The Discovery of Lost Arts in the 20th Century.

Unlike other medium of art such as sculpture, painting, architecture, and ceramics, ancient dance is a lost art, because “dance is an art passed down through lived, embodied traditions.” The exhibition “HYMN TO APOLLO: The Ancient World and the Ballets Russes” in the Institute for the Study of Ancient World (New York University) focused on “how artists [choreographers] returned to the past [arts] not as benighted traditionalists but as radical revolutionaries, intent on creating something new” in the early 20th century  on the art from ballet company Ballet Russe in Paris2. The specialty in ancient dance makes the process of understanding ancient dance difficult but when historian and artist change the perspective of discovering, the potential resources and new interpretation will be revealed. Ancient imageries from the Greek art around Hellenistic period in history focused on the idealism, emotion, and expression in details with simplicity, which inspired the 20th century costume and gesture in dance, a lost art, especially choreographies base on Greek mythology of performances given by this most influential ballet company.

In order to understand the connection between ancient art and modern performance art design, the understanding of ancient imageries and its features that made 20th century artists admire to is crucial. The art from Hellenistic played a significant role as inspirations for Ballet Russe. According to the article from The Metropolitan Museum of Art: “Hellenistic art is richly diverse in subject matter and in stylistic development”3 which can be seen in theStatuette of a female Figure, a Greek marble sculpture, and Squat Lekythos: Eros and a Woman, a Greek terracotta pottery. Both examples of ancient art contain figures with free, simple, clean, fluid, and dynamic clothing. Though they are in different mediums, one is three dimensional, the other one is flat drawings, they all shared the feature of the art created during Hellenistic period. In the Statuette of a female Figure with a dimension of H. 40.6 cm; W. 15 cm; D. 10.8 cm, the artists are able to capture the freedom, space for movement, dynamism, and expressed in this physical art. In this fragmented free-standing marble figure with S curved and asymmetrical balanced composition, the head is lost, however, the movement of a hand pulling the drapery is vivid and proactive. The creases of the folds create an upward thrust because of the soft and light fabric. One remaining hand is in detail, not in a rigid position, instead it is placed softly and relaxed around the top layer of the drapery, holding it up and rapping it around the body gently. The drapery moves and has a looseness to it with layers  on top of each other, creating fluidity. Some folds are carved deeper than the other, and all the clean carved lines are not restricted, which, including the posture reflect the concept of art from Hellenistic period-expressive and free. Though the feet are missing, through the fabricated soft drapery the right knee is bent, so the figure is relaxed rather than standing in a rigid gesture like most of the Egyptian stylized art. The drapery fell in a diagonal, making the sculpture active and lively. The soft fabric allows the gesture and shapes of the body to come through the clothing. The proportion and realistic weight balance shows the craftmanship. However, most of the Greek art after the classical period doesn’t mainly focus on the technical aspect of sculpture alone. Artists were able to go beyond the physicality of the art and focus on the story behind the art. The existing theory of human perfected proportion allowed the artist at that time create art with more emotion and individuality, therefore, turning the realistic art into more idealistic. The gesture of the sculpture corresponding with the entire drapery design expresses the concept of Hellenistic style. Continuing with the exploration of ancient imagery, the drawing of Squat Lekythos: Eros and a Woman features the same idealism. With the Greek mythology behind the vase, the image on it is able to depict “Winged Eros [who is the Greek love God] Playing a Tympanon as a Woman Dances.”4 In the Squat Lekythos, the symmetrical composed pottery is made from terracotta with two red figures on the body of the vase with the black background. The figure ground design is symmetrical as well with the two figures facing each other with arms reaching to the other in a closed composition because of the position of their crossing arms and legs. The pottery has a dimension of H. 17.5 cm; Diam. of body 10.2 cm; Diam. of foot 7.8 cm. The pottery has a thin neck and on top is an opened mouth. There are repeated curved and rounded pattern on the bottom of the body. The pottery also has a smooth and polished finishing. Two figures are in an active, interactive, and lively posture. The movement of the two figures emphasizes the female’s hidden delight but not overly expressed. “The dancing scene are slightly easier to identify because of the present of the woman.”5 She is dancing with a soft moves. Her facial expression is detailed as well, a small on her face. The dancing gesture of the female is depicted by her arms and a bent leg relaxing. Eros in an opened and welcome gesture on her left side. The drapery on the figures is flowing with the movement of the figure especially the women. Some parts of her body are covered, and some are not. The postures and details of the costume of the figures add to the narrative since the woman is pulling up the fabricated drapery on the side with a lowered head looking down on her hand holding her clothing. The other hand is swinging the upper part of the clothing beside her head. The costume on the female dancing figure has a low neck without sleeve, so the movement can be revealed directly since the art is focusing on reflecting the emotion from the movement and face. “It [Hellenistic art] was created during an age characterized by a strong sense of history,”6 it carried the advantage of art development till its time and was able to add more creative element to the art that make it expressive, idealistic, narrative, inspirational, and proactive. It is the unique characteristic of Hellenistic Greek art that attract 20th century’s artists and designers. And the admiration toward the ancient art was unveiled in the modern design in Ballet Russe performances.

