Natalia Gontcharova, curtain design for the prologue in "Le Coq d'Or (The Golden Cockerel)," 1913. Watercolor and collage on paper. Collection of the McNay Art Museum, gift of The Tobin Theatre Arts Fund, TL2008.9. © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ ADAGP, Paris.

Natalia Gontcharova, curtain design for the prologue in "Le Coq d'Or (The Golden Cockerel)," 1913. Watercolor and collage on paper. Collection of the McNay Art Museum, gift of The Tobin Theatre Arts Fund, TL2008.9. © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ ADAGP, Paris.

Fall Exhibition Showcases Women Artists’ Creative Impact on Ballets Russes

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Yolanda Urrabazo
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McNay Art Museum exhibition reunites several objects for the first time in nearly a century

(SAN ANTONIO, TX) June 11, 2024 – The McNay Art Museum turns to its esteemed Tobin Collection of Theatre Arts to recontextualize an early 20th-century ballet company in “Women Artists of the Ballets Russes: Designing the Legacy,” on view Oct. 10, 2024-Jan. 12, 2025. Original costumes, set and costume designs and archival photographs chronicle the dance company’s history and shine the spotlight on the often-overlooked creative contributions and legacies of artists Natalia Gontcharova, Sonia Delaunay and Alexandra Exter and dancer and choreographer Bronislava Nijinska. The McNay pairs its holdings with costumes, designs and ephemera on loan from other institutions, offering deeper insight into the objects on view and the women artists who created them. The exhibition also reunites several designs with their realized costume and set pieces for the first time in nearly a century.

Gontcharova accepted an invitation from Serge Diaghilev, founder of Ballets Russes, to design sets and costumes for the 1914 opera-ballet “Le Coq d’Or.” Gontcharova, known for her vibrant and floral designs, combined elements of Russian folk art and contemporary painting with her sense of humor to create spirited designs that cemented her artistic relationship with ballet through the 1950s. The exhibition includes a bold curtain design for the prologue of “Le Coq d’Or” that reflects cultural references from her early life in Russia as well as an original set piece from the 1937 revival. Gontcharova’s floral motifs and elements of her stage designs are also evident in the frontispiece for the 1921 volume “Russian Ballet in Western Europe.”

“While the genesis and impact of Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes (1909-1929) is well known, the incredible women who worked with this company on and off stage have often been overlooked,” said Caroline Hamilton, Ph.D., Ballets Russes costume and dance historian and exhibition co-curator. “This exhibition aims to celebrate and give voice to these female artists including designers, dancers, costume makers and financial patrons who worked with the Ballets Russes and contributed to its legacy.”

While living in Madrid, Sonia and Robert Delaunay met Diaghilev, who invited them to design costumes and set designs for Ballets Russes’ 1918 production of “Cléopâtre” after the original 1909 sets and costumes designed by Léon Bakst were partially destroyed by fire. Sonia designed the costumes and introduced bold colors and geometric designs that were also evident in her later stage work and fashion designs, a hallmark of her celebrated “simultanéisme” technique that juxtaposed contrasting hues and shapes to create movement and rhythm.

Exter had collaborated with Nijinska from the late 1910s, and although she never worked for the Ballets Russes, in 1925 she created the designs for six new ballets for the U.K. tour of the Théâtre Chorégraphique Nijinska. This included the ballet “Holy Etudes,” which brought a modernist and constructivist vision to the stage. Exter garnered international acclaim for her set and costume designs and taught stage design and worked in performing arts in France, Italy and England.

Nijinska’s contributions to ballet spanned more than 60 years. She joined the Ballets Russes in 1909 as a dancer with her brother Vaslav Nijinksy, the company’s most celebrated member. Though lesser known than Nijinsky, Nijinska’s creativity had a longer-lasting impact on the dance company, where, from the 1920s, she both choreographed and danced starring roles. “Women of the Ballets Russes: Designing the Legacy” highlights Nijinska’s choreographic storytelling through stunning ballets like “Les Noces,” “Le Train Bleu,” “Les Biches” and “Le Renard” as well as her additions to “The Sleeping Princess.” Nijinska settled in the United States in the late 1930s and would be instrumental in training the first wave of American born ballet dancers.

The McNay’s exhibition focuses on the legacy that the famed dance company and these women had on ballet in the U.S., highlighting dancers of color who found historic opportunities with the companies that emerged in the wake of the Ballets Russes. Personal ephemera mark their historic accomplishments in light of the contemporary issues of representation on stage. Among these women are ballerinas Sono Osato and Raven Wilkinson, the first Asian American and the first African American to dance with a major company respectively, and Maria Tallchief who was taught by Nijinska and would become the first Native American prima ballerina.

“Preparing this exhibition has been a three-year process during which the Tobin Collection of Theatre Arts has taken on new dimension,” said R. Scott Blackshire, Ph.D., curator of the Tobin Collection of Theatre Arts. “The late Robert Tobin was particularly proud of the Ballets Russes treasures he acquired, and he often exhibited them in inventive ways. If Robert Tobin were here today, I believe our focus on the women artists of the Ballets Russes is an exhibition thesis that he would applaud as visually fascinating and socially significant.”

The McNay’s Tobin Collection of Theatre Arts represents more than 500 years of excellence in theatre arts with over 10,000 paintings, works on paper, maquettes and sculpture and 2,000 rare books of European and American theatre design from 1600 to the present. The collection is the life’s work and continued legacy of its namesake, the late philanthropist Robert L. B. Tobin, who was devoted to the celebration of visual arts in the theatre. This year marks the museum’s 70th anniversary, which coincides with the 40th anniversary of the Tobin Wing and the 90th birthday anniversary of the late Robert L. B. Tobin.

Images available here.

Media Contacts:

Yolanda Urrabazo
Head of Communications and Marketing

Betsy Meacham, Blue Water Communications


About McNay Art Museum  
The McNay Art Museum engages a diverse community in the discovery and enjoyment of the visual arts. Built in the 1920s by artist and educator Marion Koogler McNay, the Spanish Colonial Revival residence became the site of Texas’ first modern art museum when it opened in 1954. Today, 200,000 visitors a year enjoy works by modern masters including Paul Gauguin, Vincent van Gogh, Edward Hopper, Joan Mitchell, Alice Neel, Georgia O’Keeffe, Pablo Picasso, Jackson Pollock and Pierre-Auguste Renoir. The 25 acres of beautifully landscaped grounds include sculptures by Willie Cole, Robert Indiana, Luis A. Jiménez Jr., Alejandro Martín, George Rickey, Joel Shapiro, Kiki Smith, Tom Wesselmann and others. 

The McNay is open Wednesday and Friday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Thursday from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; and Sunday from Noon to 5 p.m.

Due to a maintenance issue, the museum will close at 5 p.m. today. Tonight’s Gallery Talk will be rescheduled for a later date. We will return to regular hours tomorrow.

We apologize for any inconvenience this may cause and look forward to welcoming you soon.