Entr'acte and Relâche
Originally published in Dance Magazine, July 1977
Revised, November 1, 2007
Minor additional revisions, December 5, 2011
Ballet historians usually designate the time between 1909 and 1929 as the "Diaghilev period." This is because Serge Diaghilev's Ballets Russes utterly dominated the creative history of that era--indeed, there is scarcely a ballet created for other companies during the period that is still in any repertory. (Leonide Massine's Beau Danube is, I think, just about the only exception.)
Diaghilev's dominance, however, should not be allowed to obscure the fact that he had plenty of competition. Anna Pavlova's widely traveled troupe is the best known--a rival to Diaghilev with very conservative tastes in choreography, music and decor.
On Diaghilev's other flank were those who found him to be not experimental enough. Prominent among these was the "Swedish Ballet"--Les Ballets Suedois--run by a rich Nordic gentleman named Rolf de Mare. The company, headquartered in Paris, existed from 1920 to 1925. It produced over thirty ballets, all original, and toured extensively both in Europe and the United States.
Playing both Nijinsky and Fokine to Mare's Diaghilev was Jean Borlin, the company's principal male dancer and sole choreographer. A Swede, he trained at the Theatre Royal in Stockholm and was a student of Michel Fokine. After the collapse of the Swedish Ballet in 1925 Borlin continued to tour and to give dance recitals. He was to contract jaundice in Brazil and die in 1930 at the age of thirty-seven while suing his critics.
Many of the ballets created by the Swedish Ballet during its brief history were, like some of Diaghilev's, self-consciously provocative. It was a time of audacious experimentation in the arts and ballet was sometimes laboring under what might be called a "Sacre du Printemps" complex: if the ballet was any good at all it should inspire a riot. Diaghilev's famous instruction to one of his librettists, Jean Cocteau, was "Astonish me." Audiences, particularly in Paris, cheerfully played the game and were quick to jeer and hiss, or noisily to applaud, the creations of the provocateurs.
Like Diaghilev, Mare sought out the talents of self-willed artists in several fields in the hope that, thrown together, a special alchemy would somehow produce a masterpiece. While he only used one choreographer, Borlin, he hired a number of artists including Fernard Leger and Giorgio de Chirico and commissioned scores by such composers as Darius Milhaud, Georges Auric, Arthur Honegger, Francis Poulenc and Cole Porter.
The last production of the Swedish Ballet was Relâche, the brainchild of Dadaist painter Francis Picabia. He tried to sell the idea to Diaghilev without success, but found Mare receptive.
The ballet in the best (and perhaps only) tradition of Dada was exuberantly nonsensical. Relâche, explained Picabia in one of his extravagant manifestoes, is "life, life as I like it; life without a morrow, the life of today, everything for today, nothing for yesterday, nothing for tomorrow. Motor headlights, pearl necklaces, the rounded and slender forms of women, publicity, music, motorcars, men in evening dress, movement, noise, play, clear and transparent water, the pleasures of laughter, that is Relâche."
All those things were in Relâche--and a lot more. The ballet was in two parts and lasted about an hour including an interlude in which a film called Entr'acte was projected. The film, based on a libretto scrawled on a piece of restaurant stationery by Picabia, was created by the twenty-six-year-old Rene Clair who was to become one of the most prominent film directors. As far as I know, this was the first use of film in a ballet and it was to inspire imitation--even by Diaghilev who used film projections as decor in Balanchine's Pastorale (1925) and in Massine's Ode (1927).
The music for the ballet and for the film was written by Erik Satie, his last composition before his death in 1925. Also assisting in the production were two famous artists, friends of Picabia, Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray. The ballet was given in the Theatre des Champs-Elysees in Paris, the site of the first performances of Sacre du Printemps.
The "opening" of Relâche on November 27, 1924, proved to be a wonderful, if unintended, Dadaist joke. In French, "relâche" is the word posted on a theater when it is closed for the day or when a performance has been suspended. As it happened, the opening had to be delayed because Borlin was indisposed (the result of taking "an over-effective stimulant" suggests Rene Clair). Unaware of this, the well-decked first night audience appeared at the appointed hour only to find a darkened theater plastered with posters announcing the name of the ballet.
The first performance of the ballet (or, actually, in a sense I suppose it was the second performance) took place a week later. After the overture a film segment was shown which depicted Picabia and Satie bounding in slow motion around a cannon on the roof of the Theatre des Champs-Elysees. They load the cannon and fire it directly at the camera. This is the signal for ballet to begin; the movie screen is raised to reveal a set of dozens of discs piled with their flat sides to the audience.
