Sweaty, disheveled, and shoeless, Stefan Grace and five friends from Chicago hustle across a gymnasium in the Hinkle Fieldhouse at Butler University in Indianapolis. Grace is as lanky as a center, but they’re not shooting hoops. In a sort of semi-improvised choreography, two teams of two or three people each are unfolding and refolding gigantic painted backdrops.
The room-sized canvases, recently removed from storage, are stacked around the walls of the basketball court, and at any given time a half dozen or so are spread over the floor. It’s hard work; many are in the 30-by-20-foot range and weigh up to 100 pounds. They must be handled with care, and even when they are, pigment dust lingers in the air.
Amid the bustle, Butler department of dance chair Stephan Laurent and Boston-area conservator Camille Breeze step carefully between the unfolded tableaux, part of the Ballet Russe Scenery Collection of the Butler Ballet. As Laurent identifies them, Breeze makes notes on a clipboard; her assistant, Melanie Clifton-Harvey, goes around drawing diagrams. Some of the backdrops are still in good condition, colorful and sharply detailed. Others are faded, with patches or tears.
Laurent knows more about the drops than anyone. Several years ago he cataloged and documented the collection–said to be the largest of its kind in the country–which has been housed in various storage facilities at Butler for 30-odd years. “With Stefan’s initiative,” he explains, “we’re taking it one step further, which is to restore them, or at least stabilize them–some of the pieces have suffered over the years–and then eventually actually exhibit them.”
The scenery once belonged to the famed Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, which toured North America until the early 1960s and was a successor to Sergey Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, the company that launched a ballet revolution in the early part of the 20th century. The collection features 175 pieces from 26 productions, including works designed by Salvador Dali, Henri Matisse, and a bevy of Russian modernists, as well as hundreds of original costumes. Few of the scenic paintings have been viewed by contemporary audiences.
Grace is trying to change that. Two years ago he knew nothing about Diaghilev, the Ballets Russes, or the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. He’d never heard of Butler University, much less its scenery collection. Now he’s playing a key role in reviving one of the dance world’s most illustrious sagas.
For more than a year, the 26-year-old performance artist has been working with Butler’s dance department to get the drops conserved and shown in Chicago. “This would be the first time, as far as I know, in the world that any Ballet Russe backdrops would be exhibited,” he says. The group has been working in the gym ten hours a day for three days straight, and now, on this late Friday afternoon in March, the assessment is nearly complete. Several works from The Nutcracker are among the last to be opened. One, labeled “Act I, Snow Scene,” depicts a snow-shrouded pine forest at night, evocatively portrayed in whites, greens, and dark blues by Russian-French artist Alexandre Benois for the 1940 production of Tchaikovsky’s ballet, the first one to reach America.
“It’s really a one-of-a-kind project,” says Breeze, who founded Museum Textile Services in Tewksbury, Massachusetts, three years ago. “They look like paintings, but they’re really textiles.” The snow scene, she notes, is in decent shape, though all the drops need to be cleaned. “We need to take care of the collection in a way that it can still be used, yet we have to protect them so they don’t disintegrate. It’s a big project.”
Minutes after the crew finishes returning the last batch of drops to the shed where they’re stored, a drizzle turns into a downpour. “There’s some kind of divine intervention overlooking this whole project,” says Grace from behind the wheel of a borrowed van.”It has a guardian angel. As much as my initiative is driving this, a lot of the elements have fallen into place. Every time I don’t know what to do next, the next step is somehow presented to me.”
Sergey Diaghilev was one of the great cultural impresarios of his time. He started an art magazine in Saint Petersburg in the 1890s and organized exhibitions of Russian art and concerts of Russian music in western Europe before founding the Ballets Russes in Paris in 1909. For the next two decades it was the premier company of the Western world, elevating ballet to a modern art form. Audiences were thrilled and scandalized by its adventurous performances, scores, and sets–when The Rite of Spring opened in 1913, for example, it famously sparked a riot among spectators who considered it a deliberate affront to art.
