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Sunday, May 22, 2011

Picasso's Ballet Foray

When we think of the career of Pablo Picasso, we think first of him as a painter; then his evocative line drawings come to mind; and finally his groundbreaking mixed media sculptural concoctions sometimes called "constructions". He also dabbled in ceramics and a number of other media. Seldom, though, do we associate the name of Picasso with the theater. But in 1917, he became involved in a rather strange, avant-garde ballet production that was really the first of several dalliances in the performing arts. Eventually, in the 1940s, he even went so far as to write a comedic farce which, though never performed, was not without a certain dry, ironic wit that at least made for amusing reading after the play was published.  
Parade, costumes by Pablo Picasso
(Donian Dance Company, Hamburg Germany)
The 1917 ballet was by a young poet and friend of Picasso named Jean Cocteau. It was titled Parade.  The ballet was set in front of a fair booth and featured as its main characters, a Chinese conjurer, an acrobat, and a young American girl, performing small routines from their acts in order to entice the public into paying to see their show inside. Picasso's cubist stage sets and costume designs create the effect of reducing the dancers to puppets. Among those involved in the production were Leonide Massine, Leon Bakst, Igor Stravinski, and a young ballerina named Olga Koklova.   
The opening performance of the ballet was on May 18, 1917. Picasso had spent almost nine months working on it.  As the curtain went up, the audience was greeted by the sounds of dynamos, express trains, typewriters, sirens, airplanes and a cacophony of rhythmic stomping. Some of the angular, Cubist costumes were ten feet tall and actually more part of the scenery than costumes.

One of Picasso's Cubist
costumes from the ballet Parade
Picasso melded together trees, skyscrapers and horses in such a way that the stage managers were both costumed performers and part of the set designs. It was so revolutionary some of the audience booed and shouted "Sales boches!" (Dirty Germans), viewing Cubism as somehow un-French. Others, such as Juan Gris praised the work as "unpretentious, gay, and distinctly comedic." The critic Appolinare used for the first time the term "surrealisme" (super realism) in describing it. The play was not a success and Picasso never earned a dime for his efforts, but he did meet, fall in love with, and later married the ballet's star, Olga Koklova.

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