Danny Katz and Dance: Les Ballets Russes and Beyond

Danny Katz and Dance: Les Ballets Russes and Beyond


D anny Katz has had a lifelong passion for dance. Before becoming an art dealer, he trained briefly as a dancer at the London Contemporary Dance School at The Place Theatre, and for many years continued dancing as an amateur at Pineapple Studios in Covent Garden. Though he is now only very occasionally a dancer – he recently won praise from the eminent choreographer Twyla Tharp for an impromptu living-room performance – Danny has since become known as an ardent patron of ballet and contemporary dance, having commissioned original works from companies such as the Royal Ballet, Rambert, and Kim Brandstrup’s Arc Dance.

The origin of Danny’s interest in dance lies with the Ballets Russes, the ground-breaking early 20th century touring company which arguably gave birth to what is contemporary dance today. Founded in 1909 by the Russian impresario Serge Diaghilev (1872-1929) and initially based in Paris, the Ballets Russes rose to prominence throughout Europe. Their performances both shocked and intrigued audiences, boasting commissions from avant-garde figures across the arts: choreographers, dancers, composers, painters, and designers.

The Ballets Russes’ manifold relationship with the arts has had an influence on Danny’s collecting, to such an extent that the Daniel Katz Gallery, in conjunction with Julian Barran, held an exhibition devoted to Diaghilev’s company on the occasion of its centenary in 2009. Three artworks from Sotheby’s upcoming online sale Refining Taste: Works Selected by Danny Katz have a direct link with the Ballets Russes, illustrating Danny’s fascination with their legacy.

The Genius of Nijinsky

Left: Maurice Charpentier-Mio (1881-1976), Vaslav Nijinsky and Tamara Karsavina in 'Le Spectre de la Rose'. Estimate £3,000-5,000 ; Right: Nijinsky and Karsavina in the first performance of Le Spectre de la rose, 1911.

The most illustrious figure to have emerged from the Ballets Russes, Vaslav Nijinsky (1889-1950) was celebrated for both his virtuoso dancing and his pioneering choreographic work. Nijinsky is represented here in a bronze by the French sculptor Maurice Charpentier-Mio together with the Ballets Russes’ prima ballerina, Tamara Karsavina. They are captured in the midst of performing the 1911 ballet Le Spectre de la Rose (The Spirit of the Rose), in which a young girl falls asleep after a ball and imagines a romantic encounter with a personification of the rose she has dropped. The piece won notoriety for Nijinsky's spectacular leap through a window at its conclusion, dressed in his magnificent rose petal costume designed by Léon Bakst.

A year later, in 1912, Nijinsky choreographed his first work for the Ballets Russes: L’apres-midi d’un faune (The Afternoon of a Faun), which Danny Katz cites as his favourite ballet. The scenography, costumes, as well as the choreography, were directly inspired by classical art, one of Danny’s primary collecting interests (see Lot 15, Attic Grave Stele). In his tableau of a Faun’s fevered dream following an encounter with nymphs, Nijinsky’s dancers move in a fashion akin to figures in ancient Greek vase painting, a style of dancing not hitherto seen on the ballet stage. The ballet’s sexually explicit ending proved highly controversial, with Nijinsky himself, as the Faun, appearing to climax over a nymph’s veil.

Nijinsky as the Faun in the premiere of L'après-midi d'un faune, 1912.

Ballet and Music

Afternoon of a Faun was set to the symphonic poem Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune, composed by Claude Debussy in 1894 as a response to a poem by Stéphane Mallarmé. The sensuous flute solo of Debussy’s orchestral work provided the ideal setting for Nijinsky’s ethereal and erotic vision. Though the composer’s music was in this case pre-existing, in 1912 Debussy was commissioned by Diaghilev to compose an original score for the ballet Jeux, thus cementing his association with the Ballet Russes.

For Danny Katz, the musical score is a vital component of a choreographic work, and he is a great admirer of Claude Debussy. The upcoming sale includes a plaster bust of Debussy by the French sculptor François Louis Simecek, alongside a painted portrait of perhaps the most iconic Ballets Russes composer, Igor Stravinsky. It was Stravinsky’s innovative score which, combined with Nijinsky’s experimental choreography, caused a sensation at the 1913 premiere of The Rite of Spring (Le Sacre du Printemps). Now perhaps the best-known work by the Ballets Russes, The Rite startled early audiences with its radical depiction of savage ritual, derived both musically and choreographically from folk culture.

The distinctive portrait of Stravinsky offered in the sale was painted by Catherine, Baroness d’Erlanger, a patron of the arts and admirer of the Ballets Russes. It was probably through them that she met the composer, and their friendship lasted until the painter's death in 1959.

Danny Katz as a Patron

Like Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in their day, Danny Katz’s patronage is focused on the cutting edge of dance. In the numerous works he has commissioned over the years, he has supported pioneering choreographers and companies, as well as the contemporary component of more traditional ensembles such as the Royal Ballet.

On the occasion of his 60th birthday, he commissioned the duet DK60 from Kim Brandstrup, which received its first performance at Sotheby’s in 2008. More recently, in 2018, Danny supported the Royal Ballet’s celebration of the Leonard Bernstein Centenary, which included new works by Wayne McGregor and Christopher Wheeldon. The ballet Danny is most proud of, however, combines his passion for dance with another keen philanthropic interest, that of neurological disorders. Created for the contemporary ballet company Rambert by Aletta Collins, Awakenings (2010) is an emotionally challenging piece inspired by the neurologist Oliver Sacks’ book of the same name, with an original score by Tobias Picker.

Watch an excerpt of Awakenings here:

With its unique synthesis of movement, music, theatre and design, Danny considers contemporary dance "the modern idiom of art". Another thrill of watching ballet, he admits, is the extreme physicality achieved by its performers: "It’s a short life, filled with suffering, blood, and guts." Ultimately, though, his fascination with dance is intrinsically linked with his career in the art world, which began with sculpture: "Sculpture is terribly important to me because I love the world of dance. I love the motored form, physical movement; it’s what I’m about."

Elisabeth Banfield's tips for enjoying ballet in lockdown

- Royal Ballet, free broadcast of Kenneth MacMillan's Anastasia on Youtube (from tonight and up for two weeks)

- Royal Ballet & Ballet Boyz, Romeo and Juliet: Beyond Words available on BBC iplayer

- Instagram and Zoom classes with Everybody Ballet run by Royal Ballet dancer Bennet Gartside.

- Sadler's Wells, Digital Stage, a diverse programme of contemporary dance broadcasts.

European Sculpture & Works of Art

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