It’s a slightly surreal experience standing in a gallery in Canberra looking at elaborate costumes worn by Russian ballerinas performing in Paris a century ago.

Which seems appropriate, because the Ballet Russes exhibition, currently on at the National Gallery of Australia, is packed with surreal (and modern and folk art) costumes. Bright hand-painted patterns and colours, traditional designs from Russian fairytales, medieval ball gowns and carnivalesque clowns — these are ballet costumes like you’ve never seen before.

That is, unless you saw the smaller 1999 NGA exhibition From Russia with Love. But this exhibition is much bigger and one-third of the 150 costumes in it haven’t been seen since they were last on stage.

Ballets Russes was a Russian ballet company, directed by Sergei Diaghilev, that performed throughout Europe and the United States in the early 1900s. For some odd reason, in the early 1970s, NGA decided to purchased a huge collection of Ballet Russes’ costumes at auction, as one of its first big acquisitions. Which makes this exhibition feel even more appropriate, since it’s the first major exhibition since last year’s renovation, the biggest renovation in the gallery’s history, which included finally changing that awkward upstairs entrance hall.

Costumes are grouped around the play they appeared in, with mini play plots that read like South American telenovelas. A design by Pablo Picasso appears, but my personal favourite was Costume for the Blue God, designed by Leon Bankst. While it looks like a sparkly dress designed for a female, it’s actually part of a ornate costume for a male god whose skin is blue and who wears a crown reminiscent of a traditional Thai dancer.

In the same way that you don’t have to be a ballet fan to enjoy Black Swan, dancing seems barely relevant to the exquisite textiles, designs and set backdrops in this exhibition. Mostly because the costumes don’t actually look like ballet costume and look far too heavy to walk in, let alone jeté in. In fact, I only spotted tulle on one of them. (Which, to be honest, disappointed me at first, as I had imagined it would be Degas-style ballet costumes. Think again.)

My only complaint — and I imagine it is a common one for most cultural institutions — is that despite all the glass windows and giant bronze-coloured doors of the revamped gallery, disabled access is poorly marked and pretty inconvenient. Why would you put the lift further away than the escalator?

Regardless, you should give Ballet Russes a whirl.

The details: Ballet Russes is at the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra until March 20.

Peter Fray

Inoculate yourself against the spin

Get Crikey for just $1 a week and support our journalists’ important work of uncovering the hypocrisies that infest our corridors of power.

If you haven’t joined us yet, subscribe today to get your first 12 weeks for $12 and get the journalism you need to navigate the spin.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey