Arguably the most readily identifiable and popular artist of the 20th century, Marc Chagall was a man of astounding versatility. Born in 1887 in Vitebsk, Russia, he grew up and gravitated to his chosen profession during an era that celebrated the concept of Gesamtkunstwerk—stage projects in which music, dance, drama, poetry and the visual arts harmoniously combined to present a more profound experience. One of his St. Petersburg teachers, Leon Bakst, was another Jewish master whose Art Nouveau sets and costumes for the Ballets Russes transformed the world of dance in the years before World War I. It would not be until after 1918, in Soviet Russia, that Bakst’s student would become involved with the Yiddish theatre, where he developed yet another aspect of his genius that would continue to flower until the end of his life.
This season, events on two continents have been inspired by Chagall’s biography and creative vision. Hailed as the winner of the annual Carol Tambor Foundation’s Best of Edinburgh Award at this year’s Fringe Festival in August is “The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk,” written by Daniel Jamieson, a co-production staged by Cornwall’s experimental Kneehigh Theatre and the Bristol Old Vic.
Incorporating expressive movement and dance, as well as Ian Ross’ music and songs orchestrated for an onstage band, this multi-disciplined work depicts both the romance of Marc and Bella, the woman who became his muse and the subject of many of his masterpieces, and the cultural roots that sired the artist’s unique perception. Despite the poverty, bleakness and violence of the shetl, the horror of World War I, and finally, the turmoil and suffering caused by the Russian Revolution, the artist forged an alternate reality, a joyous fantasy that continues to affect the visual and performing arts. “Flying Lovers’” sets, costumes and cast enervate Chagall’s dream world while the cruelty of real life is always at hand. The play’s final scene depicts Chagall’s response to Bella’s death in 1944. Acclaimed by critics and audiences, “Flying Lovers” is touring the United Kingdom through the spring of 2018, and will open in New York, probably later next year.
On view at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) until Jan. 7, 2018, is the first exhibit focusing on Chagall’s later stage works. Curated by Stephanie Barron, with an installation designed by LACMA’s artist-in-residence, an innovative opera director and set designer Yuval Sharon, “Chagall: Fantasies for the Stage” surveys the Russian master’s involvement with ballet and opera spanning the decades initiated by his arrival in New York from Nazi-occupied France, and continuing through 1967.
On display are films, studies and sketches, as well as the original costumes, sets and backdrops from four Chagall productions: “Aleko,” danced in 1942 by the company now known as the New York City Ballet; famed impresario Sol Hurok’s 1945 revival of Stravinsky’s “Firebird;” the 1956 Paris Opera staging of Ravel’s “Daphnis and Chloe” ballet, and the artist’s beloved treatment of “The Magic Flute” which debuted at the Met Opera during its first Lincoln Center season
Visitors will also be able to see Chagall’s paintings and drawings focusing on the subject of theatre, furthering enhancing their understanding of his creative process, and the significance of the performing arts within the context of his oeuvre.
Cheryl Kempler is an art and music specialist who works in the B'nai B'rith International Curatorial Office and writes about history and Jewish culture for B’nai B’rith Magazine. To view some of her additional content, Click Here
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