Eleanor Antin poked a peephole in dance history to let herself in as an imaginary ballerina. The noted conceptual artist refines her Zelig-like invention in a lovingly detailed installation of films, photos, text and drawings. In "Loves of a Ballerina," she plays with Ballets Russes lore and the way American choreography distorted that mystique in the 1930s plus such other topics as the immortalization of ballet on film and the point at which dance borrows from the visual arts.
The tremulous, black-and-white films are great fun, with a swan poking itself between the legs of a dippy backstage Prince Siegfried who has an eye for his Odette (Antin), plus such tidbits as a fellow in a tux promenading with an unattainable silhouette of a dancer. Films projected on two sides of a train car each offer a vampy flirtation cut short so that Antin can disappear mysteriously to rendezvous with the fellow in the other compartment.
Black-and-white photographs of Antin in the costumes and poses of imaginary ballets, with texts explaining the circumstances of their creation, have a deliciously sly period flavor. Antin imitates the breathless style of dancers' writing in pages from a Ballets Russes memoir accompanied by quick, reticent sketches that preserve the tensely romantic aura of the era: pensive ballerina, conferring composer and choreographer Diaghilev in his touring car. A suite of chalk-and-ink drawings from Antinova's 25 ballets combine familiar dance steps with gestures and poses snatched from religious art of the 16th and 17th centuries.
The entire production cannily avoids the excesses of parody. Instead, Antin deploys her wit to unveil some of the curious artistic and social assumptions of the cloistered world of earlier 20th-Century dance. (MAG Gallery, 1835 Stanford St., to March 12.)