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The Art of Ballet Russes

By Angela Modany

Juliet Bellow and a Ballet Russes poster

Photo of Juliet Bellow and a Ballet Russes poster.

Juliet Bellow has helped bring something unprecedented to the National Gallery of Art—an exhibit on the Ballets Russes that incorporates set designs, costumes, paintings, drawings, and video.

Bellow worked as a consulting scholar with Sarah Kennel, the associate curator of photography at the National Gallery of Art, on “Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes, 1909–1929: When Art Danced with Music.” The exhibit is on view from May 12 to September 2 at the National Gallery of Art, the only U.S. venue. Bellow’s book on the Ballet Russes, Modernism on Stage: The Ballets Russes and the Parisian Avant-garde, was published in February.

“The Ballets Russes was a ballet troupe that existed for 20 years—from 1909 to 1929—under the leadership of the impresario Serge Diaghilev, who commissioned almost every major painter working in Paris to work as a designer for the company,” Bellow said. “These artists’ work as designers entailed envisioning the stage environment, composed of sets and costumes together; sometimes these artists also actually helped to execute their vision, to actually fabricate décors and garments for the stage.”

Picasso, Matisse, Miró, Sonia Delaunay, and other famous artists in Paris at the beginning of the twentieth century were involved with the Ballets Russes.

“To me, that’s really important because it means that the Ballets Russe is a really central phenomenon in terms of the development of modern art,” she said.

Art historians often ignore this interaction between artists and the ballet troupe, Bellow said, because they don’t know how to work with theatrical costumes and sets. “And it goes against a lot of our preconceived notions not of just what fine art is, but also what modernism is,” Bellow said. “Primarily, scholars define modernism in terms of painting, and other media take a back seat.”

Bellow said these artists took ideas they were developing in their paintings and “projected” them onto the stage in the form of sets and costumes. The process also worked in reverse. These artists could take ideas from designing these nonconventional forms of art and use them in their paintings.

“The material that I researched straddles conventional boundaries in the art historical world,” she said. “Art historians are accustomed to dealing with traditional types of artworks, especially people who are studying the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.”

The exhibition originated at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London in 2010; Bellow saw the exhibit in Quebec.

As a consultant, Bellow helped reconceptualize the installation of the show, including how the objects would be grouped, to suit the layout of the National Gallery of Art, which is quite different from the exhibit’s previous venues.

“In many ways, it makes it more traditionally art historical—that is, a chronological survey that goes from 1909 to 1929,” she said.

The artwork displayed in the exhibition is also very different, according to Bellow. “We took a lot of works out and added some, and in that process I did a lot of site visits to museums to look at works of art to potentially include in the show,” she said. Her travels took her to Stockholm, Moscow, St. Petersburg, and London.

Bellow wrote an essay for the exhibition’s catalogue and helped think about what films of productions should be shown in the exhibition space.

“It’s incredibly beautiful,” she said. “It’s a really overwhelming experience.”