The Diaghilev Exhibition; a story untold.

Everyone interested in dance, or just curious about it, should definitely visit the Diaghilev Exhibition at The Smithsonian, and fast because it’s almost done, (showing until October 6th). The exhibition brings to the fore Diaghilev as an impresario, whose personal tastes, aesthetics and whims were the moving force for all that was produced by his ballet company; holding in his hand the strings of all the impressive collaborations he brought about between artist from different genres. A man who single handedly made more of an impact on the world of dance in the United States than anyone else has bothered to do since his time; all in the span of just twenty years.

I found myself most mesmerized, though, with the things least mentioned in the reviews that I had read before my visit. Coming from a culture where even everyday clothes are a celebration and cause for much planning of color combinations, designs, prints and trimmings being carefully chosen and thought about before they are sewn or worn, the real costume samples on display were not very impressive. Some were counter intuitive, made from fabric that would not aid in the sense of movement or bring a lot of color to the stage or seemed overly burdensome for movement. What I found most remarkable, though, and what stayed with me the most, were the paintings done as samples for costume designs. These paintings are full of movement, color, character and exquisitely executed! Indeed, if I had the money and means, that is what I would like to own out of all that was on exhibition.

Otherwise, the film snippets were intriguing and certainly important for those members of the public who are used to thinking of ballet only in the formalized version that the typical Swan Lake shows, or in the modern sense with for example, Balanchine’s style; because they will now see the missing link, the chain that holds those two times in choreography together.

However, while the exhibition was well displayed and thought out in general, I found it cold. Cold because it did not tell any of the real stories behind Diaghilev and his personal life, his relationships and Nijinsky’s life; all so pivotal to the history of ballet in the U.S. Would it not bring it all more alive for the audience to know about how for example, the Ballet Russes traveled abroad to Cuba during World War 2 to survive and while abroad they had so little money they barely had enough to eat even though they were dancing more engagements than normal, which led to injuries and hardships on their bodies? That many of the dancers had to take on other jobs in nightclubs and such like to be able to survive, places they may never have entered otherwise. That when Nijinsky choreographed Afternoon of the Faun, the dancers were most uncooperative and hated him for what they felt was ugliness.

The exhibition also, I feel, makes Diaghilev appear more of a patron saint of the arts and dance than was reality. No mention is made of the sort of sex trade, especially in young boys, that was prevalent in the art and dance world at that time, (and certainly continued, with a slightly different slant, if one may put it delicately so, well into Balanchine’s time and perhaps even now?), which allowed powerful people like Diaghilev to take advantage of minors like Nijinsky who may well have been heterosexual; pass them out like pimped boys to others when they tired of them; and take away their art, livelihood and possibilities if they crossed their egos in anyway. However susceptible he may already have been genetically to depression and insanity, all this surely contributed to Nijinsky’s eventual decent into madness and to the rise and fall of several other well known names in male dancers/choreographer’s careers during that period and what followed in ballet/modern dance world The United States.

Yes, while he was able to bring together artists from every genre, who were part of his social world, to contribute to the art of dance and bring forth amazing ballets; and bring the tradition of ballet itself in the form of a company to the U.S.; is it not the complexity, the nice and not so nice aspects of human beings that really make any story truly alive? Let us not bury the unpleasant while building up the pleasing out of proportion. Let us not make what may have been happy happening in the past look like the greatest historical decisions because we are looking at it with hindsight.

Let the real Diaghilev step out; the achievements and the disgusting parts, all there to see.


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Tehreema Mitha Dance Company
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