Surprise! I’m in today’s Wall Street Journal with a special bonus piece, a review of a museum exhibition that will be of particular interest to dance buffs:
George Balanchine, the greatest choreographer of the 20th century, famously compared ballets to butterflies: “A breath, a memory, then gone.” Thanks to the timely invention of the video recorder, Balanchine saw most of his own masterpieces preserved for posterity, but things were different when he was getting his start. Of the dozen-odd major dances he made for Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes between 1925 and 1929, only two, “Apollo” and “Prodigal Son,” have survived. In fact, no more than a half-dozen works from the entire repertory of the Ballets Russes, perhaps the single most influential company in the history of ballet, continue to be danced in anything remotely resembling their original state. The others died with the men and women who staged and performed them, and though some of those birds of paradise were amazingly hardy–the ballerina Alicia Markova, for example, died only last week, having just attained the great age of 94–few systematic efforts were made to tap their memories and reconstruct the lost ballets they recalled.
Once a ballet is lost, though, there are often more than imperfect memories by which to envision it. Costumes and set designs, still photographs, even printed programs: All these can help tell us why we had to be there. Alas, well-curated museum shows of such material are usually few and far between, but the centenary of Balanchine’s birth has brought some indisputable doozies, the most recent of which is “Ballets Russes to Balanchine: Dance at the Wadsworth Atheneum,” on view at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford through Jan. 2.
As well as being a museum of the highest quality, the Atheneum has two unique ties to the world of ballet. In 1933, A. Everett “Chick” Austin, the flamboyantly imaginative director who dragged his recalcitrant trustees into the modern era by their heels, bought the collection of Ballets Russes designs amassed by Serge Lifar, Diaghilev’s last premier danseur. In a single stroke the museum acquired a priceless cache of works by the likes of Matisse, Picasso, Derain, de Chirico and Rouault for the knocked-down Depression-era sum of $10,000 (a mere $130,000 in today’s dollars). Earlier that same year, Austin offered to let Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein use the Atheneum as the home of the ballet company they longed to start. Though its small stage would prove inadequate to Balanchine’s needs, it was Austin and his wealthy friends who put up the money to bring the choreographer from Europe to America, where he and Kirstein later launched New York City Ballet, successor to the Ballets Russes as the focal point of creativity in 20th-century ballet.
These twin achievements are documented and celebrated in “Ballets Russes to Balanchine.” Organized by Eric M. Zafran, Carol Dean Krute and Susan Hood, it’s crammed full of so many treasures that merely to mention a half-dozen of them is to indicate its splendor. You can see L