WASHINGTON, D.C.— They may have arrived in this capital city for their big moment in the national spotlight, but for the dancers of the Sarasota Ballet, their first morning here was all about another country and another era.
Before rehearsing for their appearances in this week's "Ballet Across America" showcase at the Kennedy Center Thursday and Saturday, the company took a break from the barre to visit "Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes," a National Gallery exhibition about the troupe widely considered the greatest ballet company of the 20th century.
The exhibit, subtitled "When Art Danced with Music," features costumes, sketches, set designs, backdrops and photographs from the company's two golden decades (1909-1929), when impresario Serge Diaghilev brought together the world's best dancers, artists and composers to collaborate.
Here were costumes by the likes of Léon Bakst, Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse; there, strains of now immortal scores by Igor Stravinsky and Sergei Prokofiev. And everywhere among the dancers, a sense of reverence and awe for the lineage they are now responsible for safe-keeping.
For Artistic Director Iain Webb, a ballet history fanatic and avid collector, this was an essential sidetrip, dampened only by a reluctant acceptance that nothing could be taken home and added to his vast storehouse of memorabilia.
"I've seen a lot of this, but never en masse," Webb said in a hush, buzzing from a mask of choreographer Mikhail Fokine to sketches by the dancer Vaslav Nijinsky, sprinkling tidbits of information on dancers in his wake.
The dancers themselves, creatures of a different age, tended to gather in front of videos of the historic company's better-known works — "Petrushka," "Firebird," "Afternoon of a Faun" — performed by later generations. Some held audio phones to their ears, which supplied historical background even Webb might have been hard pressed to come up with.
"You can really see how this influenced and inspired later people like Balanchine," said principal dancer Danielle Brown, watching Vaslav Nijinsky's revolutionary 1913 work "The Rite of Spring" performed by the Joffrey Ballet. "Yet it still looks new to the eye today."
Coryphée dancer Jamie Carter intently studied the bedraggled and mended rose-colored, petal-bedecked costume first worn by Nijinsky in "Spectre de la Rose" in 1911. (Many of the petals were missing, sold off — or so the audio recording said — by Nijinsky's dresser for a handsome sum after each performance.)
"So forward thinking for the time," Carter murmured.
Jason Webb, son of Webb and Assistant Director Margaret Barbieri, looked a little stunned in front of a display about "Petrushka," one of the first ballets in which he saw his father dance the lead, when he was just five years old.
"It's one of my really vivid memories of him," he recalled of his father's performance as the puppet-come-to-life who is slain by a black-faced Moor in the final act. "I remember I had to look at his back after the performance to make sure he was OK."
Webb, standing nearby, said it was a ballet he hoped his current company would do one day. But he is torn between his absolute fidelity to historical authenticity and the necessity for political correctness, which these days has turned the Moor's black makeup to blue.
As for the company's costume designer, Bill Fenner, he also had a pained look on his face.
"I want to pick apart everything I see to get at the construction of it," he said, peering at an elaborate Picasso costume for "Harlequin," an architectural structure several feet high that rested on a hooded dancer's shoulders. "It's a curse."
The two-leveled exhibit concluded in a darkened, chair-filled room where a documentary about the Ballets Russes played over and over in a 25-minute loop.
The intinerant company, which toured Europe and North and South America, disbanded after Diaghilev's death in 1929. But it was clear that, even in this very room, his aura lives on.
Webb stood with arms crossed, his head and shoulders unconsciously mimicking a young Rudolph Nureyev on the screen in the side-profiled posture from "Afternoon of a Faun."
And outside, someone asked Barbieri if she had ever danced in "Spectre de la Rose."
"Oh yes," she said, as if it were yesterday. "That was with Desmond Kelly."