Growing up only thirty minutes from Washington DC has always meant that I have had unfettered access to one of the more prolific collections of art museums in the world. Some of my earliest memories are of early morning Saturday trips into DC, staring up at colorful works much larger than me, and feeling dwarfed by the magnitude of the art and history that surrounded me.
In 2013 I was fortunate enough to visit the National Gallery of Art to view a special exhibition of theirs– Diaghalev and the Ballet Russes: When Art Danced With Music. It showcased the history, theatricality, and unparalleled artwork of the Ballet Russes, a Russian ballet company that performed in the mid 20th century, breaking all traditions of ballet and dance. A tribute honoring the company, the exhibition highlighted a mixture of costumes, dance, history, set design, and show inspiration, giving the viewer a backstage look into the otherworldly realm of the performing arts.
Even now, the first thing I remember when I think about the exhibition is color– bright, sensational, psychedelic colors in costumes that seemed to writhe and leap out of their boxes and onto a stage. The poster designs for the various shows displayed these costumes and depicted curving and sinuous lines, bodies in motion set to an orchestra of color. Next to many of the costumes were live videos of the dancers of the company in full dress themselves, jumping and twirling across the stage in a breathtaking display of athleticism. Even the designs themselves were unusual. Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso both designed for the Ballet Russe, showcasing their most experimental and off the wall ideas.
The exhibition also included large set pieces used as backdrop for the ballet. A particularly vivid memory of mine is of sitting in a nearly empty darkened room before the Firebird backdrop, scores from the ballet on repeat in the background. When I closed my eyes, I could imagine dancers in front of the watercolor, the titular Firebird flaming and soaring across the stage, pursued by the prince, who wishes to hunt her.
I also loved that the exhibition was a tribute to dance. Dance has been an important part of my life for a very long time– I have been learning the Indian dance form of Kuchipudi since before I was in elementary school. The more I went through the exhibition, the more I was able to draw parallels between my dance practice and the art I saw before me. I saw similarities between the colorful costumes, the mythological and ancient stories being played out on a stage, and even the sense of camaraderie that can only come from putting on a production.
Above all, the exhibition emphasized the revolution in the world of dance that the Ballet Russes incited. Their use of color, design and music was unparalleled, and has changed the way that the world viewed traditional ballet forever, breaking through conventional molds. Before this visit, I had never been to an exhibition where the works on display were not some form of “traditional” artwork: sculptures, paintings, or sketches. This experience made me reconsider my notion of what constituted art, and ever since then I have viewed both the dances that I perform and the art that I love in a more golden light. When Art Danced With Music not only made me a better dancer, but also helped me begin to see the beauty of art in the mundane. I have learned to search for art in the world around me, in the beautiful sunset I can see from the deck of my house to the books that I read for my classes. It is a skill that has served me well since, and is especially relevant in the current state of the world. The disasters that are befalling our world seem larger than life, but there is beauty to be found in the rising up of a people, in between the cracks.