|Publicity shot for La Boîte à joujoux, 1921.|
My purpose in the theatre has always been to work towards an entirely new form of choreographic entertainment, and I should not even call my performances ballet if I could think of anything better.
– Rolf de Maré
It was quite like the most complete and potent piece of Dada ever conceived – an extraordinary moment in time when the oddly relatable, the perfectly bonkers and the insanely beautiful concocted to ignite people’s imagination. And yet it was all a happening that unfolded of its own accord during an evening by the end of November 1924, outside the closed doors of the glorious Théâtre des Champs-Élysées on Avenue Montaigne. The nineteen hundred individuals who were there for the premiere of the Swedish Ballet’s Relâche were greeted with an obstinate one-word door announcement, “Relâche” (French for No Performance), which inadvertently roused the baffled crowd to wander back and forth for quite some time as they were trying to figure out whether they had been hoodwinked or maybe, perchance were participants in what was the show.
Relâche was delineated as “neither a ballet nor an anti-ballet” and there was a backdrop catchword for the second act of the real, performed Relâche – as it went in Picabia’s delightfully unpardoned French: Si cela ne vous plaît pas, vous êtes libre de foutre le camp (“If You Don’t Like It, You Can Go to Hell”). Both of these summaries were entirely in line with the French avant-garde aspect of the Ballets Suédois. The brilliant Francis Picabia, who was the main instigator of what would turn out to be the company’s last production to be performed with some regularity in Paris, described the piece in plain Dada as if there was no tomorrow: “Relâche is as much alcohol and opium as sports, strength, and health,” he announced, adding that it has “everything turning in a movement as rapid and agreeable as that which we can get at three hundred horsepower on the best route bordered by trees tilted for a speed-producing illusion”.
The audiences that attended the thirteen performances of Relâche had been instructed to wear sunglasses and to stop their ears with cotton. There was a reason for that. The curtain rose to a new curtain that looked like the black milk bar drapes in Clockwork Orange (1971) with flickering sentences of Relâche-related puffery which was swapped by a white screen with a vignette that, since the film still exists, shows a cannon on the loose up on the pebbled roof of the very Théâtre des Champs-Élysées. Satie and Picabia are bouncing all over the place like two merry monkeys, the cannon is loaded and they fire the projectile through the screen, right in the face of the audience. The orchestra provided the noise.
Then the stage cracked open with a blinding archway design of hundreds of coruscating discs that looked like car lights with an animal intensity that chummed along with the rowdiness of Satie’s throbbing score. A smoking firefighter entered the stage and a woman in a gala dress (the ensemble’s new danseuse Edith von Bonsdorff) joined in from the auditorium, followed by several male dancers who had also been concealed as members of the audience. It was a taciturn choreodrama with the warm thrill of confusion, for every time someone danced the music and the headlights went quiet.
René Clair, who would make the superbly fanciful Paris qui dort in the following year, directed Relâche’s part-of-the-show intermission Entr’acte (in identical fashion to musical performances in Parisian cafés which were usually interluded with film screenings). We are back on the roof of the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées and, for a montaged moment, the world is turned upside down before balloon heads are filled up with helium, and there’s an upskirt view of a female ballet dancer through a glass floor, an Eiffel Tower on two legs. Cut to a corner of the rooftop where the famous chess playing between Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray takes place till they are soaked in water from an unknown source. A hunter who is Jean Börlin – the ballet master and choreographer of the Ballets Suédois and the one person for whom the prosperous Rolf de Maré created the company – shoots at an egg on a jet of water which turns into a pigeon that lands on the hunter’s head. When Picabia is aiming his gun at the bird he hits the hunter instead who falls to his death from the very top of the theatre. (Or something like that.)
Six years later, as fate would have it, Jean Börlin would be lying in a coffin again, however not as an actor this time. In Entr’acte, the self-pulling hearse with the dead hunter has a dromedary in front and an overjoyed procession in tow. The coffin falls out when the hearse sets off on its own accord and the revived Börlin uses a magic wand to make the nosy crowd disappear, and then himself. The twenty-two-minute-long film ends when Jean Börlin breaks out of the screen the very moment that the FIN comes up, but is kicked back into his Dada reality by (as it seems) someone in the audience. The fireman and the smart flapper returned in the second act of the ballet. The fireman gushed water from vessel to vessel and the woman arrived with a crippled man (Börlin) in a wheelchair. (This was only a few years after the conclusion of World War I after all, and those of the eight million French young men who came out alive came back as damaged goods.) Relâche ended when Satie came driving onto the stage in a Citroën not much bigger than himself. Those who attended Relâche did not need to go screw themselves, they loved the show.
One should consider that this took place a century ago when humans with hope and insight and daring views made things for people who understood the concept of a free mind.
It was not without reason that the 1920s were viewed as les Années folles (the Crazy Years) in the capital of France. It was indeed a remarkable period when “pushing the boundaries” wasn’t a cliché but appertained to fighting for our civilisation, for the good stuff, for triumphant new expressions in art, remarkable ideas and discoveries, bracing sources of pleasure, freer ways of being – bravery, as far as possible, without surrender, for a life worth living – as opposed to the colossal inanities and hysteria of the 2020s when people are convinced that ugly behaviour, overassertive standpoints and the endless endorsement of no-limits “liberalism” is the way to go. We are now so disconnected from what we could be that we shrug away or play along as our liberties, relishes and the air we breathe are being invalidated with each passing day.
Play stupid games, win stupid prizes because nothing in the age that we live in must tarnish the vileness of this current rubbish. (A female professor at London Metropolitan University recently pronounced that human debate “is an imperialist capitalist white supremacist cis heteropatriarchal technique that transforms a potential exchange of knowledge into a tool of exclusion and oppression”. These fakers really want to be Stalin, all of them, don’t they?) Twenty-Twenty will go down in history as the year when Tanzanian leader John Magufuli’s car died of the big bad Virus because the motor oil in his presidential vehicle tested positive. Twenty-Twenty will also be remembered as the year when people couldn’t wait to spend seventy-five dollars on a votive candle with the smell of Gwyneth Paltrow’s vagina.
A hundred years ago, when there were people in this world who sought to take us onwards and upwards, the Ballets Suédois effectively conveyed what open minds can achieve with a great deal of imaginative effort and this new course of uninhibited interplay between the arts – just what the French art historian Frank Claustrat expresses in Dancers, Artists and Lovers: Ballets Suédois 1920–1925: “The meteoric rise of the Ballets Suédois lit up the Roaring Twenties like no other artistic enterprise, and it was thanks to this company that dance became a field of boundless experimentation. The strength of its choice of repertoire lay in a continual dialogue with its public. It was relevant to everybody and touched on universal themes, envisaging an altruistic society hitherto unheard of. The ability to dream was regarded as the first condition for such change.”
