“Relâche”, which means “Theatre Closed” or “No Performance”, is one of those avant-garde ballets posterity loves to remember. The “Instantaneous Ballet in Two Acts”, as it was described at its premiere at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in Paris, 1924, was cooked up by painter Francis Picabia, a key figure in the Dadaist movement, who clearly envisaged something bright and unsettling: his stage design included a backdrop of 370 metal disks which each had an electric light blazing forth at its centre.
“Relâche” is not easy to come by today; the last reconstruction I know of is the Joffrey Ballet’s in 1980, with choreography by Moses Pendleton. So this production by Turning Point Ensemble, a large chamber group founded in 2002, was an important one, co-presented with the 2010 Cultural Olympiad and Simon Fraser University.
The original choreographer of “Relâche” was Jean Börlin, a classically trained Swedish dancer with Rolf de Maré’s Ballets Suédois, who was talked about by some in the same breath as Nijinsky. After their first season in Paris in 1920, the Ballets Suédois was considered the successor of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes.
For the current production, Turning Point commissioned choreography from Simone Orlando, who worked with them previously on Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale. Vancouver-born Orlando has been a dancer with Ballet British Columbia for over ten years and was with Desrosiers Dance Theatre in Toronto before that. For several years, Orlando has been moonlighting as a choreographer and in 2006 she received the Clifford E. Lee Choreography Award.
The ballet, set to a score by French composer Erik Satie, was well situated in an all-Satie evening. The first act was given over to three shorter pieces: “Trois Mélodies de 1886”, a divinely romantic trio of songs written when Satie was twenty, featuring soprano Phoebe MacRae, and the more playful “Mercure” and “Sports et divertissements”.
And now – cue the drum roll – “Relâche” in 2009 North America, at the downtown Vancouver Playhouse Theatre. Okay, it was tamer than expected – how could it not be? What would shock today’s audiences? Given that, Orlando’s choreography did successfully amuse and, what’s more, provide a fully contextualised screening of René Clair’s classic silent film, “Entr’acte” (which means interlude or intermission), part of the original ballet.
The musicians moved to the pit for “Relâche”, along with Turning Point’s co-artistic director and conductor Owen Underhill, leaving the stage free. Edmond Kilpatrick, the former Ballet BC dancer cast as “A Man”, sits upstage making paper boats. A firefighter in a hardhat and bright yellow safety suit crosses the stage. A screen drops down from the flies, the music begins and so does the opening section of Clair’s film. It’s the part where two gentlemen (Satie and Picabia) romp about with a cannon on a rooftop high above Paris. Then, as in the original, the dance begins. Orlando keeps the original in mind throughout, taking images and ideas from the 1924 production, including the paper boat that is superimposed floating in the sky in the film and the firefighter from Börlin’s staging.
Tiffany Tregarthen, the young Vancouver dancer who co-directs Out Innerspace Dance Theatre and was cast as “A Woman”, rises from her seat in the audience and strolls on stage in high heels and tailored pants. She removes the shoes before she and Kilpatrick begin a long-limbed pas de deux, angular and thoughtful. Four lads with wool caps enter – Scott Augustine, Josh Beamish, Mackenzie Green-Dusterbeck and David Raymond – in a jostling, playful mood, walking cockily or crouching lightly.
The film returns, a montage of cuts and superimpositions that is giddy with movement, accompanied by Turning Point’s rendition of Satie’s assertive strings, bright horns and drum rolls. “Entr’acte” is a lover’s cornucopia of the tricks of the cinematic trade, made at a time when film was still a relatively new and wondrous medium whose possibilities seemed endless, especially for the surrealist imagination. “Look,” the film seems to shout with each abrupt cut and crazy image, “look and be amazed!” We see a deflating doll’s head, an inflating doll’s head, a shot of a ballerina in silk stockings and garter belt filmed from below, a pair of eyes superimposed over water and an upside-down head. There’s a slow-motion chase scene with mourners following a hearse that careens down the streets of Paris and, at the very end, there’s a marvelous bit of movie magic when Börlin leaps out of the coffin with a wand and makes everyone disappear, including himself.
Back on stage, the main set piece comes into play: it’s comprised of three large frames joined together at the centre, and the quartet casts lumbering shadows on the white screen of one of them; at other times, they spin the whole thing around.
The firefighter re-enters with a hose and fills a small bucket with enough water for a large bath (a bit of stage magic courtesy of set designer Greg Snider). Tregarthen stretches forward thoughtfully, her back flat; occasionally, upright, she kicks a long leg up into the air. The lads play with one of the paper boats and all four help Tregarthen out of her grey T-shirt, revealing a purple one underneath; she later slips out of that and is left in a sleeveless tank top. The cool pas de deux returns, with Kilpatrick lifting Tregarthen, who stretches out stiff as a plank. “I don’t get it,” shouts one of the lads, hovering nearby.
The ending is given over to the firefighter, who climbs out of the bright yellow coat and pants, removes the hardhat and turns out to be a young woman (Heather Dotto) in a red and black party dress. Facing us, Dotto arches back so sharply that her head disappears from view and all we see are her torso and legs as she swishes one arm about in front of her, drawing forceful patterns in the air.
Cyril Beaumont, writing in 1937 in his “Complete Book of Ballets”, says: “Relâche was an experiment in ultra-modernism and is certainly the most advanced example seen to date.” It was also, Beaumont notes, “the first ballet to make use of the cinematograph to project a series of images intended to evoke a mood in accord with the spirit of the piece.” Interdisciplinary dance projects are old hat by now, and the whole idea of modernism as a state of high grace is largely seen as somewhat, well, old-fashioned. Perhaps that’s why Orlando opted for a friendlier rather than a cutting edge “Relâche”. In any case, the ballet, situated within an evening devoted to Satie, gained resonance and musical context, and the evening was a rare treat for fans of Satie and Clair. It also served to remind us of the somewhat forgotten name of Börlin.