Ballet Russes is a dance company in the 20th century Paris from 1909 to 1929, founded by Sergei Diaghilev who is a Russian choreographer. With the artistic director Léon Bakst, they revaluated a more complex form of ballet that was unfamiliar to the public. Sergei Diaghilev commissioned work from the most well-known artists and designers in the era, including Coco Chanel and Léon Bakst as costume designers, Vasily Kandinsky, Pablo Picasso, and Henri Matisse. The influence of Ballet Russe still have a critical impact in the present day. With the performance from the principle dancer such as Anna Pavlova who was also the principal dancer at the Russian Ballet. They gave performances mainly on ballet like “Narcisse,” “Swan Lake,” “The Red Poppy,” “Don Quixote,” and “Giselle.”7 Many of the performances are still classical now. The company performances female and male variation, duets, and group dances with well designed costume inspired from the ancient art world.8 The company went viral, and brought a lot of visual designers into public view, which created a huge sensation and grabbed the world attention with it special-designed costume and stage and well-rounded performances. They  performed at Paris Opéra. There is no doubt that the Ballet Russe is one of the most influential dance company in the world because of the combination of all kind of art.

Costume is the soul of dance and performances, it carries narration, movement, and expression, for instance, in the performance “Narcisse,” based on Greek mythology. The ballet narrates the “myth of Narcissus, a beautiful and self-indulgent youth, who spurns and ridicules the advances of the beautiful mountain-nymph Echo. In anger, Echo applies to Pomona to make Narcissus fall in love in a way that can never be reciprocated. Under Pomona’s spell, Narcissus promptly falls in love with his own reflection in the pool. He stands gazing at himself for so long that he sinks into the ground and a narcissus flower grows in his place. ”9 With the story based of Greek mythology, the director of Ballet Russe, Léon Baskt researched into Greek art, and put historical art elements into the choreography and especially costume design. The shadow of “ancient ceramics and sculpture” can be seen “in the designs, patterns and colours of the dress.”10 For example, the loose and pleated costume for a Nymph from the ballet Narcisse is made of silk and paints which contains a fluid and bright quality. The light weighted material of yellow silk add texture  and a delightful expression to the whole piece. There are three layers on the dress from top to the bottom. The first part holds the weight of the lively dress by containing a white and green pattern fabric tightening the upper part of the hip. There is no sleeve on this costume, which adds more freedom to the dress, and the two weight points on the shoulders with a low open V neck blended with a soft-edge pattern along lift the whole dress up, resulting in less weight and give the costume lightness and fluidity. The middle part is a fabricated drapery and covers the lower waist and legs. The round shape of the costume with a short front and a longer back add more movement and variety to the dress. This is the thickest part of the dress which is the front layer of the dress. The belt on the hip connect the first and the middle part. the bottom part of dress falls from the back of the thick drapery in front of it. Unlike the middle design, the bottom fabric is lighter and thinner, which can emphasize the subtle movement of the lower body, and it is easier to catch the air when the dancer is turning, leaping, and jumping. The simple design of the pattern is repeated in this part of the dress, with the color of muted shades of green, one lighted, the other darker. The two colors alternating each other along the drapery create movement and interest. The pattern of continuous leaves shapes laying diagonal to one another integrate the three parts of the dress, though they are in various colors. The split finishing on the bottom of the dress provide more space for the lower leg and encourage open extentions. The whole costume reveals the arms, legs, feet, and head movement, which offer more fascination of freedom and movement to the gesture from the dancer. It is the special loose feature of the costume that allows the dancer and the costume to integrate with the choreography in the performance.

The connection between the two ancient Greek art pieces inspire the design of the costume since they shared the obvious characteristic of openness, liveliness and fluidity, and are very expressive. The female clothing from the active imagery of Squat Lekythos: Eros And A Woman has a low neck and it is sleeveless, which can emphasize the movement and gesture of the figure by revealing the body and following the movement. The ballet costume for “Narcisse” takes the advantage of the pottery and applies it with a silk textured low V neck and sleeveless dress that can let the dancer and costume blend in the movement since the Ballet Russe and art from 20th century admired the softly flowing clothing design from ancient imagery. Also, the Statuette of a female Figure as an example specially featuring how dynamic the drapery is in Hellenistic sculpture. The costume and the statuette shared the similarity of letting the body’s shape come through the covering and reveal movement of dancer. Bronze statuette of a veiled and masked dancer from the same period and geography also shared the same features. Again, Léon Baskt uses the fluidity of the drapery from the Greek art and applies it into the layers of the dress, the simplicity of the design, and the clean lines of the fabric.

In conclusion, by looking at costume design, gesture, inspiration of choreography including the connection between the performance and design, audiences are able to understand the creation progress of 20th century dance and have a further idea about the concept that the 20th century artist admire about ancient art such as marble sculpture and pottery. Personally, as a dancer, I have practiced the classical ballet and performed variation from “Swan Lake.” The uniqueness and how Ballet Russe used the collective power in visual art and inspiration of intellectual, creativity, and craftmanship from ancient world impressed me. The 20th century design is a breath of fresh air when almost all the costume for ballet are flat tutu and tights made from tulle.

[1]New York University, Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, “HYMN TO APOLLO: The Ancient World and the Ballets Russes,” Accessed March, 2019.


[3]The Metropolitan Museum of Art, “Art of the Hellenistic Age and the Hellenistic Tradition,” April 2007.

[4]New York University, Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, “Squat Lekythos: Eros And A Woman,” Accessed March, 2019.

[5] Lynch, M. Kathleen, “The Symposium in Context,” Pottery from a Late Archaic House near the Athenian Agora, (New Jersey: The American School of Classical Study of Athens, Princeton, 119-20.)

[6]The Metropolitan Museum of Art, “Art of the Hellenistic Age and the Hellenistic Tradition,” April 2007.

[7]Youtube, “Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo performance excerpts,” Published on Jul 29, 2017.


[9]National Gallery of Australia. “Ballet Russe, The Art of Costume.” May, 2011.