There's a marvelous exhibit at the National Gallery in Washington--and it will be there until early September. It's dedicated to a dance troupe which managed to draw on the greatest artists, composers, and costume designers of the early years of the 20th century to create masterpieces of the dance repertory that remain ornaments of the culture today.
The company was the Ballets Russes and its creator and impresario was Serge Diaghilev. The show at the National ranges from the elaborate and imaginative costumes, to the creative posters and playbills, and even some of the massive backdrops for the sets of the great dance programs the company presented. Most fascinating, though, are the videos, most from presentations of these ballets by companies like New York's Joffrey Ballet in the 1980s, of the greatest conceptions.
Diaghilev was an admitted failure as singer, composer, or artist, but he ranks as the foremost impresario of our times. Not only did he obtain the contributions to the dance programs of artists such as Picasso, Rouault, Modigliani, Goncherova, and Matisse; along with music composed for the company by Stravinsky, Prokofiev, and Satie; costumes by Bakst, Roerich, and Coco Chanel; his choreographers, beginning with the fabulous Fokine (who gave us Petrouchka), and then Massine, and ending with Balanchine, who then went on to build the renowned New York City Ballet; but he managed to find a dancer often regarded as the greatest ballet has ever known--Vaslav Nijinsky, who also choreographed (and starred in) Afternoon of a Faun (to Debussy's music) and The Rite of Spring, the Stravinsky composition that revolutionized dance in 1913 just as the Armory Show did for art that year.
The impresario's most redoubtable accomplishment, though, was not merely in convincing these premiere artists to work on his projects: he managed to inspire them to produce some of their best work. The several videos shown in the exhibit, along with a half-hour video that covers the twenty-year span of the company's existence (1909-1929), attest to the brilliance of his performances.
It's so rare that we can point to a specific company and declare without reservation that it set the standard for its art. Not only did Ballets Russes attain this acclaim but the company succeeded--as hardly any other arts endeavors can claim to have even tried--in bringing together the best of what was then the avant-garde but now are seen as the pre-eminent standouts in art, music, costume design, and, yes, dance.