This new (and Virus overdue) Dancers, Artists and Lovers publication is the essay book providing a slew of new perspectives and unique images – and the three hundred pages are concluded with a very useful list of all the twenty-six works by the Ballets Suédois to tie up the loose ends – which, combined with a separate catalogue, accompany the ”If You Don’t Like It, You Can Go to Hell”: Ballets Suédois 1920–1925 exhibition at the Dance Museum in Stockholm. Dansmuseet’s centennial over the Ballets Suédois is bang on in terms of depth and magnitude, looks and beauty. It is of course all too true what Lynn Garafola notes in Legacies of the 20th-Century Dance, that ballets are only living entities as long as they have their stage life. On the other hand, when the next best thing makes you dance on moonbeams and slide on rainbows, well, then it is absolutely hats-off to Dansmuseet and this significant achievement.
“Previous exhibitions about the Ballets Suédois, but to a large extent also previous publications, have been very focused on the scenic and perhaps mostly on the visual artists. The exhibitions have presented long ranks of beautifully framed costumes and decorative sketches from those big-name artists, in typically white-painted exhibition galleries. With this exhibition we wanted to get a greater grasp on the performing arts as an art form – phenomena and complexity – and to focus on the whole endeavour of creating this whole project, this adventure that the Ballets Suédois was,” explains Erik Mattsson who left his position at the Department of Theatre Studies at the Stockholm University in 2017 to take over as the Dance Museum’s new curator and the person in charge of the centennial.
Mattsson says that his main academic interest in the performing arts lies in “its complexity and societal ramifications, always these connections to economics, law, the issue of public space, social relations, collaborations, geographical movements, advertising … The performing arts as an art form is remarkably diverse, it is so complicated compared to literature and visual arts.” It is evident that this curator has a knack for passionate archival studies, a passion that has been contagious (if one dares to use that word these days) for the entire production of the show. Whereas the book is more like an archipelago of missing bits and pieces, presented in sections like a stage performance, the exhibition itself is the mainland of all the chronicles, stories, magical dust and a wealth of astonishing articles that are cleverly put into context and aided by a fair amount of detailing. It is roughly everything that remains of the Swedish Ballet in the 2020s. They’re here.
In his luminously sturdy biography on the Ballets Suédois’ founder and animator Rolf de Maré (subtitled Art Collector, Ballet Director, Museum Creator), the former director at Dansmuseet Erik Näslund argues, and with good reason, that “A laboratory like the Swedish Ballet was necessary in order for art to be capable of developing.” Unlike the mad scientist in Paris qui dort who uses his beam to put the people on the streets of Paris in a frozen state of slumber, de Maré used up an entire fortune between 1920 and 1925 to purvey something dearly precious for Parisians and tout le monde – new art, deep entertainment and a whole lotta play.
The hard-touring Ballets Suédois performed on seven hundred and twenty occasions (their pieces were carried out 2,717 times in all) during these five years, which in effect were more like three and a half. The home arena and the base for their organisation was the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées at the beginning of the treelined Avenue Montaigne between the Seine and the Champs-Élysées. This theatre is a restrained beauty in concrete with an embossed marble frieze right under the eaves, a cassette layout for the golden window frames, and a sensuous inside where the dishy particulars of early Art Deco emerge in the grand lobby.
“The Ballets Suédois has always been highlighted as a Parisian phenomenon and when reading previous books, you almost always get the feeling that they were mostly in Paris,” says Erik Mattsson. “But the fact is that out of these nights, one hundred and seventy were in Paris and five hundred and fifty in other cities. Surely, Paris was very important because there was the artist community in Montparnasse that the Ballets Suédois was very dependent on and collaborated very much with – that was where many of the artistic impulses came from. Several of the productions were made for a Parisian audience, with the Montparnasse community in mind.”
Contrary to the Ballets Russes, with which the Ballets Suédois was routinely measured against, the Swedish company was not elitist (highbrow, sure, but never high-and-mighty). Part of their mythmaking power was that they loved killing it in smaller theatres just as much. Mattsson explains that “While they were touring, and they performed in one hundred and forty-six cities in Europe and the United States, they often presented other types of works. Relâche and La Création du monde , for example, were given only in Paris and a few times. Relâche could not be toured with and it was not made to tour with. It was considered that the audience in other cities would not be appealed by these most modernist works. It was more of Swedish folklore, classic and humorous works that were run in the countryside and in smaller towns, and it often worked out well there too. I think it was an experience that they gained, that this was what worked.”
Rolf de Maré was born in Stockholm in 1888 to a family of considerable riches. Though hardly cut from the same cloth, de Maré and his famous grandmother Wilhelmina von Hallwyl shared some essential traits. Here were two plutocrats who understood what to do with their given privileges: they both had a penchant for culture and the artistically valid, collecting was in their blood, and so was the pleasure of beneficial expenditure. Rolf’s mother left her son and husband when the family returned from Berlin in 1904 to start a passionate new life together with her son’s young tutor. Rolf, the coy dreamer, stayed in the heart of Stockholm with the countess in her Hallwyl Palace (today a public museum with everything kept as it was in the old days, including the amusing skittle-alley in the attic known for its thunder that reverberated across the whole building).
“There is often a connection between tuberculosis and a highly developed sensibility,” hints Erik Näslund in the biography, and he means that it was de Maré’s illness that delivered him from a tedious existence. Part of his young life included sojourns on a magic mountain together with the rest of the moneyed Half-Lung Club, and this in an environment where social interaction was not restricted to reading alone: “It should be remembered that TB above all afflicted young people, and the disease enhanced their intrinsically strong sex drive. Condemned as they were to non-physical activity, their physical needs sought other outlets. The sanatorium world was notoriously promiscuous.”
Just back from one such stay in the Alpine world, his father brought him out again on a long journey to India in January 1910. There would be many such around-the-world trips for de Maré, like when he escorted Prince Wilhelm of Sweden to the coronation of King Rama VI of Thailand that autumn, and carried on by himself for fifteen months across the Far East and North America. His grandmother supplied him with a mansion on the western shores of Sweden, Hildesborg, for she alone had decided that Rolf would become a lord with both of his boots in the agricultural domain. On de Maré’s own volition, however, he would turn things around towards an autonomous life of excitement, enjoyment and freely-chosen frustrations. And almost everything that would come in his way during the 1910s would cluster into the formation of the Ballets Suédois.
The recondite pencil notes in Rolf de Maré’s pocket planners from the autumn of 1912 and five years on were about his secret romantic appointments with the dainty Swedish dandy Nils (von) Dardel who had an incredible cercle des amis including many of the finest modernists in Paris where he himself lived as an expatriate artist. Dardel in effect became responsible for bringing much of the new avant-garde into de Maré’s life and art collection, which up to this point had been dominated by global artifacts of ethno-lore. The couple travelled the world together, most notably during the World War I (and through another Russian Revolution), and at the start of this 1917 tour they enjoyed Enrico Caruso at the Metropolitan in New York City and the Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova at the Teatro Nacional in Havana.
