Corpus Suche:

Ξ: “Sur-Realist” Parade


By Nicole Haitzinger

[Dieser Text ist Teil von Projekt Ξ: corpus reaktiviert Beiträge aus

seinem Archiv 2006-2017; wiederveröffentlicht am 2. Mai 2020]


The genesis of Parade (1917) – one of the modernist signature pieces of the Ballets Russes – during WWI is only a footnote to contemporary dance historiography. Its structural and phenomenological “sur-realism” – not accidentally did Apollinaire create the term referring to the staging of Parade – is deeply rooted in the dispositif of the war and can be analyzed as an artistic counter-model, or better: as a strictly aesthetic event. At the same time, I would argue, Parade is avant-garde in the term’s original meaning, in terms of three aspects: firstly, the choreography has underlying similarities with military operations, secondly it is prophetic, foreseeing the society of the spectacle and the virtualization of society, and thirdly the so-called Hommes-décors are radical and intimate couplings of bodies and machines: “Picasso’s managers by their size and weight have obliged the choreographer [Massine] to leave behind the old formulae.” (Jean Cocteau). In my paper, I would like to point out some ambivalent and highly paradoxical aspects of art-making during WWI and its effects on body and movement concepts and more specifically on dance. Further, I would like to ask why and how sur-realist figures (re-)appear on stage in contemporary dance/theatre (for example in Big Bang (2010) by Philippe Quesne/Vivarium Studio)?


Strictly Aesthetic?


Parade, a collective production by Jean Cocteau, Pablo Picasso, Eric Satie and Leonide Massine, is first performed on 18 May 1917 in the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris. Without doubt, Parade is a highly ambiguous work, an exhibition, an exhibiting of ambivalence that caused one of the greatest theatre scandals of the early twentieth century. [1] The troupe around Serge Diaghilev begins to open itself to the Western culture industry, to new forms of art (film, photography), to the profane and the popular. [2] Jean Cocteau and Pablo Picasso in particular are interested in showing the “intrusive, vulgar and vital” aspects of modern life. In Parade, cultural significations and codifications are condensed and demonstrated in various figurations. The fact that the piece initiates, in the midst of the First World War, a modernist period in the work of the Ballets Russes, is widely acknowledged in research in dance, theatre and music studies, and in art history. Yet, re-framing Parade in terms of the subject “Dancing in the Shadows of WWI”, [3] might shed light on less-known aspects in the production in terms of considering Parade in the context of the Parisian avant-gardes during the First World War.

The positioning of the Parisian avant-garde and, more specifically, that of Picasso and Cocteau, during the First World War is of a decisive significance. In his outstanding study Esprit du Corps. The Art of the Parisian Avant-Garde and the First World War, 1914–1925, which the first part of this paper is indebted to, Kenneth Silver describes the war situation as follows: “With the front so close – less than seventy-five miles from the capital – Paris was like a vast army encampment, which made it all the more difficult for a noncombantant to pass unnoticed or avoid accusations of cowardice or disloyality.” [4]


Many French artists look to being conscripted early on, among them Cocteau – who is, however, rejected by the military. He publicly commits to France as a nation and the Union sacrée in non-official uniform, so as to prove his loyalty to the artists and soldiers Braque, Léger, Metzinger, Gleizes, Apollinaire. During the years of 1915/16 in Paris, fear concerning a possible German invasion is widespread, heightened by the trench warfare of the Battle of Verdun. Civilians like Matisse or Cocteau experience an identity crisis and dilemma in terms of their work: how is it possible to serve the country as an artist? Conservatism in the national cultural programme is ubiquitous, positioning by means of a restoration of purportedly “French” values and references the autonomy of French art as a counter-model to the rubric of the German. During the war, art-making is highly reputed, serving and legitimising the country’s spiritual and ethical defence. [5]