Diaghilev broke with classical tradition by staging shows of several one-act ballets (hence the company’s pluralized name) and by bringing together many of the significant creative artists of the era, first from Russia and later from all over the world. At one time or another, dancers Vaslav Nijinsky and Anna Pavlova, composers Igor Stravinsky, Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov, and Claude Debussy, choreographers Leonide Massine and George Balanchine, and artists Pablo Picasso, Max Ernst, and Giorgio de Chirico collaborated on work for the Ballets Russes.
The vision collapsed when the 57-year-old Diaghilev died in 1929. But the Ballets Russes spawned two rival organizations that laid claim to his legacy. Both were initially subsidized by the government of Monaco, where the Ballets Russes had spent summers and where Diaghilev was highly regarded. The first made its debut in 1932 as the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo, often called de Basil’s Ballets Russes after its director, Colonel Wassily de Basil. The second and better known was the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo (spelled in the singular), led by New York financier Sergei Denham. It gave its first performance in 1938.
After the summer of that year, when they played concurrent seasons in London, the companies carved out their own territories: Denham’s group toured the U.S. and Canada, while de Basil’s group took Europe, Latin America, and Australia. By the beginning of the Second World War both made New York their home and continued to draw from Diaghilev’s repertoire and roster–early on, many talents worked for both companies. Despite its name, the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo staged a number of groundbreaking American ballets, including Agnes de Mille’s Rodeo and Ruth Page’s Frankie and Johnny.
De Basil’s Ballets Russes, which eventually settled in Australia, ceased performing in 1960. The Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo ended its run two years later.
If it hadn’t have been for longtime Indianapolis resident George Verdak, a remarkable figure who died in 1993, the Ballet Russe scenery collection could’ve easily wound up in the trash. Born in the early 1920s into a theatrical family in Chicago, Verdak was a dancer, choreographer, and scenic designer with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo from 1943 to 1952. He later became chair of Butler University’s dance department and was a founding member and artistic director of the Indianapolis Ballet Theatre (now called Ballet Internationale), founded in 1973.
“There’d be no professional ballet in this city without him–he was the backbone, the reason it flourished here,” declares Tim Hubbard, director of touring and education for the Indy-based company Dance Kaleidoscope. “He created quite an enclave of talent and was a mentor to all of us.” Hubbard came to Butler in 1973 to earn an MA in dance, and also worked under Verdak at the Butler Ballet and the IBT. In ’84, a year after Verdak left Butler, Hubbard hung up his dancing shoes.
“He was a true renaissance man, truly artistically accomplished in many ways,” says Hubbard. “He was a musician, a writer, an artist, a scenic designer, and equally proficient in all of it–he didn’t just dabble. And he was accessible, willing to share his life and what he knew. He appreciated art history and instilled in us that if we didn’t know what went on before, we couldn’t go on into the future….He was a one-man show.”
In the late 30s and early 40s Verdak attended the School of the Art Institute, where he studied under Boris Anisfeld, who’d been Diaghilev’s chief scenic painter during the early years of the Ballets Russes. But Verdak gave up painting for dance, and after a stint with Chicago Repertory Ballet he went to Hollywood–where he hoofed in several Eleanor Powell movies–and joined the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. He performed with ballerinas like Alexandra Danilova and Alicia Markova in works by Massine, Bronislava Nijinska, and Balanchine.
While touring, Verdak began collecting Diaghilev and Ballet Russe-related artwork and memorabilia; by the time he’d settled in Indianapolis in 1958, his side interest had grown into an obsession. A prolific artist who choreographed about 200 classic, contemporary, and original works for the IBT and other dance companies before retiring in 1988, Verdak found the time to amass one of the largest private collections of ballet materials in the world, including costumes, orchestrations, graphics, scenery drawings, posters, photographs, letters, and 120,000 books.
Hubbard–who often accompanied Verdak on book-buying trips–recalls that it was hard to maneuver through his house. “The more he stayed connected to the dance world, the more he collected,” says Hubbard. “And the more word got out that he was a collector, the more people like Ruth Page in Chicago would call to let him know if things like set pieces were available so he could come and salvage them.”
Soon after the Ballet Russe folded in 1962, a cache of backdrops and costumes was sent for storage to a Connecticut farmhouse believed to have belonged to one of the company’s lawyers. Sergei Denham footed the rental bill for eight years before he was killed by a bus on Fifth Avenue in New York. After that, Hubbard says, the collection “probably would’ve been thrown out. Mr. V. had an amazing radar for being in the right place at the right time.”
