Though less famous today than the Ballets Russes, the company of the Ballets Suédois was nevertheless a major player in the artistic post-WWI avant-garde. At the initiative of the rich Swedish industrialist, Rolf de Maré, and his friend Jean Börlin, then at the Stockholm Opera school of dance where he studied with Michel Fokine (employed in 1913 after leaving Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes) the Ballets Suédois came into being in Paris, tenants of the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, under the administration of Jacques Hébertot (to whom a Parisian theater still owes its name). The adventure lasted five seasons and was marked by intense activity: more than 2,700 performances were given around the world between October 1920 and March 1925.
With 26 choreographic works to his credit, Jean Börlin “worked hard to broaden the concept of ballet (…), the expression of everything human in its infinite diversity,” according to Fokine, who was himself a major reformer. Mindful of creating shows that fused all of the arts – following the example of the Ballets Russes – Börlin tried to express the thinking of the composer and the poet, all the while taking inspiration from painting: “Each painting that makes an impression on me is gradually transformed into dance. I am as indebted to the old Masters as I am to the modern painters. They bring thoughts, new ideas and new dances to life in me.”(1923) Touching on a diversity of subjects, taken from Scandinavian traditions, literary works or works of art both ancient and modern, or even the preoccupations and interests of his era, the young choreographer devoted himself to various experiments which led him toward a new mode of expression: the art of modern pantomime, which by enriching the language of dance with the use of gestures, attitudes and facial expressions to convey affects or ideals, became Börlin’s signature style.
In this search for modernity, the ballet La Création du monde, created on the 25 October, 1923 in Paris, was without a doubt the most accomplished show by the Ballets Suédois at the time, well-received by the public but almost unanimously ridiculed by the critics (only 11 performances of it were to be done).
This was truly a total performance piece, the ultimate collaboration bringing poet Blaise Cendrars, choreographer Jean Börlin, composer Darius Milhaud and painter-decorator Fernand Leger together and giving rise to not only choreographic but also musical and visual innovations in one all-encompassing production, of a quality yet to be equaled.
In a letter of 29 October 1921, Cendrars writes to his friend, Fernand Leger, about his intention to propose to Rolf de Maré (whose sumptuous collection de paintings, including works by Léger starting in 1916, made up the collection of the Moderna Museet de Stockholm) the creation of a Negro ballet, a work that would be “long-term, very serious, very hard, very modern, that would make history.” The Swiss poet, fascinated by African cultures since he visited the British Museum during the war, had just published a Negro Anthology, a collection of African myths and legends about the creation of the world, compiled using ethnological studies: the outline of the ballet would be an adaptation of this.
As a matter of fact, African art, which had aroused the interest of a few avant-garde artists (cubists) at the very beginning of the century, was the object of a new wave of keen interest after the war: occidental ethnocentrism having been upset by the conflict, curiosity for other forms of civilization grew, as the constantly intensifying fashion of Negro art during the 1920’s testifies. As ethnographic studies developed, one wondered if African art should find its way into the Louvre (art critic Félix Fénéon’s 1920 survey). Take Paul Guillaume, collector and dealer of modern art for example, who sold African and Oceanian sculptures at a very high price; he regularly received manifestos for Negro art in the Les Arts à Paris magazine, which he created in 1918 and, at the same time that he organized the first exhibition of African and Oceanian art at the Devambez Gallery, he had his famous “Negro fête” celebration at the Comédie des Champs-Élysées on the 10 June 1919, mixing verse, music and dance – as the African oral tradition would have it – on the theme of ancient creation myths told by Cendrars, foreshadowing the future ballet.
In 1919, Jean Börlin visits Picasso’s studio which is full of African sculpture. On 24 March 1920 at the Comédie des Champs-Élysées, the Swedish dancer appears at the Tout-Paris in a “dance concert” comprised of seven solos; and it is the most remarkable one, Negro Sculpture, in which he wears the mask and costume of an African wooden sculpture, that enables him to find his voice: he invents a new type of dance, freed of the classical codes of grace and lightness, creating a connection between the dancing body and gravity.