Cubism and modern art from L’Avant-Guerre, the pioneers of which include Pablo Picasso, are generally classed as “boche” (a pejorative expression for German). One reason for this is the fact that German gallerists such as Kahnweiler had exhibited Cubist art. The Parisian Left of the period, too, deems Cubism and modern art as “un-French, hence patriotic and alien”. [6] “Boche” develops into a derogatory term for all non-French art, countered by artistic voices pleading, as the voice of reason, for a measured patriotism. Many of the artistes combattant are, technically, Cubists in uniform. While we can observe the emergence of aesthetic conservatism in Paris, art radicalises itself at the frontline, the very artist-soldiers fighting against Germany having worked in “boche style”, as French painter and editor of the journal L’Élan, Amédée Ozenfant, puts it polemically:

“It is in the midst of war, during leisure time in the trenches, that Braque, Derain, La Fresnaye, Léger, L.-A. Moreau, A.-D. de Segonzac, Allard, Apollinaire, and so many others persevere – O, paradox! – in perpetrating and advocating... BOCHE PAINTING.” [7]

The Parisian avant-gardes seek a way out of the dilemma by means of explicit reference to French art history, as well as to Romance art (Ars Gallica) as aesthetic paradigm.
Before the war, the Parisian art scene was split into the so-called “rive gauche et droite”. The artists of the right bank tended to stand for an elitist art, those of the left bank for bohemianism: “The Cubists and the Ballets Russes represented two different phases of the pre-war avantgarde, with the opulence of Diaghilev’s aesthetic and the mundane iconoclasm of the Cubists existing in distinct and separate realms.” [8] Pablo Picasso, the most important proponent of Cubism, and Jean Cocteau, moving primarily in the circles of the Beau Monde of established art, became close artistically and personally during the First World War, a process culminating in collaborating on Parade in the context of the Ballets Russes. The Ballets Russes itself is a phenomenon of the “rive droite” (the right bank), considered in this context as a conservative avant-garde. As Cocteau put it:

“There were two fronts: the war front and then in Paris there was what might be called the Montparnasse front ... which is where I met all the men who helped me emerge from the Right in which I had been living... I was on the way to what seemed to me the intense life – toward Picasso, toward Modigliani, toward Satie... All those men who had given proof of their Leftism, and I had to do the same. I was ... suspect on the Right, which I was leaving, and suspect on the Left, where I was arriving ... The man who made it possible for me at the controls was Picasso. Picasso at once considered me a friend and took me around to all the groups. He introduced me to the painters and poets... There were no politics at the time, no political Left or Right, there was only a Left and Right in art, and what we were full of was the patriotism of art...” [9]

The structures and aesthetics of the divided l’avant-guerre artists encounter each other in the production process of Parade: a juxtaposition which becomes the piece’s leitmotif. Various fragments and influences, ranging from historical techniques from the commedia dell’arte to contemporary entertainment (ragtime, jazz, the circus, the cinema, advertising, music-hall) and Cubism are all combined in order to develop a new form of (dance) theatre. [10]


To summarise the content briefly: Parade is a dramaturgic collage in two parts: the setting is a street in Paris on a Sunday. A Chinese magician, an American girl and a couple of acrobats show their tricks in front of their show booths in a sequence of three separate performances, attempting to attract the audience to come to their shows. They are each announced by the “managers” – over-dimensioned human object constructions – by means of numbered plates. After twenty minutes, Parade ends with a finale during which all figures appear on stage together. It ends tragically: the modern heroes of entertainment fail in their attempt to win over the audiences. As the ambiguity of art becomes manifest in the finale, the audience chokes on its laughter.


Some intellectuals and artists of the historical avant-garde receive Parade enthusiastically and consider it the beginning of a new era. Apollinaire notes the following in the programme (1917):

“Definitions of Parade are bursting out everywhere […] it mirrors the marvelously lucid spring of France itself. […] The Cubist painter Picasso and that most daring of choreographers, Léonide Massine, have staged it, thus consummating for the first time this union of painting and dance – of plastic and mime – which heralds the advent of a more complete art. Let no one cry paradox. […] This new union – for up until now stage sets and costumes on the one hand and choreography on the other were only superficially linked – has given rise in Parade to a kind of super-realism [sur-réalisme]. This I see as the starting point of a succession of manifestations of the ‘esprit nouveau’: now that is has had an opportunity to reveal itself, it will not fail to seduce the élite, and it hopes to chance arts and manners from top to bottom, to the joy of all.” [11]

It is Apollinaire who here makes use – for the first time and years before Breton’s manifestos – of the term surrealism, in relation to a ballet calling itself, in its subheading, ballet réaliste; this is, then, the term’s introduction into art discourse, although at this point without further conceptual doctrine. As I would like to suggest, it is the juxtaposition, or contrasting, of two groups of characters which produces this transposition of the real into the surreal.

