Backdrops tell you where you are and help to set the scene and tone of a ballet. Narcisse and Daphnis and Chloe are two Greek-themed ballets that Leon Bakst designed (costumes/sets/props) for the Ballet Russes.
Compared to modern abstract ballets (i.e. Balanchine), these classical ballets emphasize storytelling. Imagine these drawings resized on a stage behind dancers in their costumes moving to music. The background shouldn’t draw the focus, but they aren’t afterthoughts either.
Where to begin, where to BEGIN… let’s strip it down to a simple binary question: Indoors or outdoors? In both these drawings, Bakst is saying: OUTDOORS.
I’ve really played with the color levels on this photo, because the drawing is much much darker in the Met. Bakst stays largely within one monochromatic family—blues and green. Along with the deep value of colors, he suggests the environment. He is not explicitly stating: “This ballet is outside”.
It isn’t clear whether he designed the costumes around the backdrop or the other way around. (Chicken or egg? Does it even matter?) He uses white, gold and bright green for the dancers, which would read beautifully in the foreground.
DAPHNE AND CHLOE
This drawing isn’t the entire ballet’s backdrop, just a thumbnail. According to the placard, it is an “exploration of the ballet’s pastoral theme”. Don’t just “draw the thing”. Drawing around the mood may help you get there.
Are cows necessary for the ballet? No, but they set the farm tone. This informs the process of coming up with a convincing set background.
SOME NOTES TO SELF
How can you bring that feeling of the outdoors to the stage (which is indoors)? Take a step backwards and ask, “What do you want the audience to feel when they see the entire scene?” If it’s cows, draw the cows first, then distill that feeling out. Keep distilling until you get there–but always remember how the cows made you feel.
Process process process. Despite the large size of these drawings, they are essentially thumbnails. I’ve said it before when examining costumes, it’s about the production as a whole, not just the one drawing. Although both of these pieces can work as standalone, it’s important to remember the context and big picture. What is the final final final? Will this work for that?
- Design for Stage Set for the Ballet “Narcisse,” 1911. Watercolor and gouache over charcoal. Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC. Bequest of Sallie Blumenthal, 2015.
- Landscape with Shepherds, Detail of the Set Design for the Ballet “Daphnis and Chloe,” 1912. Watercolor over charcoal. Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC. Gift of Joseph Duveen, 1922.