The life of a dance is relatively brief. As brief as that of the dancer.
--Choreographer Jean Borlin,
from "Paris Modern:
The Swedish Ballet 1920-1925"
The Ballets Suedois had a brief, bright existence, five years swept up in a whirl of experimental dance, with decor, costumes and music by some of the most important avant-garde artists of the day. The Paris-based company of Swedish expatriates became an entire art movement unto itself, fueled by the contributions of Jean Cocteau, Fernand Leger, Erik Satie and even Cole Porter.
Yet since it dissolved in 1925, the company has become little more than a footnote to early 20th-century dance history. Its artistic innovations have been eclipsed by those of the better-known and longer-lived Ballets Russes of Serge Diaghilev (which, after all, boasted such choreographic giants as Michel Fokine and George Balanchine).
Some of the Swedish troupe's sets, costumes and musical scores have survived. But most of the dances--which were created by a young Swede named Jean Borlin--have not. With no one to perform them, and no reliable way to record them with ink, those two dozen ballets that had toured two continents vanished with the last echoes of their applause.
Starting Tuesday, however, the Royal Swedish Ballet performs four "reconstructed" works of the Ballets Suedois at the Kennedy Center Opera House as part of a week-long engagement. (On Saturday and Sunday, the company performs John Neumeier's "Third Symphony" by Gustav Mahler.)
How do you raise a dance from the dust of history?
"In each work that we choose, we have to be convinced that there's enough to work with to really make a facsimile," says Millicent Hodson, who with husband Kenneth Archer used sketches, photographs, film fragments, music scores, Borlin's notes and the recollections of a precious few aged former dancers to piece together three of the works. "Dervishes" (1920) imitates the whirling Islamic ritual; Fernand Leger's cubist panorama animates "Skating Rink" (1922); and a cinematic aesthetic is behind "Within the Quota" (1923), a look at American culture with a score by Porter. The fourth Ballets Suedois work on the Kennedy Center program, "El Greco" (1920), was re-created by Swedish choreographer and former Royal Swedish Ballet director Ivo Cramer.
But it is hard to know how much of what we will see is an act of imagination on the part of the reconstruction team, rather than a historical account.
The dance world is shadowed by the ghosts of lost works. For every ballet currently in repertory somewhere, there are hundreds, thousands, that were once alive onstage and have forever disappeared. Even the ballets we have come to accept as classics--the full-length productions of the 19th century such as "Giselle" and "Swan Lake"--have doubtlessly been altered over time so that they stray from their originals in some fashion.
Resurrecting forgotten dance is a dangerous endeavor--the result will be at best the general idea, at worst a distorted picture. And there will be no one around who knows any better. Dance, unlike any other art, is passed along imperfectly, unreliably, from body to body. Differences in interpretation and musicality creep into a role over the generations, but who is left to police the authentic version? For centuries there was no reliable notation method, and even with today's technological advances there is little agreement over how best to preserve a choreographer's creation.
Still, it is easy to see why the thought of revisiting the Ballets Suedois was so tantalizing. Flush with the spirit of freedom that flourished after World War I, the company existed like a shooting star, illuminating the theatrical world before burning itself out.
It burst into life in a fit of passion: Swedish art collector Rolf de Mare decided that, in addition to his Picassos, Braques and Miros, he wanted to own a dance company. Especially since he'd just fallen in love with Borlin, a talented young dancer and burgeoning choreographer, to whom de Mare had been introduced by none other than Fokine (who had recently left Diaghilev for Stockholm's Royal Opera, which housed the dance company now called the Royal Swedish Ballet).
With the promise of higher pay and better ballets, de Mare lured away several dozen discontented dancers from the Royal Swedish Ballet to join his new venture, the Ballets Suedois. He founded the troupe in Paris in 1920, with Borlin as chief choreographer and leading dancer.
After nearly 3,000 performances of works uniting scores of writers, poets, painters, musicians and dancers, and successful tours throughout Europe and the United States, de Mare disbanded the company in 1925. His reason: He sensed the creativity of the time had been sapped and feared anything new would look like a retread. But historian Bengt Hager of the Stockholm Dance Museum offers another explanation. He says de Mare lost a great sum of money on the company, possibly embezzled by a theater manager in Paris. Also, Borlin was at that point exhausted and ill; in addition to choreographing and trying to reconcile the whims of different artists, he danced innearly every performance. He died shortly afterward at age 37.
De Mare was written off as a ballerina-stealing traitor in his homeland, where his ensemble was officially denounced. It is a sweet irony, then, that the Royal Swedish Ballet, the company that once hemorrhaged dancers to the renegade Ballets Suedois, is now the cradle of its rebirth.
But it was a Dane, not a Swede, who came up with the idea of a program of reconstructions to celebrate the Royal Swedish Ballet's 225th anniversary last year. Frank Andersen, the Danish-born director of the ballet company, saw the promise of a future project in a performance of the Hodson-Archer reconstruction of Borlin's "Skating Rink," which the couple originally created for the Zurich Ballet.
"I decided on the spot that we should do a full evening, bringing back the Ballets Suedois to Stockholm, and accepting and acknowledging the part played by the Royal Swedish Ballet," says Andersen. He asked Hodson and Archer to reconstruct three more works. (Hodson, an American, and Archer, who is British, have dominated the dance reconstruction field. In the '80s, they spent years researching and recreating Vaslav Nijinsky's lost "Rite of Spring," and have since exhumed other works by Nijinsky and Balanchine.)
For "Skating Rink," they had been lucky. They tracked down a former dancer named Zita Fiori who had performed a refigured version of the work with Borlin at a gala in 1929. One morning Hodson and Archer visited her in the mountains above Nice, France, where she had a home with a spacious gallery. The couple danced with the elderly woman, who glided around the room demonstrating how Borlin "would keep the body flat and parallel and really skate," recalls Hodson from her London home.
The amount of sheer guesswork varied with each work. For example, only black-and-white photos exist of "Dervishes"; coming up with a color palette took a leap of faith. But Hodson is convinced that armed with a substantial amount of historical data and a prepared mind, one can brush quite close to the original choreographic intent.
"There is a clarity at the center of the work, where things that are missing become so apparent," she says. "A logic and a clarity that others working with us also feel. I do believe that works of art have an energy that they contain and that they continue to communicate."
For her and Archer, she says, finding that clear center has become nothing less than a mission, worth the risks of inauthenticity.
"We have to intervene," says Hodson. "At the end we have to intervene because if we don't, the work will not exist." Besides, she says, after so much research, they have every reason to believe they are on the right track. The inspiration behind the reconstruction comes "not from voices and not from dreams and not from improvising loosely. It comes from a systematic approach."
For Hodson and Archer, the desire to delve into past works is not an end in itself. What they are aiming for, Hodson notes, is not to present the definitive historical truth but to come within striking distance--based on all available evidence--and with that, to inspire new creations. Insight into the artistic advances of the past--Borlin's methods, de Mare's ideas, their collaborators' visions--can fuel further original work.
"It's an act of artistic analysis that hopefully advances the art of the spectacle and doesn't just end with the reconstruction," says Hodson. "It should provoke other possibilities."
CAPTION: Carl Inger and Brendan Collins in "Within the Quota," a 1923 work resurrected by the Royal Swedish Ballet.
CAPTION: "El Greco," re-created by former Royal Swedish Ballet director Ivo Cramer, is among the works being performed this week at the Kennedy Center.