It was Pavlova who had performed The Dying Swan at the Mariinsky in Saint Petersburg in 1905 to the great Michel Fokine’s emancipated choreography in which he lifted the dancer away from the impediments of traditional ballet – much as in Greece around 500 BC when the sculptors made the blockish statues (with their stilted Archaic smile) finally step out of the marble they came from. Like Sally Bane explains in Writing Dancing in the Age of Postmodernism, “Fokine had radically reformed the Russian academic style in accordance with five principles, which he summarised in a letter to the London Times in 1914. He believed that in each ballet the movement should correspond to the subject matter, period and musical style, instead of being simply another combination of preordained steps; that dance and gesture should advance dramatic action; that the entire body, not just the hands and feet, should be used in gesture; that the role of the corps de ballet should be expressive rather than merely ornamental; and, finally, that dance must be allied with the best in the other arts but still maintain its own independence.”
These principles were implemented and cherished during Fokine’s 1913–14 stay at the Royal Opera in Stockholm – where the promptly resigned ballet master from the Ballets Russes arrived after a typical rift with its imperiously tempered impresario Sergei Diaghilev. One of the dancers at Kungliga Operan was a talented twenty-year-old who was getting seriously tired of the silly “gymnastics” of Swedish ballet and of being so completely underused. The effeminate Jean Börlin had been training ballet since his mother one day decided to abandon the family. She disappeared for good after dropping the child off at some relatives’ house south of Stockholm and four hundred and twenty-six kilometres from home. Fokine brought back the young man’s joy for dance, sharpened his expression and peeled off the sugar.
“According to Fokine, it was Jean Börlin’s goal to create a performing art that could be able to be an expression of humanity in all its diversity,” writes Lynn Garafola and she argues that Börlin’s “passion for knowledge appeared to be never ending. He read all the time and he learned several languages on his own, just as de Maré had done. Unlike his sponsor, however, Börlin stayed friendly and sympathetic. He was able to adjust in every situation and was a very empathic person. During his career with the Ballets Suédois, this proved to be very convenient. His universal knowledge and his flexible way of being made it possible for him to adapt himself to the needs of the artists involved.”
What was written in the stars shall be. Rolf de Maré had seen The Fairy Doll at the Stockholm Opera in 1909 and on stage was a dancer who would be attributed in red pen in his pocket planners from the fall of 1917 and the years to come. “That was a good day at work!” smiles Erik Mattsson when he describes how he discovered that these markings are about de Maré’s love, lust and schemes for Jean Börlin, his future star of the Ballets Suédois.
When actor Paul Demange in 1931 summarised what he called “the scope and significance of this formidable movement created by Rolf de Maré and Jean Börlin,” he argued that “there had not been a more favourable time for the appearance of new aspirations. This was the postwar period in which everything that had existed in the past acknowledged its inability to survive. Creation was essential at all costs. But everywhere on this virgin soil that was thus laid bare to artists’ aspirations, chaos reigned. There was no time for pruning or weeding; vigorous building had to take place amidst the quagmires and the ruins. Such an enterprise attracted pioneers of the most impetuous kind. Rolf de Maré and Jean Börlin were two of these.”
In 1975, Joni Mitchell was sitting in Gordon Lightfoot’s house playing her new song “Coyote” (recorded the following year for her album Hejira) while the host, Bob Dylan and Roger McGuinn were trying to keep up, unable to understand what she was doing. For the bearded ones it was still the Summer of Love but Mitchell had catapulted into the future. This was exactly what the Ballets Suédois was doing in relation to the classical dance companies during its five years of existence. “Already around the turn of the century, there was a general tendency to liberate dancing from the established classical dancing methods,” writes Pascale De Groote in her book Ballets Suédois. “Next to the fact that academic dancing was going under in decadence, this trend can be explained in different ways. There was the idea of a new sense for dynamics, a greater concern for the concept ‘body’ and an increasing interest in the subconscious and in the corresponding emotions.”
This was sensed and assumed in the visual arts as well. After seven years of working on his Les Grandes Baigneuses, Cézanne left the painting as it was in 1905, unfinished and completed. The Bathers is an exceptional piece of grand traditions, and yet – take a look at these crude bodies and the sketchy future that is already there. Two years later when Picasso painted the similarly large and revolutionary Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, the bodies had become more disjointed and unrestrained as if the five prostitutes (two of the faces are completely masklike) were accomplishing a modern image of the human subject that in essence tackled old instincts against brave new mechanics.
There was also a curiosity in the air for the performing arts, which also to a great extent came from other art forms, all stirred up as they were by this new world of aspirations that would revive ballet (and in the end even French ballet). In The Ballets Russes and Beyond: Music and Dance in Belle-Époque Paris, Davinia Caddy explains that “This enthusiasm for dance was no doubt stimulated by a cluster of concurrent phenomena: a burgeon interest (across the visual arts, photography and early cinema, as well as the physical sciences and industry at large) in the concept of motion; a specifically theatrical anxiety about opera, vocal exegesis and dramatic impersonation; an intellectual loss of confidence in verbal culture (the so-called language crisis, symptomatic of early modernism); and a societal trend towards sport and recreation.”
What would ensue was a string of “goodbyes” to the old ballet world. Russian-born artist Léon Bakst, who worked as a scenographer and designer in Diaghilev’s company, said goodbye “to scenery designed by a painter blindly subjected to one part of the work, to costumes made by any old dressmaker who strikes a fake and foreign note in the production; it is goodbye to the kind of acting, movements, false notes and that terrible, purely literary wealth of details which make modern theatrical production a collection of tiny impressions without that unique simplicity which emanates from a true work of art.”
As a twenty-four-year-old de Maré had seen the Ballets Russes perform at the Kroll Opera House in Berlin in 1912. However, it was not until he became friends with Fokine and his ballerina wife Vera during their – and Börlin’s – stay in Copenhagen that he began to not only value ballet but to entertain the idea of a Paris-based company under his own direction. de Maré was, as he expressed it much later in life, all too aware of the Swedish mindset not to see that a debut at home “would be tantamount to suicide”. It is highly likely that this idea was discussed when they all got together over dinner at his Hildesborg mansion on April 27, 1918.
Börlin experienced the Ballets Russes perform at the Empire Theatre in London on his way to Paris when the hostilities of the WWI ended in November 1918. Though the pieces included the famously cubist-fragmented Parade (with contributions by Picasso, Satie and Cocteau), he could only recognise “the same old contorted ballet steps” and petulantly called Léonide Massine’s choreography “perversions of old ballet”. (Thirty years later Massine was the sullen dancer and ripening cobbler who delivers the ballet slippers to the delectable Moira Shearer in The Archers’ Technicolor masterpiece The Red Shoes, a film that indeed was inspired by the Ballets Russes.) Börlin came to Paris to study dance and art, but got on a gloomy start: “I’m getting more miserable by the day,” he wrote to de Maré. “I’m so afraid for the future.”
