Four works of the short-lived Ballets Suedois company are the latest to be salvaged from the dustbin of forgotten dance, and their performances by the Royal Swedish Ballet last night at the Kennedy Center Opera House prove saving them was indeed a heroic act.
Reconstructed dance is not always good dance; some works vanish from the stage for a reason. But not only are the revived Ballets Suedois works interesting in their own right, they also leave one with a longing to revisit the artistic cyclone that was Paris in the '20s.
The Ballets Suedois was the creation of Swedish art collector Rolf de Mare, who built a group of dancers (most of them lured away from the Royal Swedish Ballet) around the talents of his lover, Jean Borlin. During the Paris-based company's short life, from 1920 to 1925, Borlin choreographed and starred in its entire repertoire of 24 works, many of them collaborations with prominent avant-gardists.
Take for example "Skating Rink" (from 1922), re-created by historians Millicent Hodson and Kenneth Archer. The stage is hung with Fernand Leger's cubist backdrop, and the skaters wear Leger's bold designs--warring stripes, polka dots and zigzags over dusty blocks of colors. Arthur Honegger's rumbling score captures the noise and chaos of the roller rink. The dance is loosely based on Charlie Chaplin's film "The Rink"--a love triangle on ice--but is tense and dark, and works with a poetic image of the circling skaters and their myriad dramas as a microcosm of society.
The dance serves Leger's decor--not the other way around. The dancers present themselves two-dimensionally, holding their arms at right angles and gliding stiffly. They are, in fact, the moving versions of the static geometric images. The effect is both chilling--unemotional and distant--and jarringly beautiful, a melting of dimensions.
"Within the Quota"--also re-created by Hodson and Archer--brings a true American ballet home for the first time in 75 years. Artist Gerald Murphy created the set--a blown-up sendup of a tabloid newspaper front, prefiguring pop art--and a young Cole Porter composed the music, his first and only symphonic work. These two Americans in Paris created a Swede in Hollywood, bags in hand, who is greeted by a parade of pop culture figures (a cowboy, a dancing gentleman, a jazz baby and a Mary Pickford-esque sweetie). The characters are delightful, but the best part is Porter's jazz-inflected music.
There was less pure dancing than artful imagery in "El Greco," "freely interpreted" by Swedish choreographer Ivo Cramer, and "Dervishes," by Hodson and Archer. "El Greco" brings the Spanish painter's brush strokes to life in a tale of religious doubt and redemption. This work, beautifully rendered, offered the best look at the dancers' regal bearing, supple use of their arms and understated drama. "Dervishes," a stylized version of the Sufi sect's ritualistic whirling, was strongest in the solo, which was Borlin's signature performance.
Last night's program is the sum total of the Ballets Suedois' remnants. It folded after founder de Mare discovered he'd been swindled by a theater manager. Borlin died five years later, physically spent, sick and weakened with drugs and drink. Most of the troupe's dancers returned to Sweden, never to dance again; the Royal Swedish Ballet refused to take them back. And as for the RSB, it took decades to recover from the loss of so many of its best dancers.
The Ballets Suedois program, then, offers what might be called "closure." An attempt to right artistic wrongs. And yet, after seeing the performance, the doomed ensemble seems anything but dead. Three-quarters of a century later, the spirit behind these works crackles like a live wire. The program continues through Friday.
CAPTION: The dancers in "Skating Rink" wear bold designs.