“When Picasso showed us his sketches, we understood how effective it would be to exploit the contrast between the three “real” characters as “chromos” (cancelled postcards) pasted on a canvas and the more solemnly transposed inhuman, or superhuman, characters who would become, in fact, the false reality on stage, to the point of reducing the real dancers to the stature of puppets.” [12]

In Parade, sur-realism is to be understood as a transgression of reality, as a world beyond – in which “fantasy, beauty and [the] reality of our daily life” are unveiled. [13] The aesthetic experience of the everyday in modernity finds emphasis in Parade – and yet, it is only its degree of artificiality and virtuosity in the form of a reproduction which forms the condition of the possibility of such an exhibition of reality. In 1916 already, Cocteau had written to his friend Guillaume Apollinaire: “I think you will love ‘Parade’. Diag. is developing a sense that ‘faulty images’ [fautes de dessin] can have a place in a ‘modern’ oeuvre, and that it might be possible to transfigure the world by copying it scrupulously [en le copiant scrupuleusement].” [14] Cocteau emphasises the importance of the choreography of the three showpieces which he has developed with Massine:

“In contrast to the audience’s understanding, these figures underline the Cubist School more than our managers. The managers are decoration, moving Picasso portraits, and it is their structure which forces them into a particular choreographic modality. In the case of the four protagonists, by contrast, what is at stake is to develop them from a series of realist movements and to transform these into dance without losing their realist power as a result.” [15]

The transformation of “real” gestures and quotidian movements into stage dance is, for Cocteau, the greatest challenge for ballet of the time. Nevertheless, looking at the short choreographies for the Chinese magician, the American girl and the acrobats historiographically, we find neither new forms of movement nor avant-gardist dance conceptions. The three tricks are mediated by means of a choreographic structure which exclusively makes use of a traditional vocabulary of form (the gestures of pantomime, classical pas de deux…). This brings to the forefront the pictorial appearance of the characters, taken from the theatre of types, silent film, the variety show, music hall, the circus and classical ballet. Ultimately it is Picasso’s Cubist and, in all meanings of the word, “monstrous” managers that effect the surrealist scenario. Only as a result of their performances does the real as fiction and the modern world become (aesthetically) apprehensible.


The audience at the première in May 1917, however, largely refuses engagement with aesthetic forms of perception and rejects Parade, shown in the framework of a Ballets Russes matinée serving as a welfare event for “mutilés de guerre” of the Eastern Ardenne region. The high society audience attacks the artists, shouting “salle boche”, “embusques”, “métèques”. Due to its Cubist elements, they perceive such a performance in the midst of the war, not even a year after the battle of Verdun and the drawn-out trench warfare between France and Germany, as unpatriotic and “German”. [16] Furthermore, the involvement of the pre-war iconoclasts and civilians from Spain around Picasso, as well as the fact that there had been fears from 1916 onwards already that Russia would leave the alliance, implicating the ballets russes in such fears – these aspects further encouraged the audience’s rejection, using Parade as an occasion to profess allegiance to French cultural heritage against what is foreign. Jean Cocteau, who had conceived the content of Parade in the winter of 1915/16 (in Comte Etienne de Beaumont’s army ambulance corps tending wounded soldiers at the front), seems to have anticipated possible reservations in the audience. His fears, however, are aimed in the wrong direction. The following quotation is from an article by Cocteau appearing on the day of the première, merely seeking to legitimate the piece’s slapstick elements in times of war:

“Our wish is that the public may consider Parade as a work which conceals poetry beneath the coarse outer skin of slapstick. Laughter is natural to Frenchmen: it is important to keep this in mind and not to be afraid to laugh even at this most difficult time. Laughter is too Latin a weapon to be neglected.” [17]

Neither Cocteau nor Picasso nor Massine nor Satie intended to provoke the audience politically. On the contrary: by means of referring to commedia dell’arte, there is an attempt towards a programmatic alliance with Romance art. Paradoxically, it is the reception that charges politically what had been a “strictly aesthetic” performance in its intentions, resulting in a theatre scandal. [18]

And/Or Prophetic?