“When they returned from their holiday in Algeria, Jean made his big solo debut in Paris in March 1920,” tells Erik Mattsson. “In retrospect, it was as if they were testing a lot of stuff that would then reappear in the Ballets Suédois in the autumn. It was the same theatre, even though it was the smaller stage [Comédie, on the third floor], it was the same conductor, and the seven solo numbers were expanded into larger choreographies that were part of the Ballets Suédois’ repertoire. And the press in Sweden reacted precisely as it would do during the Ballets Suédois.”
Mattsson points at one of the many letters (dated February 4, 1920) in the exhibition downstairs. “This is the first time that the Ballets Suédois is mentioned in writing. It is a letter to Jenny Hasselquist who was a huge star at the time. The first thing Rolf and Jean did when they had decided to start this company was to contact her and ask if she wanted to join. Once she had said yes, they could start recruiting other dancers. But Hasselquist was only there for three months before it clashed between her and Börlin.”
It was a French publisher and man of letters who (for legal reasons) would be the official theatre manager during the Ballets Suédois’ lease of the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées. Jacques Hébertot was the smooth operator of the Swedish Ballet, he filled the three stages when the troupe was out of town, he ran the magazines that promoted the Ballets Suédois, he did all sorts of press and PR, and de Maré gave him all the money he would ever ask for to keep this dream alive. In the summer of 1920, Hébertot and Jean Börlin were in Stockholm to search for their dancers and to let them rehearse before it was time for the big move to Paris. While the male dancers came from Copenhagen, de Maré pretty much emptied the Royal Swedish Opera of its female dancers to the unspeakable fury of its director and many others. de Maré explained in writing that he “did not have a single scruple about demolishing the corps de ballet of the Stockholm Opera, considering that I had decided to present it as a magnificent troupe dedicated to performing abroad”.
“All the dancers who I have looked up who were from the Royal Opera came from clearly obvious working-class homes. Their fathers and mothers were industrial workers, cleaners, chimney sweeps, fruit sellers. By joining the Royal Opera’s ballet school, you received an education and you could have hopes for a future profession. And you got paid a little already from the age of six or seven if you had a small extra role. It was far from everyone who became a dancer in the end, and had it as a profession, but you still had that opportunity if you were disciplined and a little talented,” explains Erik Mattsson. “When they joined the Ballets Suédois, because of their class background, the fifteen-year-old dancers suddenly earned more than their fathers, which may be a partial explanation as to why the parents allowed their daughters to go away to Paris.”
He says that Jean Börlin “was probably not entirely easy to deal with, but they liked him much better than they liked de Maré. The dancers thought he was stingy, mean and boring. I do not really know what this being ‘stingy’ is based on because the dancers had very high salaries.” The foul temper of the Swedish impresario paled in comparison to Diaghilev’s whose leadership was characterised by an atmosphere of bullying and perennial diabetes tantrums, reinforced by the ghastly foresights that he received from his supply of fortune tellers. Everyone in the Ballets Suédois enjoyed paid vacations in the summers, and they were justly compensated in case of injury or illness. And when the Stockholm dancers got on the train to Paris on September 27, de Maré made sure that everyone was provided with a first-class ticket.
Jean Börlin had originated nine small ballets under quite some pressure when the premiere took place less than a month later. (He always had every move in his head and hence barely jotted down anything of his choreography for future studies.) “The Swedish first night was a success of exactly the right Parisian kind, with applause, cheers, boos and controversy,” writes Rolf de Maré’s biographer. This garboil over four pieces of ballet was of course nothing in comparison to the thunder of disagreement that took place in here on May 29, 1913 when the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées was all new and the Ballets Russes presented Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du printemps. Even though the Ballets Suédois started out as mildly as a Swedish heatwave, they were the ones who had the money, the vision and the energy to generate what art director Mikhail Larionov was dedicated to create in the Ballets Russes – a “universe existing alongside the world of reality”. It was the Russians who possessed the virtuoso dancers, but the Swedes were teeming with charming imagination and capricious punk and the Ballets Suédois was a Krazy Kat daydream.
Sergei Diaghilev, who had travelled from London to Paris to witness the Swedish premiere, “had genuine cause for concern,” recounts Lynn Garafola. “Although the Ballets Russes had managed to survive the First World War, financially, its position was shaky. Rich Russian patrons had disappeared with the Revolution; German touring venues with the Axis defeat. For months the company had been a ‘turn’ on the English music hall stage, while its grand postwar comeback at the Paris Opéra early in 1920 had been marred by a two-week strike of the Opéra personnel. And, compared to the fifty-odd performances of the Ballets Suédois opening season, the Ballets Russes season that followed would amount to fewer than a dozen.” The Ballets Russes was not alone to be in desperate straits. The entire ballet production at the Palais Garnier in 1920 was two foreign divertissements.
The old photographs taken from the top of the theatre are numerous and full of symbolism – everyone in the young troupe looks like a champion of the world. Erik Mattsson was there too, a few years ago: “Nicolas Le Riche [the director of the Royal Swedish Opera] has worked a lot at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, and he says that you are not allowed to go up there, that it also applies to the staff. It is forbidden, but everyone does it anyway. They smoke, drink coffee and bask in the sun. I don’t know if it was forbidden even in 1920, but when you look at the dancers’ private everyday pictures, and we have quite a few from the roof, they dance, jump and just hang around. It was their haunt, a resting place with a fantastic view of the Eiffel Tower.”
The Ballets Suédois appeared as a force in the French capital. The idea was to play around with a bit of the old Swedish folklore and some different conceptions about Swedishness – and to confect it with contemporary life and with the vanguard artistic movements that were so special to Paris. What emerged, when the best of Paris and “Sweden” roistered till sunup in creativity, were true works of art.
“It is a Swedish-French project,” answers Mattsson, “but if you look at it numerically, there are more French artists and composers that they collaborated with, and there were more French than there were Swedish works. At the beginning of the autumn of 1920, the Swedish Nuit de Saint-Jean and Les Vierges folles were included in the repertoire. In the more modernist Maison de fous, there is not much Swedish other than that it is made by Swedes. But these three works were performed for a very long time and they probably thought that that was enough. Rolf de Maré once said that one of the driving forces for working so much with French artists and composers was that there were too few of high quality in Sweden. They made more friends among artists and composers in France than in Sweden. Kurt Atterberg and Einar Nerman, from whom they bought Les Vierges folles, were not the best friends with Rolf and Jean.”
Funnily enough, the Ballets Suédois arrived in Paris at the same time as Continental Dada. The Bauhaus school had just opened in Germany while the country’s Expressionist theatrical movement, with the gaunt loners, their Angst and the painted shadows, was approaching the abyss. Those things were soaked up by the Swedish Ballet too. Erik Näslund poses something very interesting in his book on Rolf de Maré: “Was the intellectualism of the Ballets Suédois perhaps more congenial to the German psyche than to the French? Classical ballet had nothing like the strong position in Germany that it occupied in Paris, and consequently fewer people felt constrained to defend its dominant position. This left the way clear for a new kind of dance to challenge the classical convention.” And as he argues, the young Germans “were united in their contempt for classical ballet and in their endeavour to create a new dance style”.
