russes” a total of two times. The idea of a third visit; considering the scale of the event it’s staggering volume and quality of presentation would have been considered but “Diaghilev” was to end prematurely.

The recent shut-down of the United States Government would close the National Gallery it’s many wonders and Diaghilev. The arts are always among the first to suffer.   

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