The immersive installation The Violet Ballet is the latest iteration of Sally Smart’s examination of influential early 20th century ballet company Ballets Russes and their experimental choreography, costume and theatre design.
Smart is particularly interested in Ballets Russes’ macabre avant-garde ballet Chout (The Buffoon), which she places alongside a traditional Indonesian wayang (shadow puppet) character called panakawan (basically clown-like characters that provide comic relief) in the installation. Through this positioning, Smart is offering an alternative history exploring the entwined legacies of colonialism and orientalism.
Often referred to as “the tale of the buffoon”, Chout’s score was written in 1921 by Sergei Prokofiev while visual artist Mikhail Larionov designed the costumes, scenery and choreography. Smart is interested in how the extraordinary costumes became part of this production.
“The Violet Ballet takes the original Ballets Russes story of Chout and reconstructs it in a very abstracted way,” Smart says. “Although I have also included some semblance of the sets and costumes and reworked it to deliver some of the emotional intensity of the original.”
The Violet Ballet, which is part of the Adelaide Festival’s visual arts program, encompasses many of Smart’s interests including textiles, costumes, film, shadow puppetry and dance. Dance, in particular, has become a large part of Smart’s practice over the last seven years with the element of movement being what sets her collage work apart.
“Dance shows and depicts the complexities of human emotions through the body,” Smart says. “I like the idea of the dancing body being able to show in an instant a range of emotions from anxiety to joy. That’s one of the great things about dance, in a flicker you can do that.”
The National Gallery of Australia has one of the world’s finest collections of Ballets Russes costumes and Smart has long admired them.
“I was viewing the costumes as art; I was interested that they were designed by artists,” Smart says.
Smart’s assemblages embody the idea of collaboration. In terms of the Ballets Russes, it’s the collaboration between artist and choreographer that interests her. For some time now, Smart has been collaborating with Indonesian artists and artisans in the production of some of her work. Engaging across cultures has been an important artistic exchange.
“It’s the cross-cultural dialogues and discourses inherent in the Ballets Russes that are really interesting and, in a sense, relate to myself in terms of working with choreographers and dancers as well as Indonesian artists and artisans,” she explains.
Through The Violet Ballet and Smart’s other investigations, she is bringing Ballets Russes into the 21st century and viewing it through the lens of colonialism, a viewpoint that has otherwise been overlooked.
“I’m really interested in the history of the Ballets Russes and the idea that it has not often been discussed in terms of the visual arts. It’s this discourse that really fascinates me.”