If there is one event that I can point to as reawakening my interest in costumes, theater, and dance, it is going to see an exhibit on the Ballets Russes at the Wadsworth Atheneum in 2009. It’s wonderful, in both the current and archaic sense of the world, how experiences that might have passed by unremarked can sometimes combine with circumstance, emotions, the company you’re with, a million factors, to change your life.
I was getting over a minor heartbreak and looking for something to do to get me out of the house and distract me from my sorrows. My brother suggested we go to the Atheneum, a lovely museum only half an hour away in Hartford. When we got there, we saw posters advertising the Ballets Russes exhibit, which according to the ads had just closed. But when we got in, we discovered that it had been extended a few more weeks.
I had heard of Diaghilev, Bakst, Nijinsky, but only in passing before. At first I was most interested in the costumes and sets designed by Matisse and Picasso and Leger, famous painters, but as soon as I started looking around I was entranced by the more “in-house” designers: Bakst, Benois, Roerich. The costumes themselves were fascinating, using every possible technique for decoration: embroidery, applique, painting, often all on the same garment. There were videos playing some of the famous ballets; Balanchine’s Apollo, Fokine’s Petrushka, a reconstruction of Nijinsky’s Rite of Spring. I knew some of the Stravinsky music but to see it danced gave me a very different appreciation for it.
I’m still following trails I started following that day. I’m still looking for the contemporary work that gives me the same kind of feeling, hopefully avoiding the problematic Orientalist vibe that shows up in so many Ballets Russes works. Below the fold are a few of my favorite designs; I highly recommend this collection of art that a diligent Flickr user has created.