In its historical signification, the term avant-garde refers to the elite troupe of reconnaissance scouts exploring the scope of action and possible threats on the battlefield. In the military sense, this advance guard has a prophetic mission. It describes and diagnoses the enemy’s action, fulfilling the heightened need for their own troupe’s intelligence and rendering possible prognoses regarding the course of the battle. In its use in the arts, in its function as an aesthetic term at the beginning of the twentieth century, avant-garde still carries revolutionary connotations – and it does so not only in the sense of experimental conceptions of art, but also experimental conceptions of society. [19]


In their collaboration on Parade, Picasso, Cocteau, Massine and Satie create a piece that is simultaneously modernist and prophetic. Even if it makes less use of radical dance concepts or of transgressive art concepts combining different media than other relatively contemporary productions of the historical avant-gardes, Parade – in terms of the etymological roots of avant-garde – must appear as prophetic in two senses: firstly, in terms of a society of the spectacle which is exhibited early on by means of the ironic, critical, precisely choreographed performances of the characters, and secondly, in relation to the world’s rapid technologisation and capitalisation, figuratively condensed in Picasso’s monstrous hommes-décors managers. [20] This “radical and intimate coupling of bodies and machines” [21] is, as we know, not Picasso’s invention but corresponds to the zeitgeist of modernity and the avant-garde’s fascination with new technologies. [22] Nevertheless, the degree of irony in Picasso’s figures is unique as an aesthetic response to socio-cultural and political events.

Picasso’s managers, of several metres’ height, supposed to march across stage like living adverts, are a choreographic challenge for the young Massine. Their scope of conduct is reduced to stomping, slow, angular movements. The performances of the over-dimensional hommes-décors are not improvised, but precisely choreographed by Massine and Picasso, who leave nothing to accident. Cocteau mentions in his notebook: “Picasso’s managers by their size and their weight have obliged the choreographer to leave behind old formulae.” [23] It is fascinating to see that it is Léon Bakst, the scenographer for Ballets Russes productions in the Russian artistic tradition, who sees the emergence of a “new” period of ballet in the choreography of the managers, noting in his article “Chorégraphie et Décors des Nouveau Ballets Russes” in the programme for Parade (1917): “And I insist it is the [choreography of] steps for the managers and the horse that rendered the choreography so breathtaking.” [24]

When Apollinaire writes in 1917, “[i]n short, the story of Parade is the tragedy of an unsuccessful theatrical event”, then we observe the immediate theatrical context and the “strictly aesthetic” element of a production developed in the midst of the crisis situation of the First World War, a production marked in the depths of its structure by a particular political and cultural context. The unintentionally prophetic aspect far exceeding aesthetic questions becomes possible through a contemporary historiographical re-framing. Before concluding, I would like to share one further observation: in contemporary European dance and theatre, we increasingly see surreal figures and scenarios on stage. The French director/choreographer Philippe Quesne’s (Studium Vivarum) production Big Bang (2010) is to be understood – as I would like to suggest – as a signature piece of a new (or returning) and non-doctrinary sur-real aesthetic in a global political, economic and ecological crisis period. In distinction to Parade (1917), in terms of motif, Big Bang (2010) refers more to society than the theatre as such.


