The National Gallery’s new show: “Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes: When Art Danced with Music,” implies that the Russian impresario started something new.
To be sure, this highly enjoyable show of costumes, sketches, paintings and ballet videos emphasizes the impressive caliber of collaborators: Dancer Najinksy; painters Picasso, Matisse and Rouault; composers Stravinsky and Prokofiev. A dream team to be sure.
Spilling through National Gallery East building rooms on two floors, the exhibit features 130 original costumes, set designs, paintings, sculptures, prints and drawings, photographs, and posters.
Glass cases feature some of the original costumes from these ballets staged from 1909 through 1929. Delight in the hand stitching, and pre-nylon fabric. Wonder how they could survive the violence and sweat of the dance.
Picasso’s much-reproduced pencil sketch of Stravinsky hangs modestly as one of dozens of such sketches or paintings. It’s date is telling: Dec. 31, 1920. It must have been a New Year’s Eve party.
One huge wall shows the enormous stage screen by Natalia Goncharova for the Stravinsky-composed “Firebird.”
Most engaging, and upstaging these at-hand artifacts from the actual ballets, are the videos (otherwise available on the internet from these grand ballets.) On a half-dozen several screens, we see Nureyev in “Afternoon of a Faun,” and the triple homage of the Joffrey Ballet re-enacting the Charlie Chaplin send-up of the Najinsky “Faun.”
Diaghilev and his choreographers took ballet beyond its form as a kind of soft porn for the 19th century’s 1 percent. With more modern music, and more inventive costumes, these ballets showed animals cavorting (Rite of Spring), Russian peasants, and Middle East brothels.
In truth, art danced with music well before Diaghilev. Cave paintings in France indicate dancing. Homer and his peers may have sung the Odyssey. Shakespeare’s characters played instruments and danced on stage. Operas of the 19th century combined music, dance, and elaborate sets. Verdi’s Aida even combined art with engineering; it was commissioned to commemorate the opening of the Suez Canal.
Now, of course, Hollywood films with routine $100 million budgets make Diaghilev’s innovation look small.

The exhibition runs through September 2, 2013.

Culture Diaghilev at the National Gallery