The ballet “Parade”, by Serge Diaghilev’s dance company, the “Ballets Russes”, opened on May 18th, 1917 at the Théâtre du Châtelet in París and later at the Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona, on November 10th . Pablo Picasso, together with the writer Jean Cocteau, the composer Erik Satie, and the choreographer and dancer Léonide Massine, under the sharp gaze of Serge Diaghilev, created this paradigm ballet which united all that each of them had discovered in their respective fields. Picasso, who accepted the job of creating the costumes and the sets, faced a new artistic challenge in 1916 and 1917 which led him to gradually replace the Cubist movement of which he was the instigator and main exponent, with a Neo-realist style that was totally unexpected, given his work up to this point. The backcloth, which he painted in Italy where he had moved with the dance company, is the first and monumental example of this new art form. The costumes and set, notable for the large figures characterising the two managers, are still in the Cubist style. The set is therefore, a transitional work linking the success Picasso had achieved with Cubism with his painstaking search for a more realistic art form, which was starting to hold a strong presence in his compositions.
The plot of the ballet was based on a fairly popular theme of the time. Four circus artistes –a Chinese conjurer, an American girl and a couple of acrobats– put on a small part of each of their shows in order to gain the attention of the public strolling along a Parisian boulevard, opposite a fairground booth where the shows are supposed to take place. The aim of “Parade” was not to stage the shows put on in circuses, booths or improvised theatres in squares. The concept was not to move a parade-show to the theatre but to reflect on the distance between the world of the travelling players and what daily life meant for the majority of spectators. By showing the activities of the main characters with their acts doubly removed from their surroundings, i.e. outside the booth and not in the street (in the theatre), Picasso brought the real lives of these characters closer to the audience by revealing the people and the lives that lay behind these acts.
Parade” was a shock to the artistic world from all points of view –design, music, narrative and choreography– and for this reason, it caused a scandal that preceded it whenever it was shown.
The choreographer and dancer Serge Lifar, born in 1905, made his debut in Kiev, the city of his birth, under the auspices of the famous dancer Nijinsky. In 1922, he moved to Paris, and one year later, he already formed part of Diaghilev’s “Ballets Russes”. When Diaghilev died in 1929, he joined the Paris Opera ballet where he quickly became the lead dancer. In 1935, he presented the ballet “Icarus” in Paris with sets designed by Paul Larthe and music by J. E. Szyfer, orchestrated by Arthur Honegger who adapted the rhythms of the percussion instruments to the choreography of the ballet.
In 1960, Lifar, an old friend and “godson” to Picasso, went to visit him in Cannes to ask him for a drawing to illustrate a book he was about to publish about his ballets. Picasso drew Icarus flying towards the sun, a drawing that was printed on the cover of the book; there was also a portrait of Lifar inside. In the spring of 1962, Lifar decided to put on the ballet “Icarus” one more time, in the same place as he had in 1935. To stage this ballet, he asked Picasso to design the set. The scenery for the set showed the fall of Icarus, a figure that was very reminiscent of the black skeleton on the ceiling rose, painted by Picasso for the Unesco headquarters in 1957. The body was painted in a violent red and the wings in a yellowish-green. In the upper part, a splash of red represented the sun’s rays melting Icarus’s false wings and down below, a splash of blue depicted the sea with the son of Daedalus falling towards it. In front of this curtain and jutting out from both sides of the wings were two low ceiling roses where the heads and raised arms of those watching the tragedy were painted, according to the artist’s instructions. The same drawing that Picasso had done in 1960, and which illustrated the cover of Serge Lifar’s book, was used as a model for the backdrop and so, when the ballet showed the fall of Icarus, the backdrop slowly descended.
“Icarus”, together with “La Vie de Polichinelle”, staged a year earlier in 1934 were, in Lifar’s words, the beginning of a new concept of academic ballet that enabled him to establish what would later be called the neo-classical style, while remaining faithful to tradition and using the basic elements of classical ballet enriched by his innovations.
The set for “Icarus” was Picasso’s last foray into the world of the theatre.
The three-cornered hat (El tricornio)
The ballet “El tricornio” (also known as “The three-cornered hat”) is Picasso’s second work for the theatre, after “Parade”. As he had done on “Parade”, first staged in 1917, Picasso worked with Léonide Massine and Serge Diaghilev’s “Ballets Russes”. This time, the idea arose in a meeting in the spring of 1916 between Massine and Diaghilev at the apartment of the Martínez Sierra family in Madrid, with the musician Manuel de Falla, who at that time was working on “El corregidor y la molinera”, inspired by Pedro Antonio de Alarcón’s novel “El sombrero de tres picos”. Of all the ballets so far staged by the “Ballets Russes”, this was the one that took the longest to come to fruition, as in fact its production stretched out over three years. As with “Parade”, Massine undertook the choreography and Picasso worked on the curtain, the sets and the costumes, in addition to the make-up for the cast of characters. The music was by Manuel de Falla.
Picasso, Massine and Falla created a piece, which placed classical elements alongside more modern details. For example, the costumes were based on traditional 18th century costumes but with touches that gave them a modern air and prevented them from being a strict copy of the original. The idea of juxtaposing the classical with the modern is entirely in keeping with the predominant trend in Picasso’s work, a trend which involved a blend between Cubism and Classicism, a Classicism that was close to the type prevailing in Catalonia at the time, known as Noucentisme.
Although the plot was inspired by Pedro Antonio de Alarcón’s book, Francisco de Goya is the other great star of this ballet. Picasso borrowed the shapes and colours of the Aragonese painter, Falla’s music received inspiration in Fuendetodos and Massine tossed the effigy of the magistrate into the air at the very end of the show, as a veiled reference to the figure of the puppet.The work is a political satire based on the love tangle of the miller, his wife and a magistrate who is appointed to act as governor by the king. However, the plot itself has only relative importance and in fact serves as the perfect excuse to express the liking of the three artists for traditional culture. In short, Spanish folklore staked its claim on Diaghilev’s “Ballets Russes”.
The first night at the Alhambra Theatre in London on July 22nd, 1919 was a huge success; France received it moderately well, and it raised great expectations in Spain, where it was produced at the Teatro Real in Madrid in 1921. However, one reaction was common in all three countries –a clash between the more moderate intellectuals and those supporting Modernity.
Organization: Gran Teatre del Liceu – Museu Picasso de Barcelona