This was hardly the sentiment that ruled among the dancers in the Swedish (or rather Scandinavian) troupe, who too many times found that what they were there for shrunk in the face of the artistic paraphernalia of the French avant-garde. “When many of the Danes signed for Ballets Suédois, the hope was to dance in Fokine’s new ballet style on which Börlin built his own choreographic style. But it did not always turn out that way,” explains Erik Mattsson.
“It was quite a lot of folk dancing that they did not think was so fun to do. And in the most modernist works, it was movement patterns and types of dances that they did not like. The recurring thing among the dancers is that in letters and diaries they mentioned very little about the dance at all. They told much more about everyday life – how to celebrate Christmas in London, and how awkward it was to be on tour – and when they mention the dance, it is regarding that there is too little classical ballet. You almost get the feeling that the dancers were more conservative than the Ballets Suédois.”
“They liked some of these more innovative and modernist works. There are several who thought that Les Mariés de la Tour Eiffel  was very fun to do even if there was not much dancing in it. What many of them highlight is Chopin , which was a classical ballet with en pointe dancing, and to get a part in it was significant. But there are several who have said that they just thought that L’Homme et son désir  was weird, with advanced music, and that they could not possibly use their skills in that kind of work. It was a new pattern of movement and the choreographic expression was not always central.”
Years later, de Maré confessed that the reason for dissolving the Ballets Suédois in March 1925 was that he found it impossible to back out of the consequences left by Relâche which, in an immediate future, would make both the dancers and the choreographer redundant. Also, he figured that the company’s penultimate production “was contrary to our Nordic spirit”. Despite the fact that Jean Börlin expressed that “the dancer must cease to be the sandwich man condemned to carry the great painters’ advertisement boards” – and many critics cherished his way of turning excellent paintings into ballets – there was always a struggle within his own choreography, pushed by de Maré’s expectations, between the vast supply of visual images and the actual, suffocative effect that this overload would have on the dance itself. “Each picture gives birth in me to an impression that immediately transforms itself into dance,” Börlin said. “It is not that I have tried to copy them by making tableaux vivants. But they awaken in me reflections, ideas, and new dances.”
“What in Heaven’s name have I done to Sweden,” de Maré asked his supportive stepfather in a letter. “In every quarter, attempts are being made there to destroy me.” Nils Dardel’s watercolour The Executioner or the Triumph of Ballets Suédois, painted as early as 1920, is like a revenge movie on a piece of paper. The narrative appears as a succession of scenes in which the craven David Sprengel, the leading muckraker voice of the Swedish press, is led to his effeminate headsman – the artist himself dressed in a bloodred bodysuit – who is anything but careful with that axe.
In reality, the uncouth Sprengel, full of spite and the usual Swedish grudge and inadequacy, did not end his days as pig feed – as it is pictured in Dardel’s bloodcurdling vision in Dansmuseet’s exhibition – but continued to lash out at the Ballets Suédois in order to create as much damage as possible. This critic had gone postal when Jacques Hébertot was offered the job that the Swede was never considered for anyway. But there was a further reason. With the arrival of the Ballets Russes in 1909, the homosexual Sergei Diaghilev transformed the new ballet into a veritable art form that, besides its lessening of the cult of the ballerina (and her side role as a fetish prostitute), advanced towards an ambisexual multi-ballet with the quirks of his own carnal appetites.
The homosexual tinge of the Ballets Suédois and the “soft and gelatinous” aspect of Börlin was a sitting duck for the Swedish press. On July 2, 1921, the Swedish paper Svenska Dagbladet published a demurral from the dancers in the troupe: “We find this treatment from fellow countrymen incomprehensible. One would expect compatriots to be swifter than foreigners to appreciate a Swedish undertaking and judge it fairly, but this not being the case, we have the satisfaction of having received the very best reviews in every other country.”
Erik Mattsson says that it is obvious that their countrymen’s scolding of the Ballets Suédois was driven by homophobia and that “It is then that the writings were as most aggressive. If you compare France and Sweden, there were similar norms about homosexuality in both societies at that time, but France was still more permissive. And juridically, homosexuality has been legal since the Revolution. In Sweden, this did not happen until 1944 and ceased to be classified as a disease in 1979. In Sweden, homophobia was linked to nationalism. It became like a motor in Swedish writings, a patriotism where it was considered that the Ballets Suédois embarrassed Sweden internationally. It has to do with the fact that this project was called the Swedish Ballet and that it was considered ‘disgusting’ and ‘sissy posing’ that was shown on stage. In France, this was not an issue. It was not called the French Ballet. It was not their flag that was being ‘dragged through the dirt’.”
One of the ballets on the premiere eve of October 25, 1920 was particularly exotic for the French audience. The homespun scenography for Nuit de Saint-Jean (or Midsummer Vigil) was made by Nils Dardel and this piece had the essence of Swedishness with a dance around the maypole in genuine costumes to Hugo Alfvén’s score based on traditional tunes. (This was ninety-nine years before American filmmaker Ari Aster’s ridiculous Sweden/Switzerland-whatever “chiller” Midsommar.) The true exotica of the Ballets Suédois, however, was how they so wholeheartedly embraced the avant-garde of Montparnasse while they kept their Swedish innocence – as one of the dancers recalled it, “We were like some retirees who knitted our way through Europe.”
”If You Don’t Like It, You Can Go to Hell”: Ballets Suédois 1920–1925 is an exhibition with an original soundtrack composed by six students from the Royal College of Music in Stockholm. What pleasures Mattsson a little extra is that they are five men and one woman, just like the group Les Six that worked with the Ballets Suédois and who were of the same age and 5–1 make-up.
This is the first time that all the preserved costumes are on display since the 1930s when they were on show in Rolf de Maré’s museum the Archives internationales de la danse in Paris. (The brilliant costumes are the property of the Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris, while practically everything else from the Ballets Suédois belongs to Dansmuseet in Stockholm.) Other things to like in the show are paraphernalia such as costume designs, décor sketches, stage models, letters, scores, portraits, some choreography notes, scripts, press clippings, magazines, signed photos, passports, a life’s worth of pocket planners and Jenny Hasselquist’s boots.
While on tour in London in the autumn of 1922, de Maré told the press that his “organisation is as perfect a democracy as is possible in this world”. This was naturally way off the mark. The Ballets Suédois was Jean Börlin’s “Me”-vehicle – he was the sole performer who was allowed to shine. “Exactly,” Mattsson affirms, “there would only be one star in the Ballets Suédois. That is why it clashed with Jenny Hasselquist, and that is why she left the company after only three months, and that is why it happened to Carina Ari in 1923. They simply became too popular and Börlin and de Marté could not stand it. They did not want to give them the position that they deserved in the company.”
