Sally breathes new life into arts space for kids

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Sally Smart in NGA Play this morning

“SALLY Smart” is the name of a new installation in the National Gallery of Australia, and it’s also the name of the artist who created it.

Her interactive show is filled with collages, cut-out assemblages and dance, much of it inspired by the Ballets Russes.

That was Russian producer Serge Diaghilev’s company the Ballets Russes that turned the Western European world upside down in the early 20th century by encouraging collaborations among young choreographers, composers, designers, and dancers, including Igor Stravinsky, Claude Debussy, Sergei Prokofiev, Vassily Kandinsky, Alexandre Benois, Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Léon Bakst and Coco Chanel.

Smart has made herself an expert on the subject over the past four years and, happily, the NGA is home to an extraordinary collection of Ballets Russes costumes.

She has been working on breathing new life into the space NGA Play since the end of last year, a space, according to Gallery staff, which has been enthusiastically embraced by younger members of the visiting public.

“Sally Smart“ is the fifth NGA Play installation and it gives her an opportunity to combine her research on the Ballets Russes with the products of a residency in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, where she was able to explore Javanese expressions of the clown, an archetypal character, seeing in both European and Asian cultures, specifically in the character “Chout” from Prokofiev’s dark ballet of the same name and ballet the “punokawan” or clown character from the Javanese “Wayang Kulit” or shadow theatre.

Sally Smart’s cut-outs

Kids coming to the National Gallery will find, as well as huge cut-outs of costumes and other figures, a video of Smart’s chosen dancer, Brooke Stamp, performing an Indonesian horse dance and huge blackboards on the wall (“they won’t know what a blackboard is,” she says) where kids can write their own lists. They can use black paper with white pencils to draw, and can also involve themselves in costume making.

After consulting the first director of the NGA, James Morrison, about the Ballets Russes collection, Smart “digitally cut” up the Ballets Russes costumes, “then had Indonesian artisans in the studio of artist Eko Nugroho embroider the designs, with the aim of creating her own “Violet Ballet”, where the clowns of the West meet those of the East.

“Looking at the Ballets Russes I saw the colonialism involved,” she says. “Not just the cultural imperialism of the Russians, but in Indonesia the Dutch taking ‘oriental’ culture back to Europe then seeing it reflected back through the Ballets Russes.”

Behind everything is Smart’s fascination with the cut-outs of by Matisse and the “flattening out” of Picasso’s art and Cubism, which influence the dance parts of her project and her ballet.

A fervent believer in cross-form collaboration and what she calls “breaking silos”, she also sees cut-outs as capable of creating a sense of magic, a sense of fusion in the arts that was at the centre of the Ballets Russes – “they did make magic, even though they were always fighting, it was all the people fusing together,” she says.

“Sally Smart”, National Gallery’s NGA Play space, near front entrance, until March 31. Free entry.

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Helen Musa
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