August 22, 2009

What's On at The NYPL for the Performing Arts

If you can navigate the ongoing construction through the Lincoln Center complex to the Library for the Performing Arts, your perseverance will be rewarded with two marvelous shows guaranteed to delight theater and ballet fans.

To celebrate the centennial of the Ballets Russes (see my blog of May 13) the Library is presenting "Diaghilev's Theater of Marvels: The Ballets Russes And Its Aftermath". This exhibition is both a historical look back at this revolutionary dance company and a tribute to its lasting influence on ballet today. By drawing on the extensive collections of the Library and a few generous private collectors, curator Lynn Garafola presents a fascinating look at Diaghilev the man and his phenomenal creation, the Ballets Russes. Featuring vintage photographs of patrons and dancers, promotional items such as posters and programs, costume designs and the costumes themselves, letters, ticket stubs, manuscripts and even video clips, this exhibition transports the visitor back in time to the Paris and Monte Carlo of the early 1900's.

What I found most fascinating about this dance company was the degree of collaboration among major artists in various fields. Not just the obvious musical partnerships with composer Igor Stravinsky or choreographers Fokine, Nijinsky, Massine and Balanchine, but the important contributions made by many famous visual artists of the day. No detail was too small to merit attention - from programs and posters to costume and set design - the roster of participants reads like a "Who's Who" of Modern Art. Leon Bakst, Christian Bérard, Eugene Berman, Jean Cocteau, Natalia Goncharova, Marie Laurencin, Fernand Leger, Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso all were associated with this revolutionary new company, although Joan Miro and Max Ernst were publicly denounced by Surrealist Founding Father André Breton for participating in "commercial" activities! Far from a "secondary" commission, designing for the Ballets Russes was accepted as a legitimate and indeed prestigious artistic enterprise. There is no question that it was Diaghilev's vision that made the Ballets Russes what it was, but a large part of the company's success can be attributed to the combination of efforts by so many gifted artists.

Moving to the gallery on the Amsterdam Avenue level, we find a tribute to another 20th Century icon, Katharine Hepburn. "In her Own Files" is a look back at the stage and screen highlights of this remarkable actress. Still photographs, magazine covers, movie posters, telegrams, letters and video clips, culled from the Hepburn papers and the Library's own collection, recount the professional history of this versatile and respected actress.

The show is divided into four segments - her early frustrations as she tried to make it on Broadway; her ensuing success with the Theatre Guild and a national tour in the tile role of "Jane Eyre" before starring in "The Philadelphia Story" on stage and screen; a commitment to Shakespeare in the 1950's and 60's; and finally the roles she played later in her career such as Coco Chanel and "The West Side Waltz". While motion pictures are certainly mentioned, this exhibition focus' mainly on Hepburn's live stage performances and is a compliment to both the woman and the actress.

You can visit "Diaghilev's Theater of Marvels" until September 13th and "Katharine Hepburn" until October 10th. The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts is open Monday to Saturday and admission is free.

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