“Many of the dancers emphasised how friendly Börlin was. He gave them lessons in the morning and rehearsals during the day, and then performances in the evening, so he worked very close to the dancers. On the other hand, he was quite moody. It seems as if he was alcoholic during the whole Ballets Suédois. At least from late 1921 there are testimonies from one of the dancers who writes in his diary that Börlin is drunk, and even performs drunk on some occasions. There were some who said that he had problems with his nerves. Others formulated in different ways that he had nervous breakdowns.”
The architecture of the show turns the perspective around to include views both from behind the scenes and in front of it, with yourself (with a bit of imagination) as a delegate for an audience. You almost step into the “backstage area” right away, with the framing of the walls left bare to work as shelves and showcases. This creates a special rhythm which makes a lot of sense and is visually pleasurable as well (in fact, the only thing that looks cheap downstairs are the signs). Rolf de Maré had a rather large office that he shared with Hébertot at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, whereas the one recreated at the Dance Museum is a space just sufficient enough to provide you with the all-inclusive sense of sitting at de Maré’s desk a hundred years ago and listen to the only known recording of his voice in the handset.
Erik Mattsson says that it was rediscovered on a French database before the exhibition opened: “What is interesting about this recording from the 1950s is that when de Maré talks about the Ballets Suédois, he emphasises classical ballet as the most important thing for choreographers and dancers – that it is the classical legacy that is central. Jean Börlin was a bit on the same page when he was interviewed in the 1920s, that the classical ballet is the ‘Master’ and that the modernisations are something that can be done based on that.”
The exhibition also lets the dancers and the people in the Swedish Ballet’s administration shine in the spotlight. Seven of the twenty-six ballets are highlighted, and what a luxury to see Dardel’s décor design for Maison de fous recreated on a wall, and in paint, together with the spare-nothing Expressionism of his costume sketches. Rolf de Maré’s letter to his mother, dated a few days before the premiere on November 8, 1920 (and with El Greco coming up ten days later), has the certitude of a ballet director who knows that his company is gaining momentum and that the Ballets Russes should better keep an eye out: “The battle for supremacy has begun.” The dancers themselves had to develop their characters’ monomaniacal movements through an insane asylum so dismal that a sane woman loses her mind, and her life, in here. Maison de fous stood without references – or as Pascale De Groote puts it: “Such extreme madness had never been seen in a performance of academic dancing.”
The curator has to stop for a moment when asked which of the ballets that he would favour to experience today. “I have never really thought about that. But had I been able to choose a single performance, that would be Cinésketch, the New Year’s Eve cabaret, the last of December 1924. It is probably very difficult to reconstruct, and there are too few testimonies and information about it. But it would be fun if someone tried. I do not know if L'Homme et son désir would be so successful on stage today. But it would still be interesting to see it with the four levels, and the play with the space that was done here, with singers placed in the auditorium to make the sound come from different directions, and that the audience was surrounded by the rainforest soundscape. And then, of course, Les Mariés de la Tour Eiffel would be a joy to watch with a real historical reconstruction.”
L'Homme et son désir and Les Mariés de la Tour Eiffel were the two superb pieces that the Ballets Suédois presented in 1921. L'Homme et son désir – the “ballet symbolique et dramatique” which was created by Darius Milhaud (music), Paul Claudel (libretto) and Audrey Parr (décor and costumes) – was turned down by Diaghilev and Massine the previous summer due to its “picturesque exoticism”. Roger Nichols argues in The Harlequin Years: Music in Paris 1917–1929 that history has vindicated the Ballet Suédois and that “L’Homme remains one of the most moving works of the decade, in which any picturesque exoticism serves as a profoundly human message”. Jean Börlin came out on stage in the appearance of a naked Roman statue, his and the ensemble’s highly constricted dancing were like yearnings trapped by the gravity of the floor or simply the realities of life.
Börlin is listed as the choreographer of Les Mariés de la Tour Eiffel but it was the author of this ballet, Jean Cocteau, who took care of that part too by gesturing the movements he had in mind in front of the dancers. Gustave Eiffel’s spire (again a central place in René Clair’s Paris qui dort) is where a wedding party is about to be captured by a photographer whose phantasmagorical camera blurts out a set of bizarrely puffed-up figures, among them the Trouville Bathing Beauty and the Lion that feasts on one of the guests. The very Futurist delivery of all the dialogue and the narrating came from two human megaphones amplified by a large horn by each side of the stage. Cocteau presented the ballet with these words: “Before our very eyes a new theatrical genre is being born in France … It expresses the modern spirit, and is still a world unmapped, rich in discoveries.”
Jean Cocteau’s wonderful creation was a further indication that the most spirited pieces of Surrealism were going to be made outside the dominion of André Breton. This nuptial ceremony, which was altogether Cocteau’s own invention apart from the music by the Groupe des Six, was correspondingly rejected by the Ballets Russes because they didn’t have the guts to produce it. “The mixing of highbrow and lowbrow and the anti-romantic, anti-naturalistic attitude are typical of 1920s Paris and also came to characterise the repertoire of the Ballets Suédois, which likewise enjoyed exposing its audience to provocation,” writes Erik Näslund. “A few critics perceived what lay beneath the farcical, ironic and absurdist surface, namely a tone that was supremely personal, poetic and serious.” There is a 1929 letter in the exhibition from Cocteau in which he spells out that he had the time of his life when they were making Les Mariés de la Tour Eiffel. Erik Mattsson is right when he avers that “Rolf and Jean had no artistic manifestos themselves” but they sure knew how to choose the right artists to work with.
The Ballets Suédois made forty appearances in London around Christmas 1920. It was in the middle of a performance of their most popular piece, Les Vierges folles, that Börlin started to lash out against the much more celebrated Jenny Hasselquist, who immediately left the stage and made a classic twenty-three skidoo from the company.
1922 was assigned by continuous touring so the only new work that year was Fernand Léger’s Cubo-Futuristic ballet Skating Rink – based on Ricciotto Canudo’s poem “Skating-ring à Tabarin: Ballet-aux-patins pour la musique” – and it premiered at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées on January 20. Léger’s incentive for this ballet was his interest in the rather new machine world and, as a consequence, the life of the mechanical man. The French artist was, in Erik Näslund’s words, “fascinated by the acrobats, clowns and jugglers because their technical skills mechanised the human body in a way that resembled the cogs of a machine”. Léger also fancied the idea of works of art operating as wide-ranging showpieces, and his Skating Rink was a huge metaphor for humankind going round and round until the maverick (here as the Poet/the Madman) comes in to break the circle and, for better or worse, bring out some human instincts.
