MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Ballets Russes: “When Art Danced with Music”

diaghilev

Time to get in the mood for this weekend’s final subscription concerts of the Seattle Symphony’s season — and Ludovic Morlot has planned one hell of a program, with all three of Stravinsky’s blockbuster pre-WW I ballets.

I’m recalling the National Gallery of Art’s thought-provoking exhibition Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes, 1909–1929: When Art Danced with Music last fall. The show gave a dazzling overall impression of the many different areas of creativity that the wizard Serge Diaghilev somehow managed to draw together (not without a massive amount of drama): composers, writers, painters, sculptors, costume and set designers, lighting artists, researchers, propagandists, and naturally musicians and dancers.

Diaghilev’s brain itself must have been a Gesamtkunstwerk. This was the way to out-Wagner Wagner, and Stravinsky certainly intended to do that.

The exhibition also probed into future connections, the way these artists set currents in motion that would give birth to Cubism, Futurism, Dadaism, Surrealism.

The always-brilliant Philip Kennicott points out that “the legend of the Ballets Russes was always a bit better — and better tended — than the reality of what the troupe and its lead artists left behind.” He offers this handy summary of what the lasting impact of the Ballet Russes as a crucible of experiment:

In less than two decades’ time, one sees the invention of something so familiar we take it for granted, the free mixing of commercial entertainment and more traditional forms of art, the valorization of branding and fashion within the intellectual realms of culture, and the troubling, persistent and essential fracturing of art into style and substance.

And it’s important to realize how much of Diaghilev’s legend became linked to the power of celebrity:

Much of what is on display falls into the category of holy relics: Costumes worn by dancers who are legendary names; programs and photographs and publicity posters from tours of the company that are still spoken of in reverential terms by those who remember or knew someone who was there. Theater, including ballet, invites hero worship, and there are many objects in this exhibition that appeal to our celebrity pleasure receptors more than our artistic ones.

[…]

[T]hat’s the difference between performance and the plastic arts. The allure of the former is all about the moment, the luck of being present, the willful illusion that magic is happening. Diaghilev sold that dream, perhaps more effectively than any impresario before or since.

Filed under: art exhibition, ballet, Seattle Symphony, Stravinsky

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