Dance is taking center stage at the Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Museum in New Brunswick in "Art for the Dance: Russian Costume and Stage Design." Culled from the museum’s world-renowned holdings of Russian art, original art for costume and set design is combined with performance and ephemera from the golden years of the Ballet Russes to illustrate the happy marriage between dance and the visual arts that marked the period surrounding the turn of the 20th century.

The exhibition, on view through July 31, features watercolor sketches for costume and set design along with rare and lavishly illustrated albums, portfolios of drawings devoted to Nijinsky, posters, programs illustrated by artistic notables such as Pablo Picasso, and ongoing videos to tell the story of an era when art and dance were inseparable. "Russian Dance: Selections from the Donation of Herbert and Rutl Schimmel," which includes rare programs, journals, photography, posters, and artwork commemorating outstanding Russian ballerinas and dancers like Nijinsky and Pavlova of the Silver Age of Russian culture, which spans the 1890s to the 1920s, as well as sensual stage and costume designs, is also on view through July 31.

Alfredo Franco, education curator at the Zimmerli, says the combination of art and dance helped make the Ballet Russes into a major company. "Costumes and stage designs played an important role in Ballet Russes’s success in Western Europe. These artists introduced a new sensuality that became a major influence in Paris fashion and interior decoration."

From the earliest years of the famed company, founder Sergei Diaghilev collaborated with the major artists of his day. Such masters in their field as Aleksander Benois, Leon Bakst, and Konstantin Korovin as well as more radical avant-garde artists, including Aleksandra Exter, helped pave the way for a powerful tradition of progressive and internationalist costume and stage design in the West. In the process, the innovative company laid the groundwork for later daring experiments in Russian avant-garde theater.

The works included in the show document the progression of style. The exhibition opens with late-19th century folk-art-inspired traditions and culminates with costumes and sets that embrace a modernist vocabulary. To help tell the story, an ongoing video of contemporary recreations of Diaghilev-era ballets by the Paris Opera Ballet with costumes modeled after those of the original productions captures the joyous spirit and creative energy that marked this genre. Visitors can see excerpts from several of Diaghilev’s best-known ballets including Afternoon of a Faun, Petrushka, and the Les Noces, segments drawn from a body of innovative work that forever changed the nature of the dance.

The dance will come to life next month on Thursday through Sunday, April 24, to 26, in "The Diaghilev Era: Ballet Reconstructions," performed by members of the American Repertory Ballet. Included in the program are highlights of major Diaghilev works, including the seminal Petrushka, with music by Igor Stravinsky, and Bolero, with music by Maurice Ravel.

This appealing exhibition, however, is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Russian art at the Zimmerli. The assembled works serve as a tantalizing introduction to the museum’s landmark holdings. There is no place in the world except perhaps Russia where one can see so many works that encompass such a vast span of artistic time and style.

Beginning with icons and examples of other early religious art, two distinguished collections combine to chart the history of the art of Russia, concluding with the remarkable work of non-conformist artists, produced under the repressive Soviet regime. "This is the largest concentration in a single museum," says Franco. "We are a major center for the study of Soviet art. An important resource for scholars."

These world-renowned holdings have been assembled by two determined, possibly obsessed, collectors, Norton Dodge and George Riabov. Born in Poland to Russian parents, Riabov spent 45 years building a collection that documented Russia’s artistic legacy. Working in the arts and in diplomacy-related fields, he ultimately amassed holdings of some 1,100 works and a research library of 7,000 items documenting the graphic history of his cultural motherland.

Dodge, an economics professor at St. Mary’s College in Maryland, was captivated by the quality and spirit of dissident art when he first visited Russia as a graduate student in the 1950s. Over time, often at great personal risk, he assembled the largest and most comprehensive collection of its kind anywhere. Comprising more than 17,000 works of art, this collection documents Soviet dissident art made during the Cold War era (1956-1986), the work of a loosely structured sub-rosa community of determined artists who persisted in the years between Khruschev’s cultural "thaw" and Gorbachev’s glasnost and perestroika.

Both collections were gifted to the museum in the last decade of the 20th century. Together they function as a major historical record. What is more, in the light of the complexities and often repressive policies that marked political life in Russian over the centuries, the two collections serve as a vivid graphic testimonial to the power and pervasiveness of the creative spirit.

