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The Ballet 'Parade,' Slumming, and the Marking of the American Century

Updated: Dec 20, 2020

During the First World War, the impresario Sergei Diaghilev split his famous dance company, Les Ballets Russes, into a continental touring group that spread his style of pre-war Russian ballet to new audiences in the Americas and on the Iberian peninsula as well as a small experimental nucleus focused around his new love interest and choreographer, Leonide Massine. Since Diaghilev received a $45,000 advance from the NY Metropolitan Opera, he set up shop in Rome and embarked on new modernist ballet productions informed by the currents of futurism, primitivism, and cubism already coalescing in Italy, Spain, and France. One of these productions, Parade, which debuted May 18, 1917 at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris, remains iconic for its modernism as well as, in my view, early European commentary about life and culture in the burgeoning “American Century.”

Parade’s scenario was written by the French poet and balletomane, Jean Cocteau. Erik Satie, the godfather of the French modern musical circle ‘Les Six,’ composed the avant-garde score. Diaghilev’s new protégé Leonide Massine designed the choreographic movement and the décor was by a young modern artist the Russian impresario brought into his fold: Pablo Picasso. The ballet even attracted the notice of esteemed writer, critic, and tastemaker, Guillaume Apollinaire. The critic is noted for coining the term cubism, and in the case of the programme notes for Parade he asserted that the production offered “a type of surrealism.” Thus, creating the neologism for an artistic movement that expanded after his untimely death a year later from the Spanish Flu pandemic.

This Diaghilev production has been described as Futurist inspired, and we know from the notes of Jeux, which debuted in 1913, that the impresario was already toying with Futurism’s love of the modern and technical. (He wanted the ballet to end with either an airplane or dirigible flying over.) Massine’s ballet utilized popular culture, alluded to technology and progress, used constructed masks and costumes, added new realistic sound effects to the music, and was performed as a fusion of realistic and mechanistic movements. Cocteau even pushed Satie’s modern score by adding Futurist-inspired nose-makers: typewriter clicks and dings, foghorn blasts, gunfire, and other noise. This resulted in a court spectacle. The music critic Jean Poueigh slammed the score because of the noisemakers and Satie filed suit. During the hearing, Satie retorted by calling him an “ass” that didn’t know music, and Cocteau kept yelling the expletive until he was removed. If Nijinsky and Stravinsky’s pre-war Sacre repudiated the classical dance academy, then Parade continued this rebellion by incorporating popular culture into a high art form and rendering the production using the most modern principles available. Of those involved in its production, only Massine was relatively untested in his commitment to modernism, and with this ballet his commitment was clear.

The dance scholar Lynn Garafola considers Parade to be an example of what she terms “lifestyle modernism,” which was based in “the new consumerist chic of the upper class” and the fusion of “vanguard form and commercial entertainment.” (Garafola, 1989, 115) But Cocteau’s scenario is the result of a high-arts proponent taking a popular-culture “slumming” tour. During the war, when they were not serving as ambulance drivers or in other positions, the Parisian cultural vanguard frequented venues like fairs, cinemas, circuses, and music-halls to drown out the malaise and monotony of a war that dragged on far longer and was more brutal than anyone expected. Although some scholars read Parade in relation to Futurism’s excoriation of high art and celebration of the popular, the modern, and the mechanical, for me Cocteau’s scenario demonstrates the extent of his cultural ‘slumming,’ which provided the poet with subject material that he could incorporate into a number of ballets for the Ballets Russes or even their competitors, the Ballets Suedois. By taking the experiences gained on these slumming expeditions, Cocteau and others could then consume the “fantastic” and popular from a high-arts perspective without debasing himself or the vanguard elites. Thus, Parade is popular culture coopted by an artistic elite who used modernism to both enjoy as well as critique popular entertainments and current trends in the safe space of the ballet stage.

The action for Parade, which informed Cocteau’s narrative and its subsequent movement choreographed by Massine, revolves around different groups of circus performers trying to attract people in the streets into their upcoming performance. Audience members witnessed acrobats, a Chinese magician portrayed by the choreographer himself, and the dance steps of a two-person horse with a cardboard sculpted face. These were direct allusions to the gymnastics, tricks, and animal spectacles one might see at a circus, but the ballet also focused on American culture. Two managers wore elaborately painted carboard sculptures that represented skyscrapers—a symbol of America’s growing wealth, technological progress, and urbanization. These heavy cardboard costumes grounded the range of the dancers inside them to a series of rhythmic steps.

Cocteau’s fascination with American culture and film, however, is most evident in the narrative and choreographic action offered to Maria Shabelska, who portrayed the Little American Girl. This character, with her exaggerated bow in tow, shuffled across the floor like silent-film star Charlie Chaplin, jumped on a moving train and engaged in a gunfight as seen in Western shorts, and comedically swam a river before drowning at sea with the tragic loss of the Titanic. The production ended with a hugely popular ragtime number, which acknowledges the spread not only of American popular culture but more distinctly, African American music forms that would take further root abroad during the Jazz Age.

Certainly, these depictions are shallow in their representation of the United States, but Cocteau’s inclusion of them in the plot that drove the ballet’s action demonstrates that in 1917 the European vanguard was coming to terms with popular entertainments and an encroaching American culture that would predominate from the 1920s into the Cold War. French skepticism of Americanization and “Coca-colonization” is legendary, and this may in part color my perspective that Cocteau was doing more than celebrating popular culture in the manner of the Futurists. He was slumming, coopting, and making it palatable by rendering it through a vanguard lens for the cultural elites. Regardless of the various statements the ballet was trying to make, Parade produced a number of iconic images and performances. Picasso’s curtain is stunning in its surrealism, the cubist constructions of the managerial skyscrapers, the plodding horse, and the iconic conjuror that became a symbol for the Ballets Russes remain visibly distinctive.

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