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Video clip synopsis – The National Gallery of Australia is home to one of the world's finest collections of costumes from the celebrated Ballets Russes.
Year of production - 2006
Duration - 5min 0sec
Tags - art, artists, ballet, Betty Churcher, collectives, conservation, costume, dance, mythology, preservation, restoration, see all tags


Ballet Russe

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About the Video Clip


Ballet Russe is an episode of the series Hidden Treasures (15 × 5 mins) produced in 2006.

The National Gallery of Australia has more than 100,000 works in its collection—an extraordinary reservoir of creative vision and cultural history, from decorative arts to photography and sculpture.

Yet on a visit to the gallery, you’ll see only the tip of this iceberg. Carefully stored away are the things that can’t be placed on permanent display.

These unseen gems include works of exquisite fragility, from brilliant hand-painted fabrics to delicate works on paper. From Australia, the Americas, Africa, Asia, Europe, the Middle East and Oceania, there are masks and carvings, lithographs and linocuts, set designs and stage costumes, sketchpads and handprinted books, marionettes and maquettes, teapots and textiles, and much, much more.

Now in this series of micro-docs, former director of the gallery Betty Churcher presents an insider’s guide to some of these 'hidden treasures’.

In the entertaining, accessible style for which she is renowned, Betty Churcher takes us behind the scenes, sharing with us her passion and insights. From her unique vantage point, she makes intriguing connections between a range of different objects and artists, linking them to the stories that surround them.

These are fascinating tales—about the works themselves, the people who created them and the challenge of preserving them—and a tantalising look at some of the ideas and influences that have shaped modern art across the globe.

A Film Australia National Interest Program in association with Early Works. Produced with the assistance of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

Full program credits

Curriculum Focus


Students are required to research visual artworks from a variety of past and present social and cultural perspectives. Students should also demonstrate an understanding of how histories are constructed in the visual arts both reinforcing and challenging values in the social, cultural and historical contexts in which they are produced.

This is a guide only. Teachers and students should consult their state’s curriculum and learning programs.

Background Information


When Betty Churcher joined the National Gallery of Australia in 1990, the first 'hidden treasure’ she found was one of the world’s finest collections of costumes from the celebrated Ballets Russes.
Commissioned in Paris by Serge Diaghilev for his revolutionary troupe of dancers, many of these gorgeous costumes have been handpainted by radical young artists who were to become giants of 20th century art, among them: Henri Matisse, Giorgio de Chirico, Natalia Goncharova and Jean Cocteau.

Without Diaghilev, the course of modern art could well have been different, because he had the entrepreneurial flair to hear and celebrate the drumbeat of a new century.

His genius lay in spotting genius in others. He brought together in creative collaboration some of the most original, inventive and difficult young artists of the early 1900s, such as the painter Pablo Picasso, the dancer Vaslav Nijinsky and the composer Igor Stravinsky.

Among the stars in the National Gallery of Australia’s collection is Matisse’s design for the Chief Mourner in the Song of the Nightingale.

There’s also Leon Baskt’s costume designed for Nijinsky in The Blue God. It is marked with his make-up, which the gallery’s conservators carefully preserve—for the stains are as much a part of history as the costume itself.

After Diaghilev’s death in 1929, a number of new groups followed his original troupe. When the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo toured Australia in 1940, Sidney Nolan was commissioned to design the sets and costumes for Icare—adding his own brand of poetic lyricism and his Australian accent to this artistic treasure-trove.

Classroom Activities


The National Gallery of Australia has one of the most important collections of modern theatre art in the world. In 1973 at auction, the NGA purchased 47 lots, comprising about 400 assorted items. It has taken years of conservation and research to piece together these various items – hats, belts, coats, trousers, dresses – into about 100 complete or nearly complete costumes.

  1. Discuss the National Gallery of Australia’s responsibility for the preservation, restoration, examination, documentation, research and education of the artworks in their care. Refer to the NGA’s website for information about conservation of various media, including paper, textiles and objects as well as an essay of the evolution of conservation at NGA. (See references)
  2. Discuss the NGA’s preventive conservation of the artworks in relation to: environmental conditions, handling, procedures for storage, exhibition, packing and transportation, pest management. What policies and procedures for these are in place at the NGA?
  3. In Indian mythology, the god Krishna is generally depicted with blue skin, the result of being bitten as a child by the evil serpent Kaluja. Carry out research about Krishna and the episodes in his life, then create an illustration for the front cover of a theatre program for a production of The Blue God.
  4. Find a folk tale, myth or legend, then design and construct a mask for one of the main characters in the story.
  5. To work out the overall design for The Song of the Nightingale, Henri Matisse constructed a small stage out of a wooden crate for all his stage décor and characters. He used little pieces of coloured paper which he moved around inside the stage. Write or find a short story that could be adapted to a stage play, then construct a similar stage setting for the story using recycled boxes and cut paper.
  6. After looking at other artworks by Matisse, create a collage of an environment familiar to you, using cut paper shapes in a limited colour range.

Further Resources


Olivier Berggruen and Max Hollein (eds), Henri Matisse: Drawing with Scissors: Masterpieces from the Late Years, Prestel, Munich, 2006

National Gallery of Australia – conservation

From Russia With Love – Ballets Russes (Follow links Education – Resources and scroll down)