The Ballets Russes at 100

It was in 1909 that Sergei Diaghilev stunned Paris with the first performances of his Ballets Russes, and today the dance world is celebrating the centenary of this crucial turning point in the history of ballet. Diaghilev—a prodigious musician, authority on art, administrator—inspired not only a great artistic venture but a revolutionary aesthetic. To him, we in the West owe Stravinsky’s Firebird, Petrouchka, Le Sacre du Printemps, Les Noces, Apollo; Bakst’s thrillingly exotic palette; the choreography of Fokine, Nijinsky, Nijinska, Massine, Balanchine; and the impact of his great Russian dancers—Nijinsky above all.

So how to celebrate this genius and the dance theater he brought into being? In New York, Lynn Garafola, probably the country’s leading expert on the Ballets Russes, has curated a captivating if somewhat limited show called “Diaghilev’s Theater of Marvels: The Ballets Russes and Its Aftermath” at the Library of Performing Arts at Lincoln Center. Just cross the Plaza and walk in—the exhibition’s right there at the front, and it’s free.

Here, handsomely displayed, is a delectable assortment of art, photography, cartoons, costumes, written material and film clips—enough to remind us of the range of Diaghilev’s achievement, and the extent to which these past hundred years of dance stem from it.

There are talismanic objects to gaze at reverently: actual pages, for instance, from Nijinsky’s famous diaries—his handwriting (surprisingly legible) on the very paper he used. There are items that suggest an entire world: a Marie Laurençin costume for Nijinska’s Les Biches—a simple, ultra-elegant blue-velvet tight-fitting jacket over the shortest of leotards—that gives us 1920s chic at a glance. There are artworks that bolster reputations: a Valentin Serov sketch of the ballerina Tamara Karsavina that makes us understand why she was so beloved. We may have seen these things in reproduction, but that’s different from seeing the real things.

I was reminded of how moved I was at the great Maryinsky school in St. Petersburg to be shown one of Balanchine’s report cards. (His best grades were in music and religion.) And of how—in the large City Ballet exhibition at the New York Historical Society some years ago (also curated by Garafola)—we could see the actual telegram from Balanchine to Lincoln Kirstein announcing the date his ship was landing in America. Somehow, such artifacts seem to carry magical conviction: Yes, Nijinsky did actually compose those journals—here they are! Yes, Les Biches was as chic as we’re told it was! Yes, Balanchine was once a schoolboy doing homework, and he really did land here in October 1933!

But the power of the show’s outstanding artifact is not nostalgic or sentimental. It’s the Joffrey Ballet’s replica of Picasso’s “The New York Manager” costume in Parade, the Satie-Massine-Cocteau avant-garde ballet of 1917. I had seen the Joffrey revival back in 1973, but up there on the far-away stage, Picasso’s amazing construct seemed less formidable than it is here, isolated in a glass case. First of all, it’s huge and brutal—its astounding gray, black, cream tones jumping out from the big buildings that are part of it (Time called these costumes “buildings you could wear”), its black top hat, the megaphone jutting out from the Cubist face … and the tiny delicate feet peeping out from underneath. Seen in this context, “The New York Manager” is not merely a provocative modernist costume but a major Picasso sculpture.

Nearby is the only slightly less impressive “The French Manager,” with its subtle green highlights. It’s separated, alas, from its counterpart by an obtrusive case placed between them, so you can’t see the two sculptures in relation to each other. No doubt there was a practical reason for situating them this way, but they deserve better.

The film clips are of varying degrees of interest. Most important for those who have never seen it: the famous clip of Olga Spessivtseva’s “Mad Scene” from Giselle—not only emotionally draining in itself, but shadowed by our knowledge that this great dancer would soon herself go mad. A soothing voice-over by Ninette de Valois pointing out exactly what Giselle is doing can safely be ignored.

Also, here is an extended excerpt from the dramatic film made by Pavlova in Hollywood: The Dumb Girl of Portici. It’s more running on a beach than classical dance, but it’s Pavlova. (The connection to Diaghilev is tenuous, but who’s counting?) I myself could have done without the Baryshnikov–von Aroldingen Prodigal Son that Balanchine filmed for Dance in America; not because it isn’t worthy, but because it’s readily available elsewhere. But if you’ve never seen it, don’t miss it—once you get over the skirtlet Balanchine insisted Baryshnikov wear, you’ll witness a superb performance.

For me, the most interesting clip on view is the most obscure: Lydia Sokolova in a section from Massine’s The Good-Humoured Ladies. I’d never seen it, or her, and this sequence, made late in her career, explains why everyone (including Diaghilev) found her so enchanting. The excerpts from Les Noces, from Parade itself (the Chinese Conjuror solo; the costume is on display nearby), and from Firebird are more instructive than revelatory. I know how difficult it can be to secure permissions for film, but this aspect of the exhibition could have been more original and stimulating.

Historically, perhaps the most telling document on view is a letter (in Russian, of course) from Serge Lifar to Diaghilev, dated Aug. 25, 1924. “As soon as you disappeared from sight, I suddenly came to and felt that the days I had spent with you and our heavenly Venice were not a dream at all, but the best and brightest days of my life … which will remain a pledge of human love for the whole of my life. …” So much for Lifar’s endless efforts to convince the world that his relationship with Diaghilev was purely platonic.“Diaghilev’s Theater of Marvels” will be at the Library through Sept. 12. An appropriate day to attend might be Aug. 19—the 80th anniversary of Diaghilev’s death.

 

The Ballets Russes at 100