In the summer of 1971, Verdak and a couple of students flew to Boston, rented a truck, drove to Connecticut, loaded up, and came back to Indianapolis. Hubbard and Laurent doubt he paid anything for the materials, but he did agree to house the collection at Butler under the condition that it would not be broken up. According to a February 1994 article in the Indianapolis Star, Verdak thought of the collection as a “staggering treasure of theater history” and a “prestigious asset to the art community of the state.”
But it wasn’t always taken care of. For a couple years the materials were stored in trunks, hampers, and crates in a Quonset hut behind Hinkle Fieldhouse, where raccoons got into them. In 1973 a Butler grant enabled the 22-year-old Hubbard to inventory the backdrops. Besides taking classes, he was working full-time with the Butler Ballet as a dancer and technical director and was also helping to get the IBT off the ground. “I did them in my free time,” he says. “I’d grab as much as I could in one carload and take them to Lilly Hall. It took me about two years, pretty much working by myself.”
Back then there were perhaps 500 pieces, Hubbard says, including cut drops, portals, borders, and legs–different shaped pieces for different parts of the stage. Consulting with Verdak, he opened them all, noting the type, scene, dimensions, colors, ballet (titles were often written on the back of the canvas), and designer’s name “if I could figure it out.” He remembers coming across sets by Salvador Dali for Bacchanale and by Henri Matisse for Rouge et noir. Hubbard tagged the drops–say, “Giselle, Act I” or “Bogatyri, Garden Scene”–with small wooden labels, placed them in a specially built storage space in the basement of Jordan Hall, assigned labels to shelves, and then punch-carded the data into a computer.
There were gaps in the information, but Hubbard says Verdak had a pretty good working knowledge of what was in the collection–he had, after all, danced in front of or helped design some of the scenery. And it wasn’t as if it all gathered dust, either. “Sometimes he’d do a ballet just to use the drops,” says Hubbard.
The basement’s humidity wasn’t controlled; worse yet, it flooded in 1978. The drops had been sitting six inches off the floor, but the water rose to a foot high, Hubbard later heard. “They were like sponges,” he says. “They were [especially] susceptible to moisture and water damage because of the older paint and cheaper pigments they used.”
The drops were hauled from the basement, spread out on athletic fields and lawns, and left to dry. Hundreds were deemed unsalvageable and thrown out; many costumes were ruined too. “It was a horrible, tragic event for [Verdak],” says Hubbard. “It was like a piece of his life had been lost because he had a personal connection to these things.” The remaining drops were moved across campus to a storage shed near the field house.
Hubbard tried to reinventory the sets in the early 80s. “But I just didn’t have the time–I was so involved with the ballet company,” he says. “I was trying to do it out of love, but it got too overwhelming.”
When Verdak died in 1993, his private collection passed to Dace Dindonis, his successor at the Indianapolis Ballet Theatre. Four years later she was the guiding force in establishing the George Verdak Performance Trust to preserve and promote the artist’s legacy. When she suddenly died last year in Westmont, Illinois, while helping to stage a production with the Salt Creek Ballet, Verdak’s estate went to Dindonis’s sister in Michigan. The trust, now headed by Hubbard, continues to acquire Verdak’s own scenic materials–it’s gotten some from Ballet Internationale and some from the estate–to “share his body of work with other companies,” as Hubbard puts it. The future of the private collection is uncertain, though some pieces have been sold to collectors and libraries.
Meanwhile, the Ballet Russe scenery collection remained filed away, largely forgotten. Until Stephan Laurent stepped into the picture. A native of Lausanne, Switzerland, Laurent had been a dancer with several European ballet companies before emigrating to the U.S. in the 70s to earn an MFA from Southern Methodist University. He was artistic director of the Des Moines Ballet before joining Butler’s faculty in 1988, and now heads up the Butler Ballet in addition to running the dance department. “I knew that in a warehouse we had a lot of drops, but I had never looked through them,” he says. Nobody told him about Hubbard’s database.