Darius Milhaud had no previous knowledge of actual African music but was able to experience extra-European music during his travels: having gone to Brazil as Paul Claudel’s secretary, he heard South American rhythms including those of the African community. But it was above all his discovery of black American jazz in New York that left a lasting impression on him.
Fernand Leger was the one who would suggest to Rolf de Maré to work with Darius Milhaud, “the only French musician alive who can do it.”
With Cendrars, Léger outlines an ambitious project for which he undertakes a close collaboration with his partners: “I would have liked to know what was happening with Börlin’s Negro ballet. You know that we are thinking about making it an extremely carefully considered and important piece. It will have to be the only Negro ballet, the only Negro ballet possible in the whole world and it will be the one that remains the example of the genre. This requires many very thorough discussions between Cendrars, Börlin and myself.” (letter to Rolf de Maré, 12 September 1922)
Whereas Milhaud remembers: “While wandering this way around Paris (they spent their evenings going from one musical bar to another), Fernand Leger, Cendrars and I developed our ballet. (Notes sans musique, souvenirs 1949)
One may wonder if it wasn’t friendship that played a predominant role in Léger’s commitment, since this ballet remains the only reflection that the artist had on African art, believed at the time to be ancient. Indeed it is, above all, the modern world, with its technical inventions and its social evolutions that fascinates him. But the connection can perhaps be found in the notion of primitivism, so dear to the avant-garde since the tragedy of the war: a return to origins but also a new importance given to individuality, to the body, that brings art back to everyday life. Léger writes: “There is a modern primitivism in the intense life that surrounds us. The visual, decorative, and social events have never before been so intense, nor harbored so many new artistic documents. Today’s scientific creations offer us a new unlimited field of unknown visual forms. (…) The contemporary painter must discern its documents in all of this.” (in Le problème de la liberté en art, no date)
Given the responsibility of designing the set, including curtain, backdrop and dancers’ costumes, Fernand Leger at first conceived outrageous projects, as Darius Milhaud describes: “He wanted to use bladders, representing flowers, trees and all sorts of animals, that were filled with gas and that, at the moment of creation, would rise into the air like balloons. But the project was unrealizable since it required a complicated system of gas tanks in each corner of the stage, and the sound of them being inflated would have blocked out the music.” (Ma vie heureuse, 1987, p.125)
He then studied the objects reproduced in the publications of African and Oceanian art history pioneers: Negerplastik (1915) by Carl Einstein recently translated into French, African Negro Art: its influence on Modern Art (1916) by Marius de Zayas, or L’art nègre et l’art océanien (1919) by Henri Clouzot and André Level, by first making academic drawings of them. He did many preparatory studies (pencil drawings then gouache and Indian ink studies) in order to progressively identify the structures and formal repertory of this sculpture, by simplifying the geometrical components of it; he then recombined them to invent modern deities according to the stylistic principles of his “cubo-futurism” (Giovanni Lista’s expression): that is, besides the use of the black ring, the contrast – like in his paintings – between the flat surfaces with solid colors and the round forms conducive to movement, the relief produced by a gradation of tones, on the limbs or in the landscape elements against which the figures stand out. Nevertheless, while reproducing its anti-naturalism and its hieratic quality, Fernand Leger sensed the true nature of this art, vessel of all the animistic life forces, which he also expresses through the gigantism of his statues: “Léger wanted to interpret primitive art and paint African divinities on the curtain and on the decors that would express the power of darkness. He never found his creations terrifying enough (…),” confirms Milhaud (Notes sans musique, souvenirs, 1949).
Cendrars had insisted on respecting the three colors that symbolized African rituals – black, white, light and dark ochre – but Léger, in the end, added a few touches of bright color: sky blue, red, yellow and green to the animal costumes. These were perhaps inspired by the North American Indian Kachina dolls – of which Rolf de Maré possessed a lovely collection – whereas the purely geometrical elements of the décor framing the stage made reference here and there to the African motifs that ornamented little statues, masks or printed fabrics.
