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Friday, November 1, 2013

Surreal Theater

by Jessica Goldschmidt

Ah, Dada. How you never cease to thrill with your wild and crazy aesthetic antics. And how you manage to endlessly inspire new artists, like John Heginbotham, the inventive Mark Morris protégé and creator of this week’s Next Wave Festival Fishman Space presentation, Dark Theater.

Heginbotham’s work takes its inspiration from the 1924 ballet Relâche, which was, as Frances Picabia's inflammatory magazine 391 proclaimed, an “instantaneous ballet with two acts, one cinematograhic intermission, and the tail of Francis Picabia's dog." Envisioned by the Picabia, a French artist closely alligned with Dada and Surrealism, and with a score by Erik Satie, Relâche was performed in Paris by the notably zany, predominantly Swedish Ballets Suédois. Even the title of the ballet was a good old surreal joke: relâche is the word the French use on show posters to indicate “closed” or “canceled.”

According to this informative article from Performa, the Ballets Suédois was an anti-establishment multi-disciplinary performance company founded in 1920 by director Rolf de Maré, a devotee of Cubism before it sold for millions of dollars and a major bankroller for many of the most influential (and broke) Parisian Dadaists.

De Maré was determined to translate visceral, vibrant paintings by contemporary artists for the stage through his ballets. They often bore little to no resemblance to classic ballet forms, instead using dramatic costumes and set pieces to achieve an overwhelming effect. This rendering of Fernand Léger’s set and costume designs for the Ballets Suédois’ La création du monde (a 20-minute piece about the creation of the world often cited as the first jazz ballet) gives an idea of the general aesthetic.

Rendering of Fernand Léger’s set and costume designs for La création du monde, 1923 (from Performa)

We here at BAM first got excited about Heginbotham’s surrealist inspirations after stumbling upon the “cinematographic intermission” for Relâche, entitled (fittingly) "Entr’Acte."

The film was created by director René Clair, with cameo appearances by Satie, Picabia, Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp, the principal dancer of the ballet  Jean Börlin, and de Maré himself.

The first 90 seconds or so show Satie and Picabia firing a canon straight at the audience, and were shown with live orchestra music before the ballet curtain had even risen. The next 20-ish minutes played (as the name suggests) between the acts, and were created to sync with Satie’s music, thus apparently becoming one of the earliest examples of music to film synchronicity.

Watch the whole thing if you can. Images and motifs will be popping up this week in Heginbotham's work at the BAM Fisher—from the delirious ballet dancer shot from below, to the film’s gloriously upside-down rooftops, ridiculous coffin sequences, and chess games between Duchamp and Man Ray.

Dark Theater runs through Nov 2 at the Fishman Space (BAM Fisher).

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