Taylorism (which got its name from Frederick Winslow Taylor’s efficiency bible Principles of Scientific Management from 1911) also became visible in the arts as mechanical dynamism. (Just take a look at Oskar Schlemmer’s lovely Triadisches Ballett, developed in 1912 and onwards, with its Bertie Bassett and his small circle of friends-like figures, which still to this day is a work of extraordinary modernity and beauty.) In her 1926 essay “Advertising and Photography”, the modernist photographer Margaret Watkins summarised how “Weird and surprising things were put upon canvas; stark mechanical objects revealed an unguessed dignity; commonplace articles showed curves and angles which could be repeated with the varying pattern of a fugue […] and showing an apparent queerness of choice most painful to the orthodox.” The Ballets Suédois was a locomotive that pulled those new trains coming.
They toured and toured and toured in 1922 and in all gave two hundred and eleven performances that year. The company’s travels through Europe commenced on January 29, and after Volksoper in Hamburg on May 12 everyone bit the bullet and entered the Swedish Theatre (destroyed in a fire three years later) on Blasieholmen in Stockholm for a fortnight of mini-victories that would quite favourably alter their countrymen’s adverse view on the Ballets Suédois. The composer and critic Wilhelm Peterson-Berger got very excited over the ballet Iberia (1920):
“The three stage sets alone, by the celebrated [Théophile-Alexandre] Steinlen, had an electrifying effect. First came the unparallel harbour scene, with its tangle of steamers and ships, masts, tackle and cordage. Equally remarkable were the costumes, the refined colourfulness of which was juxtaposed with the still more refined way in which the outlines of the figures stood out one moment and dissolved and disappeared the next, these figures being one moment living beings and the next fantastically meandering blobs of colour, imparting the symphonic movement with a supremely original and delightful softness and freedom. And the dance steps and attitudes themselves portrayed a new Spain, as fiery as the old one but bold, unconventional and quite disarmingly artistic.”
After yo-yoing between France and southern Scandinavia, the Ballets Suédois made a successful tour in the UK for the rest of the year. The company travelled from city to city in the northern parts of Italy during the first four months of 1923, and they were a roaring success wherever they appeared. The only trouble was that the Italians adored Carina Ari and that their ardent love was much too much for Jean Börlin’s ego to process. After a week of performances at Stora Teatern in Gothenburg in July, Carina Ari – and all but six of the other dancers – decided to leave the Ballets Suédois.
“The thing is that the dancers who were contracted in 1920 were on three-year agreements. There was a very bad atmosphere in the company by the end of that period. From the summer of 1923, Rolf de Maré changed his mind and gave the dancers short-term contracts of four months during a tour, and the troupe was much more heterogeneous during the final years. It was not just Swedes and Danes anymore but it was Finnish, Norwegian and German dancers, it was an Englishman and a Russian woman,” explains Erik Mattsson.
“Margit Wåhlander, one of the dancers in the first troupe, probably thought that the whole world lay open when she left the company in 1923. She imagined that she could get any assignment, however that did not happen. She had to work for a living in Sweden for a few years and then she stopped dancing. And that was what happened to most of them. The Ballets Suédois did not become a springboard to a solo career. But for Carina Ari, the Ballets Suédois was certainly a step up and it is quite telling that she is the only one of the female ballet dancers of whom it has been written a biography.”
Two new important productions were put to the test at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées before the three-month tour in the United States. The first performances of La Création du monde and Within the Quota took place on October 25, 1923. La Création du monde was a response to a sentiment that had existed in Paris since the days of Decadentism in the 1890s and grew in influence after the human meltdown of World War I (and the real pandemic that followed with the Spanish flu). Once again it was a work by Fernand Léger and the scenario was by his close friend Blaise Cendrars, the lyrical poet who thanks to the omnipotent entitlement of Male Privilege lost his right arm in the bloodshed.
“In 1910 I bought my last picture from Picasso and that was one I did not really want, but I had from time to time advanced him sums of money, and this cleared the account,” told Leo Stein in Appreciation: Painting, Poetry and Prose (1947), the book that he didn’t dare to write until his self-aggrandising sister Gertrude Stein was out of the picture. “Once when I gave him a hundred francs to buy coal, he stopped on the way home and spent sixty of it for Negro sculpture.” For these artists, African masks became the signage for the new creation of the world in the Machine Age, and even more so the recreation of humankind.
Sally Bane has a well-founded summation of the plot in her book: “In La Création du monde, at first the stage is dark; one perceives a tangled mass of bodies. Three enormous gods, Nzame, Medere, and N’kva, move around it slowly, reciting incantations. The mass begins to move, a tree grows, drops a seed, and another tree grows. As leaves of the trees touch the ground, they tremble and swell and turn into animals. The stage grows lighter with each birth. During a round dance of the creatures, a man and a woman are born, execute a dance of desire, and couple. All the creatures, including the shamans and sorcerers, join the dance, which reaches a frenzy. Finally it dies down, and the couple remains isolated in their kiss.”
The corps de ballet was in this case not much more than stage hands and the only body parts that the members of the audience could see were their feet. Their task was to change the positions of the eight metres high gods and to flesh out the animals that came into being from the falling leaves. The original intention was to fill animal skins in the shapes of crocodiles, monkeys, birds et cetera with helium – like Pink Floyd later did with their inflatable piggie “Algie” for the Animals (1977) artwork – but this was an idea that unfortunately had to be ditched. The music was a Harlem type of jazz score composed and conducted by Darius Milhaud. (In the year ahead, Léger was going to put together his reel-to-reel cacophony of kinetic restlessness and mechanical fervour – the nineteen-minute short but intense montage film Ballet mécanique.)
Within the Quota was carried out three times at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées before the Ballets Suédois took it to America for which the piece had been assigned. The ballet – which was the creation of two American expats, Cole Porter and Gerald Murphy, who lived the good life in Paris and on the Côte d’Azur in the 1920s – follows a Swedish migrant who arrives in a dreamlike version of the United States that will greet him with the fallacies of his own imagination, or prejudices one might say. The characters he encounters are the stereotypes of Americana and the landscape is a collaged form of overused expressions. However, the caricature is deliberate, warm, tongue-in-cheek – for who wouldn’t love to go West with the Sweetheart of the World?
This was the endless dream, just like it went on in F Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise (1920) with “the spirit of the past brooding over a new generation, the chosen youth from the muddled, unchastened world, still fed romantically on the mistakes and half-forgotten dreams of dead statesmen and poets”. One of the figures in Within the Quota is a cameraman who turns the other types in the ballet into actors in a film. (The cineaste will start to film the audience too as a conclusion.) “The old opera ballet had no meaning, except that the dancers can pirouette upon the tips of their feet,” Rolf de Maré told the American press. “I thought it possible to go considerably further and to tell a real dramatic story. It is a new and I think fascinating venture into the realm of art.”
The US tour was fraught with problems. The American promoter lived on his reputation alone, which was that he had been the tour manager for the Ballets Russes in 1916–17. But there was also the new troupe of dancers, inexperienced to this kind of life, and the growing problems with Jean Börlin’s health. He was constantly stressed out and overwrought, and his alcoholism and substance abuse had made him quite too pudgy for a dancer.
