Ballet is usually associated with rigidity, discipline, and purity. The Ballets blancs, which refer to the all-white tutus in performances like Swan Lake, Giselle, and The Nutcracker, are probably to blame for that.
But according to the curator and artist Nick Mauss, ballet has never been a static or self-contained art form. Mauss curated Transmissions, his first US solo show, at the Whitney Museum of American Art to try and identify the unifying philosophy and aesthetic of American Modernist Ballet between the 1930s and 1950s. In that period, dancers and designers depended on each other: even while dancers were regarded as celebrity-level artists, ballet’s designers were seen as artistic equals, rather than subordinates.
The exhibition includes a collection of photographs, original costume drawings, set designs, and paintings sourced from various archives, including the Whitney, the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, and the Kinsey Institute of Indiana University. Homoerotic imagery, with male bodies taking (for lack of a better term) center stage, serves as a common thread, a “proto-queer” imagery in the pre-Stonewall era.
Modernist ballet, Mauss suggests, drew on an extremely wide range of influences, in what could be considered a riff on the lofty ideal of post-Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk, the “total work of art” that makes use of all art forms. Transmissions shows the fusion of “lowly” elements from performing arts, such as vaudeville, Broadway, and popular dances, especially elements derived from “Africanist” movement aesthetics.
Upon arrival, visitors are greeted by the black-and-white photographs of George Platt Lynes, who was the official photographer of the New York City Ballet, as well as as a prominent fashion and art photographer. Lynes’s aesthetic blended surrealism, male erotica, and Hollywood-inspired pop-cultural statuesque glamour. Aside from two ethereal photos of ballerinas Diana Adams and Mary Ellen Moylan, posing en pointe, we see photographic depictions of male nudity. Male dancers either pose in the Greek style of a god, or in imitation of surrealist paintings: a portrait of dancer Fred Daniel, dated 1937, shows him kneeling beneath a cloak and wearing an eye-shaped patch on his chest, with a wide smile-like adornment in his groin region.
On the opposite end of the aesthetic spectrum is a digital slideshow of 826 photos taken by dance critic and photographer Carl van Vechten. The first dance critic to write about dance in a daily press, starting in the 1910s, he photographed dancers, choreographers, designers, and musicians in the 1930s to catalog the talent of his time. Rich costumes replace statuesque nudity; while Lynes liked to eroticize male dancers in black and white, van Vechten preferred highly saturated colors and glittery fabrics.
Set and costume designers of the time were similarly inventive: they made much more than run-of-the-mill white tutus. The works of Ruth Page, George Balanchine, and Pavel Tchelitchew (who designed sets and costumes for Les Ballets Russes), display a mixture of statuesque minimalism (the costumes for Balanchine’s 1933 ballet Errante, look like the prototypes of a superhero unitard) and Dalì-like surrealism.
A similar aesthetic appears in set designer Eugene Berman’s works: in a stage model for Balanchine’s Concerto Barocco, dated 1941, he fashioned a surreal wasteland made of tapered obelisks and columns set in a rigorous, Renaissance-like game of perspective. Similarly, when painter and poet Dorothea Tanning designed the costumes for Balanchine’s The Night Shadow, she envisioned dancers wearing brightly-colored tutus paired with animal masks and headpieces.
Bridging the gap between subject and artist is Paul Cadmus, who is best known as a painter of urban grit and male nudes: George Platt Lynes photographed him with his lover Jared French, both lying languidly on a wall-and-ladder-like structure. Nick Mauss recreated the translucent, clown-like costume that Cadmus designed for the ballet Filling Station.
American modernist ballet might have merely imitated its Russian-European counterparts, if not for the addition of Vaudevillian and “Africanist” elements. For example, Polish-born sculptor Elie Nadelman created a series of plaster figurines and statues that, at first glance, resemble the portly Greek goddesses from the Archaic period — but in truth, their bodies subtly sway in dance moves: his inspiration was vaudeville. NYCB founder Lincoln Kirstein championed his art, to the point that two of Nadelman’s statues, Circus Women and Two Nudes, adorn the David H. Koch Theater promenade.
Ballet has traditionally been perceived as a white and exclusionary art form. This certainly has some truth to it. At the same time, Mauss points out that African American culture, at least the way ballet masters understood it, helped to reshape American ballet. The “Negro Ballet” was founded in 1938 by German emigré Eugene von Grona. Transmissions also includes a portrait of dancer Al Bledger by Carl Van Vechten, shot in a less flamboyant fashion. A 1957 photograph by Martha Swope shows Arthur Mitchell, an African American principal dancer at NYCB, with Diana Adams, looking like a southern belle, rehearsing together for George Balanchine’s Agon. (In a strange 1933 letter, Lincoln Kirstein expressed a dream for the NYCB: to have “four white girls and four white boys, about 16 years old, and eight of the same, negros.”)
It is difficult to metabolize so much information in such a small space, but these seemingly scattered elements come together in an installation by Nick Mauss. Images in Mind includes 56 mirrored glass panels, featuring a conceptual drawing by Pavel Tchelitchew, a papier-mâché statue by Nadelman, a TV set facing the mirror that plays a choreography by Balanchine, and Sergei Diaghilev’s name card. Balanchine and Diaghilev, Mauss reminds us, provided a foundation for American Modernist Ballet. Balanchine created an American ballet canon, but Diaghilev, the founder and impresario of Les Ballets Russes, championed artistic cross-pollination and celebrated the male body.
If this ballet-centric exhibition only consisted of photography, painting, and objects, it would have had an overly scholarly, textbook quality. But Mauss avoided that pitfall by working with 16 dancers to choreograph a live dance, which the dancers perform in a rotating quartet throughout the duration of the exhibit. The dancers selected by Mauss come from diverse schools of ballet, including Dance Theatre of Harlem, Merce Cunningham, and the Staatsballett Berlin. The choreography does not reenact history, but draws on dances from 1930s and 50s, and the performers interpret the past works through the prism of their own background. It was delightful to spot Nijinsky-like hand poses and occasional folk-inspired footwork during the choreography.
Transmissions succeeds in showing, deftly and in detail, that ballet is not the rigid art form that some envision it to be. Audiences will leave with the certainty that there’s more to ballet than the holiday tradition of the Nutcracker and ill-fated romances like Swan Lake and Giselle.
Transmissions continues at the Whitney Museum of American Art until May 14, with performances daily from 12-4pm and on Fridays from 6–10pm.