To sketch the piece briefly:
Big Bang is as much a gigantic explosion as a founding theory or a simple book onomatopoeia. The play takes place on a small island, on which a shipwrecked group will remake the world, as they go back to the origins to replay history in an accelerated fashion. The Island serves as a frame for a sequence of images, short scenes, small musicals, a quasi-anatomical study of an unexpectedly transplanted human microcosm. Of course, people and animals, Language and Silence, Everything and Nothing coexist here: the whole river of life, from plankton to postmodernism.” [25]


Big Bang carefully critiques contemporary society, in profound crisis in terms of globalisation, virtualisation and post-fordism and at the brink of an (ecological) apocalypse which, however, is not certainly to come…

Artistic procedures towards the emergence of a sur-realist aesthetic on stage resemble each other in their historical and contemporary practices in terms of the following three aspects, among others: firstly, the mise-en-scène of the seemingly quotidian; through objects, the figures create situations charged with a multiplicity of meaning in all its ambiguity. By means of the modelling of corporeality, the attempt is made to produce a fiction of the real. Secondly, the use of strategies of the comical/of irony to subvert theatrical convention, and, thirdly, the de-limitation of art, generated by means of a multi-layered group collaboration.


  1. ^ Cf. Haitzinger, Nicole: Parade von Friktionen. Choreographische Konzepte in der Zusammenarbeit von Jean Cocteau, Pablo Picasso und Léonide Massine (13.01.2015) 
  2. ^ Cf. Garafola, Lynn: Diaghilev's Ballets Russes. New York, 1989, 99–107. Jeschke, Claudia; Haitzinger, Nicole: Unterwegs. Von den Metropolen Europas zum Highway 101. Topographische Konzepte im Tanz des 20. Jahrhunderts. In: Mosch, Ulrich; Schmidt; Matthias; Wälli Silvia (ed.): Annäherungen, Festschrift für Jürg Stenzl zum 65. Geburtstag. Saarbrücken, 2007, pp. 141–159.
  3. ^ This article is a revised version of a lecture held in London, 29th of November 2014 (Society of Dance Research). (13.01.2015)
  4. ^ Silver, Kenneth E.: Esprit de Corps. The Art of the Parisian Avant-Garde and First World War 1914–1925. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989, p. 5.
  5. ^ “Ah! What ar revenge if the historian who will write about the gigantic struggle and the epic courage of our people here and there the masterpiece born in the tempest and acclaimed by the future! What a triumph if he can cry: “While the barbarians destroyed the cathedrals of Reims, of Louvain, of Soissons, The ‘Halles’ of Ypres, the Belfry at Arras, France, feeling her genius aroused, repaired these disasters. She gave back to Humanity what had lost.” That is why the renewal of artistic preoccupations when the horde of Attila is ninety kilometers from the City of Light – when the city must extinguish her lights each night, to attenuate the severity of the attacks – has something very noble about it. There is also something very touching.” Clemént Janin, introduction to catalogue La Triennale, Exposition de l’art francais, Paris 1916, quoted in Silver, Esprit de Corps, p. 32.
  6. ^ Rothschild, Deborah Menaker: Picasso’s Parade. New York: Sotheby’s Publication, 1991, p. 47.
  7. ^ « C’est au cours de la guerre, pendent les loisirs de la tranchée, que Braque, Derain, de La Fresnaye, Léger, L.-A. Moreau, A.-D. de Segonzac, Allard, Apollinaire et tant d’autres s’obstinent – ô paradoxe! – à perpétrer ou prôner ... LA PEINTURE BOCHE. » Ozenfant, A.: « Aux camerades cubistes », L’Élan, no. 5 (Paris, 1916), quoted in Silver, Esprit de Corps, p. 56.
  8. ^ Silver, Esprit de Corps, p. 114.
  9. ^ Cocteau based in a recording of his recollections made much later (date unspecified). Quoted in Silver, Esprit de Corps, p. 108.