Pascale De Groote tells it bluntly, that the Swedish impresario’s “riches had decreased – the performances in Germany had taken place in a time of inflation and had made a big hole in the budget – but de Maré had also counted on the US as his second home. He had thought that there would be an opportunity to create an American dancing circuit. The reactions of the press and the public did not square with the expectations. It appears that a lot of choreographies were too modernistic to the general opinion and they were removed from the programme, which meant a surrender to common taste.”
For the better part of 1924 there were no performances by the Ballets Suédois at all. Börlin was getting five new ballets ready for the fall, and the piece – that in actuality was more of a happening – that must be addressed is the one-off performance of the legendary Cinésketch that took place on the very last evening of that year (and just imagine the scale of it, the set also included Relâche). The directors of this “revue” of many colours were Francis Picabia and René Clair. Apart from Jean Börlin and the unofficial female star Edith von Bonsdorff, the cast included such luminaries as Satie, who made his last public performance this evening, and Marcel Duchamp and Bronja Perlmutter (model, actress and soon-to-be Mme Clair) who embodied Adam and Eve from a late-Renaissance painting by Lucas Cranach made four hundred years earlier. It was back to the beginning again. And since this was Dada, Picabia paid his respects to Cranach by making Eve the apple of temptation, the original tart. Caryathis (Élise Toulemont) was one of the dancers and the American jazz band The Georgians that was on a long and final tour in Europe delivered the music.
The revue lasted all night long. In Dancers, Artists and Lovers: Ballets Suédois 1920–1925, Frank Claustrat delineates how “a costume ball was held in the basement of the theatre in the bar area. This ball was to form the epilogue of Cinésketch, to which the entire audience was invited. Here they would be able to become performers themselves in an unscripted and unchoreographed scene. Press accounts tell of a joyous and colourful throng: Maria Ricotti, futurist artist, danced a java, Tristan Tzara, Dadaist poet, dressed up as a Prussian army officer, Jean Börlin danced a gypsy dance, the actors André Daven and Marcel Herrand danced a shimmy and an Apache dance respectively, the artist Marie Vassilieff danced a bolero with Picabia, and Kiki de Montparnasse, the artists’ model, and her friend Thérèse Treize performed a belly dance whilst singing texts from the Kamasutra!”
The Cinésketch epilogue is like the photo from the 1920s that Neil Tennant comes across in “Being Boring” – “And we were never holding back or worried that time would come to an end” – but the Ballets Suédois would reach the final curtain a few months later. It happened in the middle of Champagneland after the last piece, the Swedish-titled Dansgille (1921) which ironically means “dance feast”, was over in Épernay on March 17, 1925. Erik Mattsson reveals that “What de Maré himself explained long afterwards, that he had announced the troupe in March 1925, after a sad performance when he is said to have gone backstage and declared, ‘This was the last one, now we are closing down,’ that is not true. It was a decision that transpired. They had plans to take it up again, and in his pocket planner from October 1925 there is a note, ‘Premiere Ballets Suédois’. But he has erased it, and erased it so hard that the page is ruined.”
Jean Börlin became weak and yellowish at the end of the 1920s after developing jaundice during a tour in South America. He was in New York City in December 1930 to perform at the Carnegie Hall, but died on the 6th of that month. He was thirty-seven. “The art of Börlin – sober, intellectual, pure-bred – came from audacious pursuit and at times attained sublime stylisations which delighted Fokin,” expressed the French (and Russian-born) writer Pierre Tugal, who helped Rolf de Maré founding the Archives internationales de la danse for the purpose of honouring Börlin’s memory, and who curated the collections until the museum closed in 1952 and de Maré the following year established Dansmuseet in Stockholm.
“DESPERATELY SAD YEAN [sic] LEFT US TODAY 405 PM HERMINE,” reads the Wester Union telegram in Swedish from Börlin’s last patron Hermine Jourde to de Maré. Börlin was taken to Paris and buried at the Père Lachaise in his tuxedo. The “Börlin Room” is only a corner in the exhibition but it is not just the telegram and the funeral wreaths that fill this room with sorrow. An unnecessary gimmick in here, though, is a screen portrait of Börlin that receives its pixeled colours from Nils Dardel’s portrait of their mutual former lover de Maré and the sound is generated by the visitors in the room. This piece reverberates in its own “now”-conceptualism, void of the emotional punch that appears to have been its intention.
A strange film in black and white meets the visitor at the end of the show. It is strange because this is just about the only moving material there is of the Ballets Suédois – a company that worked with filmmakers and loved this new medium – and the quality of the dance itself is quite average to say the least. Mattsson explains that the video with the three female dancers is showing an “Arabic dance”:
“I have been sitting and watching this clip quite a few times and among other things thought about how good they really were at dancing. They are not so synchronised in this clip, they laugh all the time, which gives a pretty amateurish impression. And then, just recently, I came across diaries written by one of the dancers, source material that has not been known before and which now belong to the museum. Margit Wåhlander mentions that there was no piano. They had no music to dance to so Jean Börlin, who was very musical, had to stand up and sing instead. But to dance to just a song and to find the rhythm in it must be very, very difficult. And besides, he was teasing them so that is why they laugh.”
Five years, that’s all that they got. A hundred years ago the Ballets Suédois elevated minds.
The late philosopher Roger Scruton wrote these words in The Guardian on December 19, 2012: “The life of the mind has its intrinsic methods and rewards. It is concerned with the true, the beautiful and the good, which between them define the scope of reasoning and the goals of serious inquiry. But each of those goals can be faked, and one of the most interesting developments in our educational and cultural institutions over the past half century is the extent to which fake culture and fake scholarship have driven out the true varieties. It is important to ask why.”
Ever been to Pleasure Island? “Right here! Get your cake, pie, dill pickles, and ice cream! Eat all you can! Be a glutton! Stuff yourselves!” as the speaker voice yells out in Disney’s most effective nightmare, the amusement park in Pinocchio (1939, note the year) which turns every sucker into a dumb beast. For some reason, this seems far too much like a picture of the world today, a place where we have forgotten who we are.
Well before the exhibition at Dansmuseet opened last autumn, SVT showed an hour-long documentary about the Ballets Suédois on national television (and it runs on a screen at the Dance Museum as well). One of the voices in the film is Nathalie Sergent at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, and she says with a glow in her face that “The funny thing about the theatre’s history is that this whole beautiful adventure was born thanks to dreams. It gives this theatre a special atmosphere.”
The dance has swirled away with the applause, the cheers, the boos and the controversy. And still, as anyone in love with the morrow – they’re here.
Never mind the cotton, cum on feel the noise.
”If You Don’t Like It, You Can Go to Hell”: Ballets Suédois 1920–1925 at Dansmuseet in Stockholm through May 15, 2021. The major part of this exhibition (costumes excluded) will continue well into 2022.