The two acts of the stage action had been carefully devised by Picabia with Borlin presumably charged with working out the final steps and exact staging. The ballet was a jumble of zany events: a dance with a wheelbarrow, another with a revolving door; Borlin and a woman, both in evening dress, traversing the stage on a motorized tricycle; a fireman smoking a cigarette or pouring water back and forth from one bucket to another; nine men in tails lining up across the stage, then undressing (except for their top hats) exposing their spangled pink long underwear. In accepting applause Satie and Picabia arrived on stage shoehorned into a tiny five horsepower scooter.
(There are some stories that Duchamp also appeared in the ballet as a nude Adam--save for a figleaf, false beard, and wristwatch--to Brogna Perlmutter's Eve. Supposedly they were seen just for an instant posed in a tableau as the lights flashed. Writings on Duchamp often mention this episode, but writings on the ballet don't--and it's hardly a detail one is likely to forget. Some suggest the scene may have actually taken place in a related Picabia-Clair production Cine Sketch which had one performance during the Relâche run.)
In the program and on drop cloths Picabia addressed provocative statements to the audience: "Those who are dissatisfied can go to the Devil," "Some fools prefer the ballet at the Opera," "Erik Satie is the greatest musician in the world" and "I would rather hear the audience protesting than applauding."
He got some of both, of course, but the critics were mostly pretty sour. Gilson B. MacCormack reviewed it for Dancing Times and contrasted it with Les Sylphides and Les Noces. They "add something to the beauty and thought of the world," he opined, "while Relâche is condemned by the fact that it adds nothing save stupidity, of which we have more than enough already."
At any rate, Picabia's Relâche, called by him a "snapshot" or "instantanist" ballet, lived up to this description. After its series of Paris performances it vanished except for a few photographs, Satie's score, some critical commentary, and as a fading memory for those who were there. As a visual spectacle, it's all gone now. Except for the film.
Rene Clair's wonderfully nutty intermission film did better with the critics. Even MacCormack uttered what may be taken to be a compliment: he called it "the first clever French film I have seen." In fact most people still find it clever and Entr'acte has gone on to become something of a cinema classic, one of the most treasured and earliest examples of the film avant-garde.
As it is shown today, Entr'acte begins with the film segment that opened the ballet--the bearded Satie and the pudgy Picabia firing their cannon--and this leads to the footage originally shown during the intermission. The film runs about twenty minutes at silent speed (eighteen frames per second).
In form the film suggests the two-reel silent comedies of the period (Clair was a great admirer of Chaplin): there are two parts, the second dominated by an all-out chase.
After the cannon shoot, the first half of the film, following Picabia's suggestions, is a jumble of zany, fast-paced images. Among them: the roofs of Paris; some inflatable balloon-dolls; disembodied boxing gloves in action; a game of chess between Marcel Duchamp (on the left) and Man Ray on the roof of the Theatre, washed away by a stream of water; a man with his hair full of flaming matches; floating paper airplanes; and seen from below, some pittering, bent-kneed turns on pointe by Inger Friis, a member of the Swedish Ballet (at two points her face is shown, in the first of these she is wearing a beard).
The second half of the film has what might almost be called a plot. An egg is balanced in the air by a jet of water. A huntsman (the baby-faced Borlin), takes aim at the egg from the Theatres roof and, after some focusing difficulty, shoots the egg. A bird flies out of it and lands on the huntsman's feathered hat. Another man (Picabia) shoots at the bird but hits the huntsman who topples from the roof and instantly is given a funeral.
The coffin, decorated with hams and the initials of Picabia and Satie, is on a wagon pulled by a camel. A funeral procession (among the mourners was Mare) begins in slow motion. The wagon bearing the coffin breaks away from the camel and begins down a hill, the mourners following faster and faster. There ensues a wild, hilarious, cross-cut chase of ever increasing velocity through the streets, around bends, onto a roller coaster and through a park. The wagon stops abruptly and the coffin tumbles down an embankment. As the mourners gather around, it opens up and Borlin, in a tuxedo, emerges. With a wand he makes each of the mourners disappear and then, pointing the wand at his chest, vanishes himself.
The word "Fin" appears on a paper that fills the screen but Borlin jumps through it from behind and (on some prints) assures the audience that this is not really the end. Another man knocks him down and kicks him like a soccer ball so that he is propelled by reverse action back through the paper and the word "Fin" emerges once again whole.
In its breathless, yet carefully constructed, nonsense, in its zany and charming exuberance, Entr'acte is a stunning and delightful remnant of its age. In writing about the film, Clair quotes a recent comment that he most cherishes, one that reflects the attitude that surrounded the now-extinct Relâche: "This film is still young. Even today you want to hiss it."