For visitors to the Zimmerli, however, the most important aspect of these remarkable collections is that, unlike many important museum holdings, a significant portion of these works is always on view. With a mind-boggling total of over 18,000 works between the two collections, a two-story wing and a series of dedicated galleries with changing exhibitions make Russia’s art and its history an ongoing presence.

The Riabov is installed in three galleries. Richly varied, it documents the history of art in Russia with the works by some of that country’s leading artists. Franco makes special note of the work of symbolist painter Nicholas Roerich, who was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. He points out that Roerich’s stage designs for the premiere of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, given in Paris in 1913, and based on ancient Russian motifs, were both innovative and influential. "They were an important element in the success of this epochal musical event, but were also shocking to audiences more accustomed to the demure conventions of classical ballet." (At the premiere the audience was so disturbed that police were called to bring order in the theater.)

The Riabov moves through Russian artistic time with a diversity of works that reflect the evolution of subject and style. Among them: examples of the late 19th century folk art revival decorative art including fine china, ephemera, modernist paintings, Soviet-legislated propaganda art, and a sampling of the dissidents as well.

When it comes to dissident art, however, the Dodge is the unquestionable world champion. Made in a era when art and life was legislated, these richly varied works were made at great personal risk. An outdoor exhibition was destroyed by bulldozers and fire hoses and artists were beaten. Artists’ homes were damaged and destroyed, their families injured. Some were incarcerated or exiled. And an unfortunate few were assassinated by the KGB.

Assembling the collection was also a risky business. While "big brother" was watching, Dodge found his way to studios in the dark of night using a flashlight. He smuggled out many of the works rolled in posters or hidden in clothing. Others, including room-sized assemblages, made there way to U.S. through undisclosed diplomatic pouches and other means of secret transport.

Franco says that bringing this art to the United States remains a mystery. "That’s a sensitive topic and he’s not telling." After some years of sneaking in and out of forbidden places, Dodge became concerned for his own safety and no longer traveled to Russia. He then found other ways to continue to build his collection, and that, too, is often cloaked in mystery.

One enters the Dodge through a long narrow gallery that charts Russia’s history. While the galleries are filled with a rich and varied collection of important art, Franco says that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. "This is a collection where you can’t pick out one work. Even though the individual works have great value, its scope is so powerful it must be considered as an entity."

Housed in a two-story wing, the collection functions as a cultural repository, a graphic historic record, and most important a display of remarkable art using many voices. "For some, it is a painful reminder of another, difficult, time," says Franco. "Many of the politically-based pieces bring tears to the eyes of visiting Russian emigres. Those of the older generation might have experienced Stalinism as children" he says. "They understand the political symbolism immediately. They become emotional."

Franco says that Pentaptych, No. 2, Adam and Eve, in which a man and a woman are partially concealed behind doors covered with doorbells, is a reminder of the terror that came when the bell rang late at night, noting that it almost always meant someone was coming to take you away. Other politically charged works include Leonid Sokhov’s enormous carved wooden eyeglasses, Project to Construct Glasses for Every Soviet Person, in which the lenses are incised with the Soviet icon, the red star; and an ink drawing by Viacheslav Sysoev, in which soldiers are destroying books.

Many of the featured paintings are the purest and finest of fine art, Franco says; however, in the Dodge, "everything is political." He explains that even though many of these artists were not politically active, the act of making art that fell outside Soviet dicta was, in itself, a political act.

"Art for Dance: Russian Costume and Stage Designs from the Riabov Collection" and "Russian Dance: Selections from the Donation of Herbert and Ruth Schimmel," Zimmerli Art Museum, 71 Hamilton Street at George and Hamilton streets, New Brunswick. Through July 31. or 732-932-7237.

Also, "The Diaghilev Era, Ballet Reconstructions," Thursday and Friday, April 24 and 25, at 10 a.m and 11:30 a.m., and Saturday, April 26, at 3 p.m. Performances by members of the American Repertory Ballet of highlights of major Diaghilev works, including the seminal Petrushka, with music by Igor Stravinsky, and Bolero, with music by Maurice Ravel. Reservations are required for April 24 and April 25 school performances at 11:30 a.m. 732-932-7237, extension 615.

Hours: Tuesday to Friday, 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.; weekends noon to 5 p.m. Free weekend parking on street and in lots marked with P.

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