Ballet’s dance with the avant-garde

by

Staff Writer

On May 29, 1913, the Theatre des Champs-Elysees in Paris witnessed what has become a tale of artistic scandal re-told and exaggerated to almost mythic proportions. It is said that just seconds after the stage curtain was raised, the Ballet Russes’ performance of Igor Stravinksy’s “The Rite of Spring” triggered a raucous riot of heckling and heated arguments, which culminated with hurled objects, punches and arrests.

How violent it really became is still a mystery, but the event has gone down in history as one the most shocking stage performances of the 20th century. Sergei Diaghilev, the Russian ballet impresario and founder of Ballet Russes, was not upset. If anything, he was pleased.

No stranger to controversy, Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes — the costumes of which are the focus of the current exhibition at the National Art Center, Tokyo — had already defied the conventions of ballet, art and music with avant-garde productions that mixed the disciplines in a way no one else dared dream to do. The company’s 1909 “Saison Russe” debut performance stunned audiences in Paris, and within years Diaghilev had become both renowned and notorious for breaking rules.

Dissatisfied with the rigidity of art disciplines, Diaghilev pioneered crossovers on stage. Classically trained ballet dancers from top Russian Imperial schools performed groundbreaking choreography to modern scores and on sets designed by progressive artists. Choreography was devised for the music — the opposite creative process of traditional ballet — while costumes focused on such visual flair they occasionally threatened to impede performances.

Why the audience of “The Rite of Spring” was so riled is unclear. They had already seen — and applauded — the exotic, sensual costumes of Nicholas Roerich in “The Polovtsian Dancers from Prince Igor” (2009), as well as the modern compositions of Stravinsky in “Firebird” (1910). Perhaps this time Stravinsky’s syncopated score was too new and frustrating, or Vaslav Nijinsky’s erratic and rhythmically pounding choreography too bizarre for the classically cultured crowd. Then there were the costumes. Influenced by Russian folk attire, Roerich designed flamboyant gowns that at times were unflatteringly comical. There was not one tutu in sight.

Yet the show went on, as did the Ballet Russes, whose experimental collaborations with big names included composers Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel and Richard Strauss; choreographers Michel Fokine, Leonide Massine and George Balanchine; and artists Leon Bakst, Pablo Picasso and Giorgio de Chirico.

Touring around the time of the Russian Revolution, Diaghilev and his dancers were never able to perform in or even return to Russia. Instead, they fomented their own revolution of ballet across Europe and America until Diaghilev died of diabetes in 1929. Without its founder, and struggling with the financial burden of opulent costumes and original commissioned work, the Ballet Russes disbanded. It wasn’t until three years later that two other impresarios, Rene Blum and Colonel Wassily de Basil, were able to revive the troupe as the Original Ballet Russe. When Blum and Wassily de Basil split the company into two groups during the late 1930s, the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo toured America, while the Original Ballet Russe took to Australia.

For Australia, the effect of the Original Ballet Russe’s 1936 tour was profound. The troupe became so popular that many of the Russian dancers stayed to open their own companies, continuing to influence and modernize Australian dance. It’s no surprise, then, that the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, has collated one of the most comprehensive collections of Ballet Russes costumes.

Mostly from the original productions from 1909-1929, this visual feast of elaborate gowns, tunics, jackets, pants, hats and accessories also includes numerous drawings, detailed sketches and photographs that impress the dedication and inventiveness of all the artists involved. Colorful silks, wools, cottons and rayon are embellished with imitation jewels, metallic braids and embroidery, or painstakingly pieced together into geometric patterns and hand painted with unusual designs.

Bakst’s “Thamar” kafkans (ca. 1912), based on traditional Russian cherkeska, are explosions of color — layers of vibrant purple, blue and gold silks, trimmed with metallic thread, leather and glass cabochons. The dresses are equally opulent, with full skirts, imitation gems and medallions.

But artistic expression was not confined to the sumptuous. For “Le Bal” (1929), the Surrealist de Chirico painted brackets and bells of classical greek columns onto dancers’ jackets to achieve the illusion of live architecture, while Mikhail Larionov’s abstract flattened designs for “The Buffoon” (1921) reflected his own artistic development in Futurism and Rayonism.

Although the costumes were informed by the productions’ themes, they were also so phenomenally forward-thinking that it’s difficult not to draw parallels with the progressions in avant-garde fashion that followed later. There is the asymmetry of Larionov’s outfits, the flattened silhouettes of Henri Matisse’s, the body-hugging jumpsuits of Pavel Tchelitchew, even hints of minimalism from Georgy Yakulov.

Diaghilev wanted the Ballet Russes to break down barriers between ballet, art and music; to prove the disciplines needed and benefited from collaboration and diversity — but it did far more than that. It brought about a creative philosophy that endures to influence all artistic practices today.

“Ballets Russes: The Art of Costume” at The National Art Center, Tokyo, runs till Sept. 1; open 10 a.m.-6 p.m. (Fri. till 8 p.m.). ¥1,500. Closed Tue. www.nact.jp

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