Relâche! and the Ballets Suédois

By Marc Arthur

In anticipation of Relâche!- The Party on November 1, 2012, Performa’s Marc Arthur introduces us to the history of this groundbreaking Dada event in the coming weeks.  This post looks specifically at The Ballets Suédois.

Still from the Ballets Suédois’ El Greco, 1924.

“I wish to transfer something of the beauty found in these paintings into dance,” said Rolf de Maré, director of the Ballets Suédois.  His company, founded in 1920, would stage only 24 pieces over their five-year run, but their efforts to realize the aesthetics of painting on stage would result in some of the most innovative and genre-crossing works of the early twentieth century.  It culminated in Relâche, a collaborative two-act ‘ballet instantaneiste’ that featured a score by Erik Satie, sets by Francis Picabia, a film by Rene Claire, and performances by Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray, and many others.  

The Ballets Suédois were following in the footsteps of the great Ballets Russes, a company founded by Sergei Diaghilev in 1909.  The Ballets Russes staged the original productions of Le sacre du printemps and Parade, which were results of collaborations with artists like Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali, Joan Miró, Giorgio de Chirico, and Coco Chanel.  While both companies reached across disciplines to achieve their vision, the Ballets Suédois often disregarded all the rules of ballet in the pursuit of making visually compelling works for the stage. The Ballets Suédois were acting against the ballet of the time, which was primarily concerned with expressions of romantic beauty.


 Photograph from the shooting of Entr’acte with Rolf de Maré and Jean Börlin, 1924.

In the photograph above we see Rolf de Maré in front of Jean Börlin, the primary dancer and choreographer in the Ballets Suédois.  As Vaslav Nijinsky was a muse and lover to Diaghilev, Börlin was the same to de Maré.  Before founding the company, de Maré collected Cubist art, unpopular and rarely taken seriously at the time, but works by Georges Braque, Picasso, Fernand Léger, and Picabia would later become the basis for his productions.  The unpopular Paris avant-garde artists, specifically the Parisian Dadaists, were largely supported by de Maré’s family’s financial stability: His grandparents were prominent art collectors in Sweden.  As Francis Picabia said, “de Maré made it possible for an entire cosmopolitan generation in Paris to work with a purpose, to express itself freely and not have to give in to paralyzing worries about the demands of a capricious audience.”



Still from The Ballets Suédois’ production of El Greco, 1924.

The paintings that provided the original impetus for de Maré to found his Ballets Suédois were El Greco’s sixteenth-century masterpieces. For de Maré, these paintings articulated the horrors of modern life and he wanted to translate their violent shapes and melancholy characters for the stage.


Rendering of Fernand Léger’s set and costume designs for La création du monde, 1923.

La création du monde was a 20-minute ballet about the creation of the world. Based on African mythology, the music, written by Darius Milhaun, was heavily influenced by jazz  from Harlem. This piece is often cited as the first jazz ballet.

Jean Cocteau reciting through a megaphone in his production of The Wedding on the Eiffel Tower, 1921.  

In 1921, Jean Cocteau wrote Les Mariés de la Tour Eiffel for the Ballets Suédois.  Members of the Ballets Suédois mimed to the direction of figures dressed as phonograph machines with horns for mouthpieces against a painted set of the Eiffel Tower.

Jenny Hasselquist and Jean Börlin as the bride and groom in his Les vierges folles (1920), with the Wise Virgins. Costumes and set by Einar Nerman. 


Carina Ari as La Baigneuse de Trouville and Axel Witzansky as the photographer in Les Mariés de la Tour Eiffel (1921). Costumes by Irene Lagut.


Les Ballets Suedois in Borlin’s Nuit de Saint-Jean (also called Midsummer Night’s Revel, 1920), most likely at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysée. Decor and costumes by Nils de Dardel. 



Marc Arthur is the head of Research and Archives at Performa, and a contributing editor to Performa Magazine. 

All photos copyright the Dansmuseet, Stockholm.

  1. deviatesinc reblogged this from performamagazine and added:
    If you ‘Read More,’ you will be rewarded with an image of Cocteau speaking into a megaphone the size of my living room.
  2. heididahlsveen reblogged this from performamagazine
  3. mskianga reblogged this from performamagazine and added:
    host committee! Save your pennies now! #Relâche @PerformaNYC
  4. performamagazine posted this