Then around 1990 Laurent got a phone call from George Dunkel, a one-time scenic painter living in New Jersey. “He had worked on a lot of the [Ballet Russe] scenery and heard that a lot of these drops were preserved at Butler,” Laurent says. “He told me, ‘I’m really interested in buying this Dali drop of yours.’ ‘Dali?’ I said. ‘We have a Dali?'”
Not long after, Dunkel traveled to Indianapolis. “I got together a crew of students and faculty,” recalls Laurent. “We unearthed the drop, opened it up in the large gymnasium, and photographed it.” As it turned out, Butler possessed the complete set of “soft goods”–Dali’s backdrop and three sets of legs and borders–for Bacchanale, which premiered at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York in 1939. Audiences were baffled by the one-act ballet, choreographed by Massine to music from Wagner’s Tannhauser. It portrayed the hallucinations of the mad King Ludwig II of Bavaria, with a cast of characters that included a fish-headed woman, the Knight of Death as a dancing umbrella, a male ensemble that wore large red lobsters on their thighs, and a Venus figure in a flesh-colored bodysuit.
Laid out on the basketball court, the drop measured 50 feet by 40 feet. It depicted a typically Dali-esque bone-littered desert landscape–said to be inspired by the artist’s birthplace, the Emporda valley in Spain–dominated in the center by a mountain with a pathway winding to the top. Painted on Irish linen, the work was still in relatively good condition. The downstage legs–designed to hang on each side of the drop–were checkered with painted drawers, some of them open with bones protruding from them.
Stage designers who worked with the Monte Carlo ballet companies rarely had a hand in painting their own sets; the work was done by members of the United Scenic Artists union at shops in New York and other U.S. cities. Artisans like Dunkel were given the artists’ drawings and then, painting according to a grid system, enlarged the designs by maybe 50 times.
But as Laurent and the others stood in the Hinkle Fieldhouse gym with the Dali drop at their feet, Dunkel told them a remarkable story that made the artwork even more valuable: Dali had visited the scenery shop where Bacchanale was being assembled and, seeing Dunkel standing over the huge canvas with a long paintbrush in his hand, exclaimed, “Oh, what fun to paint with such a large brush! I want to try that.” Dali worked for the next several hours, mostly on the lower right half of the piece, and then affixed his crest and signature to it. (Though faded, it’s still visible.)
Maren Urness, then the dance department secretary and now office administrator for the dean of the college of fine arts, was so intrigued by the drop that she promptly wrote to the Salvador Dali Museum in Saint Petersburg, Florida. “I let them know we had it,” she recalls. “I asked them if they were interested in talking about it, or conserving it….But they pretty much weren’t interested.”
Laurent says that Dunkel never made an outright offer. “He said he had a client who wanted to buy it. But I found out that the only part of the drop that he was interested in was that center portion–he was going to cut it up. He never actually mentioned an amount of money. He kept dangling things like, ‘Think about what this is worth, you could have scholarships with that, you’re never going to use this.’ But I proved him wrong.”
Dance professor and choreographer Larry Carpenter-White was among those in the field house when the Dali was unfolded. Three years later, in 1993, he composed an original piece of modern dance after a visit to Spain. The Butler Ballet production of Luz Andaluz, set to flamenco and Gypsy guitar music, debuted at Butler Clowes Memorial Hall in February 1994, and Dali’s surrealist backdrop was seen by audiences for the first time in more than 50 years.
Laurent says the work was “very well received and attracted national attention,” making the front page of the Star and meriting a piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education. But it was the Dali that stole the show, casting a spotlight on a collection of which few outside the department of dance had been aware.
When the production was over, the drop wasn’t stored along with the rest of the sets in the cinder-block shed, which lacked temperature and humidity controls. Instead it was preserved backstage at Clowes. Meanwhile Laurent, prodded by the publicity, resolved to get to the bottom of things. “I said, OK, I want to know what else is in here.”
It took him a few years to find the time and the funding. In the summer of 1997, with the financial support of Butler’s Jordan College of Fine Arts, he and art students, volunteers from the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees local, and Clowes staffers finally got a crack at documenting what was left of the Ballet Russe scenery collection. The crew removed the backdrops from storage, trucked them to the Clowes stage, and hung them from the flies one by one. Using a computer printout of Tim Hubbard’s original inventory as a starting point, the drops were then identified and photographed. Some had to be retagged–either the wooden labels had been lost or the canvases mistitled.
