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REVIEW: PICASSO AND THE DANCE

 

By Patricia Boccadoro

PARIS, 11 SEPTEMBER 2018— An interesting, informative and amusing exhibition throwing light on Pablo Picasso’s love of dance is currently being shown at the Palais Garnier in Paris. While no original paintings are presented, the numerous photographs, films, designs and original drawings and caricatures fascinate while the sets and costumes for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes that he designed marked the history of ballet. The exhibition also brings out his early interest in dance from the age of 18 or so. He portrayed Parisian popular balls, circus dancers, bullfights, Spanish dancers and cabaret stars, and by 1907 he had become an emerging star in avant-garde circles, much in demand.

It wasn’t however, until after a meeting with Jean Cocteau in 1916 that Picasso began his collaboration with the Ballets Russes, his first venture into the world of dance being Parade* when he worked closely with the young choreographer, Léonide Massine. He not only created bold new Cubist designs, but also had his word to say on the scenario, helping to bring about an alliance of painting and dance, plastic arts and music. The ballet tells the simple story of circus artists who try to incite passers-by to come to their show by performing in the street in front of their tent. Picasso’s flamboyant sets and costumes are the most important examples of Cubic art to be seen in the theatre today. His closeness to the dance world was only intensified the following year when he married Olga Khokhlova, one of the Russian ballerinas who had appeared with Diaghilev.


Trois Danseuses
Succession Picasso

He made many sketches of Diaghilev’s women in rehearsal around this time as he went on to design other productions, adding pounds onto the dancers, making them as fleshy, wholesome and fresh as country wenches. A case in point is the sumptuous drop curtain of the two large ladies, an enlargement from La Course, which he gave to Bronislava Nijinska for Le Train bleu in 1924.

But before that, in 1919, after Parade, Picasso was invited to participate in The Three-Cornered Hat, a picturesque, Spanish style ballet based on a novel by Pedro de Alarcon, choreography again by Léonide Massine.


THE THREE-CORNERED HAT
Set Decor

This time, he was responsible for the backdrop, scenery and costumes and the result was a positive triumph, for audiences then, as well as those of today. The painter created a softly coloured set, subtly cubist yet naturalistic, against which his brightly coloured, Spanish–style costumes stood out vividly.

Expressing his passion for bullfighting, he had matador and picador dance amongst the villagers against the painted background of a bullfight on the curtain behind. He completely incorporated the dancing potential of the corrida into his work.

The Spanish artist then joined in Massine’s project for Pulcinella the following year, designing costumes inspired both by the 18th century and Neapolitan folk traditions against a Cubist style Naples, seen at night, but by 1924 he was moving away from Cubism when he created surrealist ‘plastic poses’, where the Three Graces appeared in drag, for the ballet, Mercure, based upon the fleet-winged messenger of the Gods. Not only does the exhibition present a series of photographs of the event, as well as Picasso’s sketches, but also there are astonishing examples of the continuous line technique he had long been experimenting with which he used for the backdrop as well as the outline of the scenery. Once the tip of his pencil touched the paper, it did not leave it until the drawing was finished. The ballet marked his entry into Surrealism.

In all, Picasso contributed to ten ballet productions, the later ones being for Roland Petit, in 1945, to whom he gave an impressive backdrop to Le Rendezvous, and for Serge Lifar in 1962 for the recreation of Icare. Icare was unsurprisingly inspired by Greek mythology and, while Lifar himself designed the new costumes, Picasso created the set and stage curtain with a sketch reminiscent of a 1958 fresco painted for the UNESCO headquarters in Paris.


Icare
Photo: BNF

Greek and Roman mythology had long been a source of inspiration for the Spanish painter and from 1940 onwards, the Bacchae and the Dionysian procession became more and more prominent in his work. Satyrs, centaurs, fauns and the women who danced in honour of Dionysus, the god of wine and theatre, began to feature in his compositions combining music, dance and festivities. His work gradually became more sexually charged, and the exhibition also presents many highly sensual drawings and designs expressing the erotic power, even lascivious nature of dance. Oriental dancers often appeared naked, their sexual organs dominating the work to attract the eyes of onlookers.

However, the series of photographs that caused the most interest were those of Picasso himself dancing. He apparently danced all his life, whether at village hops, social events, or simply trying out a new movement in Juan-les Pins with his companion, Jacqueline Roque, his last muse. One photograph shows him having fun, holding up the hem of his shorts, attempting a leg lift in the middle of a street.


Picasso Exhibition
Palais Garnier

This fascinating exhibition of over 130 documents rarely shown in France, thus explores the importance of Picasso’s place in dance from that of decorator and costumer designer to the place of the body in movement in his output in general. For his love of dance began long before he met Serge Diaghilev, and reached far beyond the closed world of ballet.

*Parade, The Three-Cornered Hat, Le Train Bleu, Le Rendezvous and Icare, all outstanding works, are part of the Paris Opera Ballet’s repertoire.

Patricia Boccadoro writes on dance in Europe. She has contributed to The Guardian, The Observer and Dancing Times and was dance consultant to the BBC Omnibus documentary on Rudolf Nureyev. Based in Paris,  Patricia Boccadoro is the dance editor for Culturekiosque.



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