  10. ^ “Parade was not so much a satire on popular art as an attempt to translate it into a totally new form. It is true we utilized certain elements of contemporary show business – ragtime music, jazz, the cinema, billboard advertising, circus and music-hall techniques – but we took only their salient features, adapting them to our own ends.” Massine, Léonide: My life in ballet. London: Macmillan, 1968, p. 103.
  11. ^ Parade (programme), 18.05.1917, in: Menaker, Picasso’s Parade, Appendix 1, pp. 267–268. English Translation from Francis Steegmuller: Cocteau: A Biography. Boston, 1970, pp. 513–514, Appendix VII.
  12. ^ Cocteau quoted in Fermigier, André (ed.) : Entre Picasso et Radiguet, Paris, 1967 ; quoted in Menaker, Picasso’s Parade, p. 90.
  13. ^ Apollinaire nach Massine, My life in ballet: “to reveal the fantasy, beauty and reality of our daily life”, p. 112.
  14. ^ « Je pense que vous aimerez ‹ Parade ›. Diag. commence a entrevoir qu'il peut y avoir des ‹ fautes de dessin › dans une oeuvre ‹ moderne › et qu'on peut transfigurer le monde en le copiant scrupuleusement. » In: Caizergues, Pierre; Décaudin, Michel (eds.): Correspondance, Guillaume Apollinaire, Jean Cocteau. Paris: Place, 1991, p. 24.
  15. ^ In: Cocteau, Jean: Hahn und Harlekin. Aphorismen und Notate. Leipzig: Kiepenheuer, 1991, p. 108.
  16. ^ “The audience booed and attempted to attack the ballet’s collaborators with everything from hat-pins to cries of ‘salle boche’, ‘embusques’, and ‘métèques’ – references to the war and the so-called unpatriotic, Teutonic/Bolshevik nature of the production.” Menaker, Picasso’s Parade, p. 30.
  17. ^ Cocteau, Jean in: L’Excelsior, 18.05.1917, quoted in Silver, Esprit du Corps, p. 123.
  18. ^ As Kenneth Silver puts it: “At the wartime première it was too early for the Parisian public to accept classicism and Cubism as equal partners in an advanced aesthetic.” Silver, Esprit du Corps, p. 126.[1] Cf. Barck, Karlheinz: Avantgarde. In: Ästhetische Grundbegriffe, Historisches Wörterbuch in sieben Bänden, Karlheinz Barck u.a. (Hg.), Bd.1, Stuttgart, 2000, pp. 544–577.
  19. ^ Cf. Barck, Karlheinz: Avantgarde. In: Ästhetische Grundbegriffe, Historisches Wörterbuch in sieben Bänden, Karlheinz Barck u.a. (Hg.), Bd.1, Stuttgart, 2000, pp. 544–577.
  20. ^ Cf. Haitzinger, Nicole: Eine Parade als Prophetie? Die Manager der Ballets Russes als Vorboten einer Gesellschaft des Spektakels. (t.b.rp, 13.01.2015)
  21. ^ Cf. Cheng, Anne Anlin: Second Skin: Josephine Baker and the Modern Surface. New York: Oxford, 2011, 122.
  22. ^ Cf. McCarren, Felicia: Dancing Machines. Choreographies of the age of mechanical reproduction. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003, p. 127.
  23. ^ Menaker, Picasso’s Parade, p. 90.
  24. ^ Bakst, Léon: Chorégraphie et Decors des Nouveaux Ballets Russes. Programme Parade, 18.05.1917. « Voici la ‹ Parade ›, ballet cubiste, paradoxal peut-être pour les myopes – vrai pour moi. Picasso nous donne une vision à lui d'un tréteau de foire, où les acrobates, chinois et managers se meuvent dans un kaléidoscope, à la fois réel et fantastique. Un grand rideau ‹ passéiste › à dessein, tranche entre ces fleurs de vingtième siècle et le spectateur intrigue. Les personnages sont revêtus de deux aspects opposés ; les uns, constructions ambulants, amas de trouvailles cubiques des plus spirituelles ; les autres, acrobates typiques d'un cirque d'aujourd'hui. La chorégraphie les assimile et rend ‹ réalistes › ces deux espèces ; les unes, copies fidèles, les autres, nées dans le cerveau de Picasso. [...] Et j'y insiste: le pas des ‹ managers › et du ‹ cheval › – est ce que la chorégraphie nouvelle a fait de plus saisissant. »
  25. ^ (13.01.2015)


(30.1.2015; 2.5.2020)