Of the 175 pieces that had survived, about a third were full-size scenic paintings, from ballets such as Coppelia, The Mikado, Petrushka, Prince Igor, Raymonda, Swan Lake, Scheherazade, and the homegrown Virginia Sampler. “I kept alternating between joy, amazement, and dismay,” says Laurent, as he witnessed the parade of castles, palaces, villages, harbors, and city streets as well as mountain, forest, and pastoral landscapes. “Some were in such good condition.” Others had faded almost to nothingness. The drops were then moved to a temperature-controlled storage facility built to house Butler Ballet materials and placed alphabetically on metal shelves.
The three-week process was grueling and bittersweet, recalls Laurent. “My one concern had always been that whenever we unfold these drops, especially when we start hanging them, there’s actually a powdery pigment that falls down. I remember we’d have the stage full of green dust, blue dust, red dust….It breaks my heart, because every time I was hanging one of them I knew I was contributing to killing it.”
But he was also helping keep the legacy alive. The following summer, in 1998, with the idea of creating a Web site, he undertook what he calls the “long travail” of scanning photographs and doing research. He relied on several sources–including the 1981 book The One and Only: The Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo (by New York Times dance critic Jack Anderson), The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Dance, and Ballet Russe souvenir books from the 1940s and 50s–to identify choreographers, composers, and designers. Many backdrops bore the handiwork of Leon Bakst, Alexandre Benois, and Nathalie Goncharova, leading exile artists of the Russian avant-garde who’d originally worked with Diaghilev in Paris and then went on to create scenery for the Monte Carlo companies.
Laurent was also astonished to discover the drops designed by Matisse for Rouge et noir, a Massine/Shostakovich collaboration that premiered in Monaco in 1939. The set is nowhere near as visually spectacular as Dali’s; it consists of two painted half arches designed to fit together. Reading that Matisse had proposed staging a “vast mural in motion,” Laurent couldn’t find out if the artist had fabricated other scenic elements for the symphonic ballet; if he did, they’re not in the collection.
Because of the flood, in fact, few of Butler’s sets are complete, though Laurent speculates that some may have been that way when the scenery first arrived at Butler. Full sets (like the one for Goncharova’s Bogatyri) might be composed of as many as ten pieces; most of the Butler sets have four or five. And eight drops remain unidentified.
Laurent’s Web site (butler.edu/dance/br_scenery) is chock-full of information, including dozens of pictures, historical notes, synopses of librettos, and even musical excerpts. Viewers can gaze at Benois’ chilling act curtain for Petrushka–it shows a host of goblins flying on sticks and brooms through the starry sky above Saint Petersburg–and listen to snippets of Stravinsky.
One day about two years ago Stefan Grace was behind the counter at the Alley Gallery, a poster and frame shop in Evanston, when a customer walked in to have a poster framed. It was a reproduction of a 1917 Ballets Russes advertisement for a performance at the Teatro Liceo in Barcelona.
“So I framed it,” Grace recalls. “I had no idea what the Ballets Russes was or anything. But the poster was astounding. So I went to the Internet and looked it up and started doing research on it. I still had no idea what I was looking into. I had no idea who Diaghilev was. I had no idea about ballet–I wasn’t really that interested in it.”
But the more he read, the more he wanted to know about Diaghilev. “I became really fascinated with him. He was a personality in art history who operated as a unifying force. He would bring together all of these great minds and massive egos and he would get them to focus their energies toward one common goal, a ballet or opera. That really struck me….
“I think ballet was a vehicle for him. He wanted to astound people and he wanted to redefine the rules, and so ballet became a way for him to do that. He made an art out of facilitating a collaborative process. That’s how he was an artist. The fact he falls outside the bounds of being a painter, a composer, a choreographer, is really inspirational to me.”
