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When Art Dances:

The Dance of the Avant-Gardes Exhibition

by Rosella Simonari

April 21, 2006 -- Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Rovereto and Trento (MART), Rovereto, Italy

Two big women with whitish tunics and loose dark hair hold hands and run through a beach. They are the two immense figures painted in the large curtain for “Le Train Bleu”, a ballet created by Bronislava Nijinska in 1924. The curtain is a copy of a painting by Picasso, and it was made by Prince Shervashidze. It was so well done that Picasso himself decided to write the following statement in a corner: “Dedie a Diaghilev. Picasso” [dedicated to Diaghilev. Picasso].

This is the first of the nearly one thousand works showed at the MART in Rovereto. As you walk up the stairs, you can admire it in its immensity and in its dynamism as it is positioned in the wall opposite the stairs to the exhibition spaces. “The Dance of the Avant-Gardes -- paintings, sets and costumes from Degas to Picasso, from Matisse to Keith Haring” is the most important winter exhibition at the MART, and it is situated on the second floor of the refined museum building created by architect Mario Botta.

Organised by Gabriella Belli and Elisa Guzzo Vaccarino, respectively the museum director and an eminent dance critic, the exhibition has benefited from the material from several places, such as the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, the Victoria & Albert Museum and the Victoria & Albert Theatre Museum in London, the Tretjakov State Gallery in Moscow, the Russian State Museum in St. Petersburg and the Dansmuseet in Stockholm.

The curators’s intention was to present a transversal perspective on dance and art in order for the viewer to perceive their fruitful and fundamental interchange. As Belli highlights in her article in the 662-page catalogue, “what would have been the use of many experiments within the arts…if they had remained closed in their field and artists had not had the chance to interact with the other arts, to expand beyond the canvas, to occupy the stage space…? This exhibition is a possible answer to this question”.

It is an ambitious project that moves across time and space, across different approaches to both art and dance and that offers the opportunity for the viewer to walk across nearly a century of revolutions in Western World aesthetics.

The journey begins with Degas and Toulouse Lautrec and their interest for two very different types of dance -- ballet and cancan. Edgar Degas was the first artist to provide dance with a considerable visibility. His ballerinas are often presented while they rehearse and exercise at the barre. He is interested in the hard work involved in the classical dance training. And, apart from a few of his famous paintings and sketches, this section presents one of his celebrated bronze sculptures, “Little Dancer of 14 years”, characterised by a real tutu and feet in fourth position.

Lautrec’s vision focuses on the acrobatic ability of the cancan dancers at the Moulin Rouge, such as in “The Wheel”, where the wide skirt of the dancer fills the central space of the painting and emphasises the arched torso of the dark haired dancer.

A radical change in the perception of dance occurs with the figures of Loie Fuller and Isadora Duncan. They were a major inspiration for artists and poets, and the exhibition provides an interesting panorama with photographs, sculptures and drawings. At the turn of the century, Fuller, with her serpentine dancing, focused on energy, space and time, and went beyond the limits imposed on human movement.

Her dance, as is clear from Raoul Larche’s golden bronze sculptures, dissolves the contours of the human shape to create new dynamics. Ten years later, Duncan went back to rediscovering the body with her interest in ancient Greece and in a harmonious relationship with nature, as Matvei Dobrov and Vasilii Vatagin’s portaits seem to express.

The journey continues with several sections dedicated to the Ballets Russes. Their revolution in ballet history, which lasted for about twenty years, was largely sustained by a fruitful collaboration with many innovative artists, such as Léon Bakst, Alexandre Benois, Natalia Goncharova, Nicolai Rerikh, Giorgio de Chirico and Pablo Picasso, who provided not just the set design but also the ideas for the costumes.

Famous are, in this sense, the costumes that Bakst created for Nijinsky. There is the pink one for “Le Spectre de la rose” and the brown stained one for “L’Après-midi d’un faune”. Warmer colours are instead used by Nicolai Rerikh for the costumes for “The Rite of Spring”, to which a whole section is dedicated.

It is a precious chance to admire the original costumes and conception of a crucial choreography that caused a scandal when it was first performed in 1913 -- and that survives in the continuous proliferation of adaptations by, among others, Martha Graham, Pina Bausch, Marie Chouinard, Maurice Bèjart, Mats Ek, Tero Saarinen and Shen Wei. And, as for many of the sections in the exhibition, there is a flat screen that shows the reconstruction of this choreography performed by the Joffrey Ballet so that the pieces on display are placed within the context where they became “alive”.

