In 1924, Le Train Bleu inspired a ballet of the same name, created by Serge Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes, with a story by Jean Cocteau, costumes by Coco Chanel and a scenic curtain painted by Pablo Picasso. I had seen many of their fabulous costumes at the Melbourne Exhibition but knew nothing about the ballet Le Train Blue. Now I am interested in the Ballets Russes because of the collaboration between artists of different media and from vastly different nations.
The French composer Darius Milhaud was commissioned to write the music for Le Train Bleu by impressario Serge Diaghilev. As contemporaries expected, the setting for the ballet was an English Channel beach resort when the aristocratic women and the playboys came out to parade in their elegant and oh so modern bathing suits. Games and socialising were portrayed against the ocean sounds in the background. The ambiance Milhaud sought was that of a light and friendly French operetta. Yet when opened in Paris, Milhaud was attacked for lack of seriousness and occasional vulgarity.
Picasso's Women Running on the Beach 1922, backdrop for Le Train Bleu, 1924
Picasso’s backdrop for Le Train Bleu, a giant 10.4 x 11.7 m in size, was called Women Running On The Beach, bounding over the sand against a deep blue sea and sky. Not quite original, the design was actually an enlargement of "Women Running on the Beach", a watercolour he had done in 1922. I don’t like this image because the women were muscular giants. But I suppose the drop curtain was typical of Picasso‘s early 1920s work in its monumentality and neo-classicism.
Russian Bronislava Nijinska (Vaslav’s sister) choreographed five modern ballets for the Diaghilev's Russian Ballet during the period 1921-6. For Le Train Bleu, Nijinska created a special ambiance through the language of dance. She introduced angular and geometrical movements and organised dancers on stage as interactive groups that reminded the viewers of golf, tennis and beach games. Nijinska herself performed in the role of a tennis player. Nijinska worked with plot writer Jean Cocteau and composer Darius Milhaud.
French designer Coco Chanel created the costumes for Le Train Bleu, a ballet that brought together tennis players, golf champions and sun bathers searching for adventure. Diaghilev’s directions for the costumes were: “Instead of trying to remain this side of the ridiculous in life, to come to terms with it, I would push beyond. To be truer than true.” So rather than designing special theatrical costumes for Le Train Bleu, Chanel dressed the dancers in actual sports clothes from her collection. She didn’t attempt to veil reality; rather, she brought it to life.
Some of Chanel's costumes for Le Train Bleu, 1924
Let me add one more element of international collaboration, many thanks to ballet magazine. English dancer Anton Dolin was born in 1904. His mother took the young lad to the Coliseum to see the great Astafieva, who impressed him so strongly that he insisted on taking lessons from her: a key decision, as it was in Astafieva's studio that he was first seen by Diaghilev. He appeared briefly in the famous Sleeping Princess season in 1921, and joined Diaghilev's company formally when he was 19. Although he only danced with the company for two seasons in all, he took many leading roles. And here is the important point for this particular post. The great Nijinska created for him the lead in Le Train Bleu, which was so closely tailored to his extraordinary athletic dancing that no one else ever did it.
Some tiny amount of footage has survived from Ballets Russes in this period (1923-8). Since Diaghilev refused to allow any of his company’s performances to be filmed, it is a miracle that The History Blog found any film at all. It was taken, apparently, in Montreux in Switzerland during their annual June festival, Fêtes des Narcisses.