Diaghilev became a guiding spirit for Grace’s own theatrical efforts. Born and raised in Rutland, Vermont, Grace moved to Chicago in 1994 to attend Northwestern University, graduating with a degree from the school of speech. In ’98 he and some friends founded Elastic Revolution Productions, setting up a performance, exhibit, and rehearsal space in the Spice Factory Building at 500 W. Cermak before moving it to a former church in Humboldt Park in the spring of 2001. Last summer Grace helped organize a project called 6-Ring Circus, a series of 15-minute street performance pieces that were staged every Friday night by as many as 50 participants on each of the six corners of North, Damen, and Milwaukee.
In the meantime his Internet research had turned up the Monte Carlo ballet companies. One link took him to the Ballet Russe scenery collection. Grace told his boss at the frame shop, Chris Molloy, about “this amazing collection of backdrops in Indianapolis. He said, ‘You should photograph them if they’re just sitting there.’ I said, ‘They’re all photographed–they’re right here on the Web.’ And he said, ‘Then you should mount an exhibition.'”
Grace proceeded cautiously. In January 2001 he got in touch with Laurent and told him he was interested in the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo as well as Butler’s scenery collection. “I wanted to build up trust,” he says. He learned that Laurent had staged several Ballets Russes tributes over the years, most notably the Butler Ballet’s “Homage to Diaghilev” program in 1997. He also discovered that the drops rarely had been displayed outside of a few university productions. (Ten of the canvases had been hung in a New Orleans theater for several days during a June 2000 convocation of Ballet Russe members and enthusiasts.)
Grace sent a package to Lois Weisberg, commissioner of the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs. “I said, ‘Look at this resource–wouldn’t it be great if you tried to mount an exhibition of these?'” He didn’t hear from her, but he kept calling the office and eventually got the ear of Greg Knight, the Chicago Cultural Center’s director of visual arts.
In late February Grace and Laurent had lunch in Indianapolis. Grace told Laurent about his conversations with Cultural Affairs. Though he was concerned that a gallery might not be the proper venue for an exhibit of ballet backdrops, “Stephan said, ‘This is a resource that the world needs to see,'” says Grace. Then the two men drove over to the Butler storage shed, and Grace finally got to feast his eyes on the scenery he’d been studying on a computer screen the last several months. The canvases were folded up and stacked on shelves, but that didn’t matter. Grace felt as if he’d been allowed to enter Ali Baba’s cave. The magic carpets were real.
Grace first met with Knight and his staff in April of last year, and in subsequent meetings a tentative plan took shape. It turned out the Cultural Center’s fourth-floor Sidney R. Yates Gallery has ceilings high enough to accommodate most of the drops. And they began to imagine the show as a three-dimensional, multimedia presentation, like Diaghilev’s productions themselves. With a number of drops as the centerpiece, it could include costumes, photographs, videos, and other materials.
“Theatrical art is huge–it is stage size–so finding a suitable space for exhibiting that is difficult,” says Laurent, when I asked him why the scenic paintings had never been shown publicly at Butler University or elsewhere in Indianapolis. “The ideal way to exhibit it, of course, is with theatrical lighting….[We] are almost thinking about it as a sort of sound-and-light show, with excerpts from the music of the ballets.” There’s even been talk that, in conjunction with the exhibit, the Joffrey Ballet might stage a Ballet Russe work.
In mid-April Knight was careful not to sound overly optimistic. “It’s a hugely ambitious undertaking, and I think it could be a really exciting exhibition,” he said. “Stefan is a great guy, and I love his enthusiasm and commitment. It’s not his area of expertise, per se–it’s his strong personal interest–so we’d have to match up the project with the right team of people. I can’t say how serious we can be right now. There are many steps to this, and we need to take it slowly.” The city and Butler University could lend support, but that would only be a beginning.
Grace, who has designated himself “project manager,” is sanguine about the possibilities. “The beauty of Diaghilev’s collaborative vision is that it crosses all community borders and artistic disciplines,” he says. “You can get people from the visual arts community, people from the ballet community, people from the music community, and they will all come to see this thing. As far as I’m concerned, [fostering] that sense of community is something that’s really important, and it’s something I feel is really lacking in the arts.”
While working 40 hours a week at the Alley Gallery, Grace has found himself contending with another full-time job, this one paying virtually nothing. “I had no idea this project was gonna become my life,” he says. “I also had no idea, when I started this, that the preservation and conservation of the backdrops was gonna be as key”–or that finding a conservator was going to be as challenging. When he started looking last fall, he says, “I had conservators practically hang up as soon as they heard how gargantuan this project was.”
