Historical Interlude

7 Jul

Anything about Paris – history, memoir, map – is a magnet for me, even though I’ve spent only three brief visits to The City of Light. Browser Books on the west side of Fillmore just before the #1 California bus stop on Sacramento, San Francisco, carries a fair amount of reading enticements. I want to mention one, just finished, because of its unexpected foray into dance history – the Diaghilev Era.

Specifically, the book is Paris at the End of the World; The City of Light During the Great War, 1914-1918, paperback, $15.99, ISBN #978-0-06-222140-7. The author, John Baxter, is Australian, a long-time resident married to a French woman, Dominique by name. He also has authored several other books on Paris, also biographies of several noted cinematographers.

Baxter was interested in World War I because his grandfather, Archie, volunteered for replacement Australian forces in 1916. The circumstances of the enlistment, his return, and later abandonment of the Baxter family became a trigger for his grandson’s tracing his steps in the Parisian world of the time. Each short chapter manages to capture vividly a sense of the times, a paperback to finish in as non-stop as daily routine permits.

I harbored a more personal interest in wartime Paris, also. Beyond the fact that my father joined the Canadian artillery as a replacement, also in 1916, a fact and resulting ambiance that hovered around the family during most of my childhood, I wrote about Josephine Redding, a young American volunteer nurse during the first year of the war, who died in a New York hotel room in 1915. Her diary provided perspective and fuel for Baxter’s descriptions.

Several years ago, I registered that Diaghilev premiered Leonid Massine’s Parade in Paris in 1917, and that World War I was still being fought not so very far away from Paris, some forty miles in fact. This information both thrilled and gave me a shudder. The Russian Revolution had started in February with the abdication of Czar Nicholas II and the effective loss of Russians fighting as the Communists endeavors to solidify their control of the former Russian empire.

On pages 217-219, Baxter records Jean Cocteau and Pablo Picasso’s trip made to Rome to pitch the idea of Paradeto Serge Diaghilev. True to his dictum, Etonne moi, “Astonish me”, Diaghilev bought the idea of a ballet roughly based on a traveling circus.

Chapter 31, “I Love a Parade,” pages 289-299, tells the story of the production. It has just about everything to qualify it for a zany Marx brothers feature; I think it’s safe to say it introduced the particular form of social chaos that came to be known as The Roaring Twenties.

For starters, this is the first account I have read placing Parade’s premiere at the Theatre du Chatelet in the afternoon; it was a charity matinee, wartime conditions ruling electricity and public transportation, even the number of times a theater could be open for performances. The 3K sized venue was jammed, thanks not only to Cocteau and Picasso, but also to Erik Satie; he was morose when horns and jostling milk bottles were added for effect.

The work was startling; Massine had incorporated ragtime, the cakewalk and the “one-step”, placing them on stage with a company noted for oriental exoticism,” Russian folk and fairytales. Anyone seeing Gary Chryst in the Joffrey Ballet’s revival understands some of the impact. Francis Poulenc was shocked and the music critics slammed the production. Cocteau was delighted; he had created a scandale to rival Sacre du Printemps. With the rumor that in certain loges love-making occurred during the performance, Baxter concluded the chapter, “It really was the hottest ticket in town.”

Draw your own examples in the contemporary dance world.


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