The dancers’ faces are hidden and they wear spatio-visual costumes with strongly accentuated relief effects, onto which alternating or partial light, defined with precision by Cendrars himself, is played. In this way a veritable revolution takes place: the disappearance of the personalized physique of the dancer to make way for the painter’s creation.
The curtain, for which the décor plays the role of prelude, rises slowly over a stage plunged into darkness. Three monumental deities, 8 meters high, outlined against a landscape of frozen plates in an imbalance that evokes the cataclysm of the formation of the earth, with heavy clouds overhead. Then the different forms of life appear successively: half-gods on stilts, plants, animals (birds, monkeys and insects) that form a circle, before the birth of the human being. The action ends with the union of the man and woman, rendering the universe fertile in this way.
“We didn’t talk about ‘La Création du monde’ as a ballet, but rather as a décor in movement. Fernand Leger made the dancers completely vanish in the costumes and behind the elements of the scenery. Birds, monkeys, beetles, figures of gods and men that were in perpetual motion and created the vision of a painting that constantly changed before the eyes of the viewers,” explains Madeleine Milhaud.
Indeed everything hinges on the principle of a living painting that inhabits the entire stage: the three idols of the set are in a symmetrical position at first and then are in constant dissymmetry, while on a shallow stage, the dancers move slowly and heavily with disjointed gestures, for which Börlin’s inspiration was documentary films on African dances.
This superimposition of moving screens – a stage version of the visual contrast typical of Fernand Leger – reminds us of the mechanical theater, from which the Bauhaus Theater drew inspiration in the same period. And the actors hidden behind figures that they move around reappear fifty years later in Jean Dubuffet’s Coucou bazar.
Inspired by the acoustic environment of Brazil’s tropical forest and by jazz music, Milhaud composed music which was at times melancholy, at others rhythmic, not directly related to African music nor even to the movements of the scenery. For the first time, the music and the choreography are autonomous and of equal importance, while at the same time lending coherence to the whole. We would have to wait another thirty or so years to see this procedure reappear in the work of John Cage and Merce Cunningham, before becoming ubiquitous in modern dance.
Léger sums up the advances represented by La Création du monde in the following way: “Break between the visuals of the theater and those of the stage (…). Create a scene of invention. The human material appears, but equal as show-object to objects and the décor. (…) The individual has disappeared, it becomes décor-mobile. (…) Nothing on the stage that reminds us of the theater. A complete transposition, a new enchantment is created, a whole new, unexpected world evolves before their eyes. (…) I want to pay homage to Rolf de Maré who is the first in France to have the courage to accept a show in which everything is machination and play of light, in which not one human silhouette is on stage; to Jean Börlin and his dance company, condemned to the role of décor-mobile. By accepting the ballet ‘Création du monde’ (Negro ballet) he has dared to impose a truly modern stage on his audience, at least in its technical means. Success has rewarded his effort, the public has followed his lead frankly, directly, while most of the official critics have got bogged down in useless considerations.” (in Le spectacle, lumière, couleur, image mobile, objet-spectacle, 1924)
Fernand Leger wanted to surprise by creating a grandiose and serious ballet, rich in radical inventions bearing the future. He demonstrated that in the 20th century, Negro art, following the episode of cubism, will have once more served as a powerful stimulus for the emergence of occidental modernity.
Bengt Häger, Ballets Suédois, 1989
Fernand Leger et le spectacle, catalogue de l’exposition du Musée national Fernand Leger à Biot, 1995
Fernand Leger, Fonctions de la peinture, 1997 (qui réunit les articles cités ci-dessus)
La Création du monde : Fernand Léger et l’art africain dans les collections Barbier-Mueller, catalogue de l’exposition du Musée d’Art et d’Histoire de Genève, 2000
Les Ballets Suédois, une compagnie d’avant-garde (1920-1925), catalogue de l’exposition de la bibliothèque-musée de l’Opéra Garnier à Paris, 2014 (exposition jusqu’au 28 septembre)