Then, on a lead from his father, Grace called a former neighbor of theirs from Vermont who was working in Chicago as a conservator at the Field Museum. Ruth Norton told him she couldn’t do the job but was happy to help with the search. She adapted Grace’s specs for the undertaking and posted a job announcement on a conservator list-serv last November. Grace says he was “inundated” with requests from conservators throughout the U.S. and Europe.
But nobody would consider looking at the backdrops unless they were paid a hefty sum up front. “I had no money,” says Grace, “so they all dropped out.” Except one: Breeze, a specialist in tapestries and pre-Columbian textiles who’s been a conservator in Ohio, New York, and at the American Textile History Museum in Lowell, Massachusetts. “She was the only person I talked to who was like fine, it’s a big project, but we’ll figure out how to do it, it’s not a problem….She was young and enthusiastic–a perfect match for me.” Better yet, she offered to do the assessment for free: All she requested was airfare and accommodations. Through Butler, Grace snagged a grant from the Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation to bring Breeze and Clifton-Harvey to Indianapolis and put them up for three days in March.
Meanwhile, Grace was also looking for a guest curator. He tapped into ballet circles, contacting staffers at the Joffrey and at other national companies as well as dance critics and historians from coast to coast–“people,” he says, “who really knew their way through the networks of the community who could turn me on to the people I needed to be turned on to.” Last October he met with Millicent Hodson and Kenneth Archer at the Auditorium Theatre; the noted London-based ballet historians were in town to help reconstruct three Nijinsky dances for a Joffrey program. “They took me seriously,” Grace says, offering support, providing contacts, and suggesting curators. He’s narrowed the list to one front-runner: Lynn Garafola, a dance historian, Barnard College professor, and freelance critic who’s an expert on Diaghilev.
Grace says he’s found the ballet world easy enough to get around in. “Everyone knows each other–it’s such a focused discipline.” And people aren’t as “snooty” as he thought they’d be.
Examining the laid-out drops at the Hinkle Fieldhouse, Breeze seems unperturbed by the scope of the work. “All 175 pieces need to be cleaned. They need to be humidified so that they’re not wrinkly anymore. And then they need to be surface cleaned. There are ways that you can protect the fabric and the paint so that it stops flaking off–that’s pretty straightforward.
“There are many phases in this project. It’s not like the whole collection is going to be gone for five years. It’s going to have to happen in bits and pieces, depending on how the funding comes in and how the dance department and a curator would want us to prioritize things.” Breeze adds that other logistics need to be worked out–for one, she can’t commit to such a huge job so far from her home base. “We would just need to find a big theater prop space or an empty theater to rent [out east]. That might be the hardest part of all.”
A few weeks ago Grace, Garafola, and museum consultant Virginia Heaven (who specializes in costumes) spent three days at the storage facility at Butler sorting through just about everything there. And Grace has started a nonprofit, the Chicago Ballet Russe Foundation, to apply for grants and raise funds. In late April he got word from Breeze that it would cost $100,000 to restore eight of the backdrops and an additional $250,000 to stabilize the entire scenery collection–that is, rehousing it and ensuring that the facility is up to conservation standards. Grace crunched the numbers, figuring it would take about a half million dollars to mount the exhibition. That’s just for Chicago; it doesn’t include the costs of touring. He’s been talking to the government in Monaco about taking the exhibit there.
“What I’m proposing is completely ludicrous, totally unorthodox, but a very viable, real, and doable thing,” he says. “The three greatest things in this project so far have been the fact that I’m totally naive, completely anonymous, and I’m bullheaded. Really, that’s the crux of it. I don’t have a reputation. Nobody knows who I am. I don’t have a career at stake. And I’ve never done anything like this before.”
But, Grace adds, the Ballet Russe collection is “a major artistic and historic resource, and it needs to be taken care of. And it needs to be shown to the world.” Otherwise, “a major landmark in the history of dance will have gone to waste.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos by Gemma Ryan/Yvette Marie Dostatni/Stephan Laurent/.