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When Russian painter and designer Léon Bakst visited the archaeological museum in Olympia in 1907, his response to the Greek statues was visceral. “I want terribly to run my hand over the marble, to find out what Niobe’s shoulders are like,” he wrote in 1923. This reaction summarizes the way Bakst, a set and costume designer for the Ballets Russes, viewed ancient art of “The Orient,” which, to him, spanned from the far east to Ancient Greece.
Hymn to Apollo: The Ancient World and the Ballets Russes, an exhibition co-curated by Clare Fitzgerald, the Associate Director for Exhibitions at NYU’s Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, together with curatorial assistant Rachel Herschman, explores the ancient world’s influence on the choreography, sets, and costumes of the Ballets Russes. The exhibition is accompanied by a catalogue edited by Fitzgerald and Herschman.
The Ballets Russes had a longtime dalliance with Ancient Greek traditions especially in the Ballet Russes’ most innocent, primitive, and erotic aspects. Ballets such as L’Après Midi d’un Faune (1912), Daphnis and Chloe (1912), and Narcisse (1911) give life to lush, pastoral myths while hinting at the erotic components of the myths. While the choreography (by Vaslav Nijinsky and Michael Fokine) reflected the poses of figures on Grecian pottery, Bakst’s costumes evoked the voluminous, draped garments of Ancient Greece, adding intrigue by exposing erogenous zones. Bakst’s style is immediately recognizable for his use of serpentine lines, heady colors, and a belle-époque-like sensuality.
Hymn to Apollo is divided into three sections. The first examines what is known about the art of dance in the ancient world (quite a bit, but not nearly enough). The second details Bakst’s love affair with Grecian antiquity, which follows a trajectory from neoclassicism to primitivism, and from primitivism to Hollywood grandeur, before his untimely death in 1924. The third analyzes individual ballets, such as L’Après Midi d’un Faune, as well as themes (for instance, the Apollo-Dionysus duality in Friedrich Nietzsche’s 1872 text on Ancient Greek theater, The Birth of Tragedy), and personalities, including the avant-garde dancer Isadora Duncan.
It’s a very effective approach when it comes to providing the reader with information. Fitzgerald, an Egyptologist by training, lays out the evidence we have and what we lack in understanding about Ancient Greek dance, and the sources of inspirations that Bakst drew from throughout his life. When historian Frederick Naerebout writes, “Research has concentrated on the specific sources that, in large part, we will never be able to relate to a realistic diachronic account of the dance, and it has tended to neglect the unspecific sources, such as inscriptions that just mention the presence of a dance, dancers, or a chorus, without any details but in fact referring to dance at a specific time and place,” it treads a fine line between expertise and pedanticism. Such remarks take considerable book space away from the excellent chapter by Russian avant-garde specialist John E. Bowlt devoted to Bakst and the Ballets-Russes-adjacent, antiquity-obsessed creative circle, which comprised the likes of Isadora Duncan, known for her “antique evocations” in dance, and Elise Jouhandeau, a dancer who went by the stage name “Caryathis” — a reference to maidens in mythology who performed a sacrificial dance for Artemis Caryathis. It’s a delight to read and learn how Bakst’s aesthetic was also shaped by Egyptian and Native American traditions, particularly those of the Hopi and Navajo. The Native American traditions made him rediscover what he, in 1923, referred to as “green freshness of the primitive” that he first saw in Ancient Greek culture.
What is sadly missing in Hymn to Apollo is an overview of the fin-de-siècle obsession with the Wagnerian concept of the Gesamtkunstwerk or “total work of art”— something to which the Ballets Russes aspired. Yet the exhibition and book convincingly demonstrate the enduring appeal of the ancient world and the compelling creations of Leon Bakst.
Hymn to Apollo: The Ancient World and the Ballets Russes continues at NYU’s Institute for the Study of the Ancient World (15 East 84th Street, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through June 2. The catalogue is available from Princeton University Press.