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Dance of the Titans

When Russian arts impresario Serge Diaghilev recruited a dynamic young cast of hipster artists, designers and choreographers to his Ballets Russes, he injected a new life and a radical bent into the languishing dance form. In the process, he transformed the arts culture of the early 20th century and beyond. Curator Sarah Kennel said the National Gallery of Art chose works for its exhibition that highlight the contributions of this unusual confluence of artistic icons.

The return of man

"Prince Igor (ActII)", May 19, 1909

Key artists: Choreographer Michel Forkine, dancer Adolph Bolm.

Male dancers, relegated to small roles for much of the previous century, returned to center stage. Diaghilev chose powerful dancers, such as Bolm and Vaslav Nijinsky, whom both genders would find attractive.

An iconic musician

"The Firebird", June 25, 1910

Key artists: Composer Igor Stravinsky.

With “Firebird,” Diaghilev introduced the relatively unknown composer Stravinsky, transfusing traditional Russian ballet with avant-garde modernism. In 1913, Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” would make a terrible first impression on its way to becoming a celebrated classic.

A new form of dance

"The Afternoon of a Faun", May 29, 1912

Key artists:Choreographer and dancer Vaslav Nijinsky, designer Leon Bakst.

Nijinsky departed drastically from the athleticism and theatricality of most Russian ballets. His choreography was modern, abstract and precise and made dancers resemble Greek statuary. Bakst, who had become famous after “Scheherazade” in 1910, aided the illusion with classically inspired sets and costumes.

High art and pop culture

"Parade", May 18, 1917

Key artists: Designer Pablo Picasso, playwright Jean Cocteau, composer Erik Satie.

Picasso brought cubism to the ballet, as he and Cocteau drew from movies and vaudeville-type shows. Satie’s music was equally modern, incorporating effects such as clacking typewriters.

Dancers as canvas

"The song of the Nightingale", Feb. 2, 1920

Key artists: Designer Henri Matisse, choreographer Leonide Massine.

In his first foray into designing for theater, Matisse saw the dance as a moving canvas, and his simple costumes created patterns onstage. They were also literal canvs: He painted directly onto the clothing.

Women in shorts

"The Blue Train", June 20, 1924

Key artists: Designer Coco Chanel.

Chanel’s beachwear costumes in this light satire of life on the French Riviera were nearly identical for men and women at a time when women’s sportswear was just emerging and corsets hadn’t yet disappeared.

Action packed sets

"Ode" June 6, 1928

Key artists: Designers Pavel Tchelitchew and Pierre Charbonnier.

Tchelitchew’s take on set design for this play about the Aurora Borealis went in the counterintuitive direction of modern constructivism. He used moving film as a backdrop and experimented with lighting, mirrors, phosphorescent paint and even pyrotechnics.

Rise of Balanchine

"The Prodigial Son", May 21, 1929

Key artists: Choreographer George Balanchine.

Before Balanchine became the father of classical ballet in the United States, he danced, then choreographed, for Diaghilev. “Prodigal Son” is considered one of his greatest works.

SOURCES: Sarah Kennel, curator of “Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes: When Art Danced with Music” at the National Gallery of Art; Victoria & Albert Museum; National Gallery of Australia; Library of Congress; Stanford University; The Australian Ballet.