An entire section focuses on Picasso and his fruitful collaboration with The Ballets Russes. It is particularly striking as it presents sketches, drawings, costumes and set designs for ballets such as “Parade”, whose libretto was written by Cocteau, “Le Tricorne”, inspired by Pedro Antonio de Alarcón’s homonymous story in Spanish, “Pulcinella”, “Cuadro flamenco”, “Mercure” and “Le Train Bleu”.

Most of the costumes presented are those for “Le Tricorne”, and they are characterised by a series of lines employed according to different dimensions, shapes and directions. The two main colours are red and blue. One of the merits of this exhibition is to show a side of artists as costume designers that is not usually taken into much account. And Picasso was excellent in this role.

Very different in his approach is the work of Fortunato Depero, a Futurist artist who, in 1916, was commissioned by Diaghilev the design of set and costumes for “Le Chant du Rossignol”. Depero used geometrical shapes that emphasised some parts of the human body such as shoulders, head and waist. He used warm and cold colours such as yellow, orange, pink and green.

Massine, who was to prepare the choreography, was very excited about Depero’s work, but unfortunately Stravinsky completed the music years later when it was no more possible to perform it in Rome. Due to this delay, Depero’s costumes were replaced by the more classically shaped creation of Matisse.

To the work of Depero and other Futurists such as Gino Severini and Giacomo Balla, the exhibition dedicates a consistent part with sketches, drawings and paintings. The Futurists believed in a disharmonic and dynamic dance with a focus on rhythm, as Filippo Marinetti had declared in his manifesto in 1917, and as was partly put into practice by dancer Giannina Censi and her eurhythmic dances.

The Ballets Russes were not alone in their aesthetic revolution -- they had a rival company from Sweden, the Ballets Suédois, sustained by the rich aristocratic and art collectionist Rolf de Maré. They created important pieces between 1920 and 1925, such as “La Création du Monde”, based on an African legend, with set and costumes by Fernand Léger and music by Darius Milhaud inspired by the rhythm of jazz, and “La Jarre”, based on one of Luigi Pirandello’s short stories, with music by Alfredo Casella and set by Giorgio de Chirico.

The last part of this long and intense journey includes works by Russian and German artists such as Wassily Kandinsky and Oscar Schlemmer. In particular, Schlemmer’s work, “Triadische Ballet”, created between 1916 and 1922, focuses on the number three and is characterised by an interplay between unusual voluminous shapes for the costumes and the employment of masks for the face.

The lancet of time moves forward when one is confronted in the following section with Isamu Noguchi’s brass costume-sculpture for the role of Medea in Martha Graham’s “Cave of the Heart”, first performed in 1946. It recalls the shape of a spider with its many ramifications. Looking back, Schlemmer’s bulky costumes seem to entrap the dancer, while Noguchi’s seem to interact more deeply with the sense of movement, especially in Graham’s terms.

In the last section, one finds out that the exhibition route follows the shape of a circle so that the end faces, several metres away, the opening section. The last room, which comes after works by Robert Rauschemberg, Lucio Fontana, Giulio Paolini, Keith Haring and David Salle, presents a brief section dedicated to dance, photography and fashion so that, at one glance, one can compare a costume designed by Versace for Roland Petit’s “Java Forever” with a nineteenth-century tutu for “La Sylphide”, situated near the aforementioned Degas’s sculpture and paintings.

This exhibition is maybe too large in scope, and some aspects are not as well presented as others. There is a lot of material, and for example, it is time-wise impossible to watch all the filmed versions of the choreographies. Furthermore, at the beginning of the exhibition there is the possibility to watch a documentary called “A Century of Dance” but it is four hours long, so it is again impossible to watch it all.

As a consequence of that, the catalogue, edited by Skira, is huge and heavy and sometimes imprecise. However, in Italy, this is the first attempt to organise an exhibition that takes such a transversal perspective. It shows the central place dance had for many collaborations between different artists -- and possibly the chance for those same artists to approach their work in a different manner.  In this sense, the curators fully succeeded in their intent, and they gave dance a legitimacy within the arts that still today often lacks.

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