Ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev's storied penchant for accruing boldface names under the auspices of the peripatetic ballet company Ballets Russes is half Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk and half name-dropping PR stunt. The fruits of his collaborative labors are now on view at the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. Building on a 2010 exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum, “Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes, 1909-1929: When Art Danced with Music” contains 130 set designs, backdrops, programs, posters, and paintings, including 38 costumes by modernist heavies including Coco Chanel, Natalia Goncharova, Sonia Delaunay, Giorgio de Chirico, Henri Matisse, and Pablo Picasso. Fashion, the exhibition’s curator Sarah Kennel explains, was an integral part of Diaghilev’s emphatically visual spectacles: “Diaghilev proved that design wasn’t just accessory on the stage,” she told the Washington Post. “The company went over the top. There was a lot of imaginative creation and body-conscious designs that made the costumes daring and new.”
The opulent, Orientalizing costumes from the 1911 production of Scheherazade designed by Léon Bakst — a painter, interior designer, and co-founder of “Mir Iskusstva“ school (a kind of Russian counterpart to art nouveau) — are as synonymous with the Ballets Russes as Igor Stravinsky’s primitivist provocation “The Rite of Spring.” Bakst’s bejeweled bra tops and harem pants fed Parisian tastes for the exotic and exploited the Ballets Russes’s sense of ethnic ambiguity — their situation at the junction of East and West. “The Ballets Russes understood that French saw them as something incredibly exotic,” Kennel said. But the Ballets Russes aesthetic didn’t stop at gilded Orientalism. Designs in the exhibition run the gamut from the ornamental to the reductive, from Nicholas Roerich’s Uzbek folk costumes to Picasso’s cubistic magician suits to Coco Chanel’s modish unisex wool tanks.
As art historian Juliet Bellow notes, “Between the debut of Picasso’s ballet Parade in 1917 and the dissolution of the Ballets Russes in 1929, nearly every well-known artist based in Paris designed for the company,” including but not limited to Jean Cocteau, Georges Braque, Juan Gris, Max Ernst, and Joan Miró. In many of the designs, we see Modernism in its many guises working itself out. Delaunay’s signature polychromatic spheres appear on the breastplates of a gown worn by the title role in Michel Fokine’s Cleopatra. Goncharova’s regionalist folksy motifs adorn her costumes for Stravinsky’s The Firebird. Surrealistic depictions of the stars and planets adorn a waistcoat designed by de Chirico. Nowadays, the PR-fueled blitzkrieg of fashion and art collaborations tends to inspire a collective eye roll. “Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes” gives us a refreshing glimpse at a moment when interdisciplinary collaboration was novel and exciting, when the notion of immersive artistic experience carried with it radical aesthetic implications.