November 5th, 2012 · Marc Arthur
On the evening of November 27, 1924, a large audience, including many artists such as Marcel Duchamp, André Breton and Fernand Leger, arrived at the Théâtre des Champs Élysées in Paris for the opening of Francis Picabia and Erik Satie’s much anticipated Relâche. They were surprised to find the theater closed with a large sign bearing “Relâche” plastered across the door. There was much confusion; “relâche” is a theater term used to describe a dark night, and audiences assumed the double entendre was another Dada prank. No amount of banging on the doors got the theater to open; rather, the audience was informed that the first performance of Relâche was cancelled because the choreographer and lead dancer, Jean Börlin, was ill.
It could not be more ironic that 88 years later Performa has been forced to postpone its own Relâche, due to the disastrous aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, as unstoppable surging waters hit New York a few days before the performance. Relâche-La Boume was to be a vibrant, re-imagined reconstruction of that famous evening, which Fernand Léger described as “a lot of kicks in a lot of backsides whether hallowed or not!” in his rave review of the performance when it eventually ran a week later. He also pointed out that this provocative event “burst the watertight division between ballet and music hall. Actor, dancer, acrobat, screen, stage, all these different means for creating a spectacle came together and rearranged themselves,” he wrote. While our star performer Ryan McNamara is fortunately in good health, he was delayed in Los Angeles and was unable to return to New York until flights resumed and airports reopened.
As with Relâche in 1924, Performa has rescheduled its gala. It will take place on November 29th, and it promises to be an extraordinary event with some new twists. In Picabia’s words, the evening will offer "perpetual movement, life, the quest for happiness; it is light, riches, luxury, love, removed from prudy and convention; without a moral for the fools, without studied artistic effects for the snobs."
Considered one of the most radical and vanguard theatrical works of 1920s Paris, Relâche was a dazzling performance that was neither ballet, film nor theater. As described by Picabia in a letter to Satie: “People will feel a sensation of newness of pleasure, the sensations of forgetting that one has to think and know in order to like something.” Relâche also brought together some of the most intriguing and adventurous artists of its time. Erik Satie composed his "furniture" music especially for the evening, Francis Picabia designed a set that featured a curtain of hundreds of bright lights that blinded the audience periodically throughout the performance, and it was choreographed and performed by Jean Börlin and the Ballets Suédois with cameo appearances by Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp. During a filmed intermission sequence by René Clair, discontinuous episodes and superimpositions portrayed Picabia hosing down Duchamp and Man Ray playing chess on top of a roof; a dancing ballerina filmed from underneath, only to be revealed as a bearded man; a huntsman shooting an ostrich egg, only to be shot himself; and a funeral hearse drawn by a camel. In a program note, Picabia correctly predicted that the film Entr'acte, which he commissioned Clair to make, would be a game-changer in the history of the twentieth century film when he said “the cinema is only now about to begin…”. Historian Chris Townsand describes the notorious Entr'acte as the formative moment of modern cinema because it “emphasizes projection of light in abstracted patterns and rhythms to other forms of performance and communication.”
Titling the piece Relâche emphasized a sense of irrationality that was core to the protagonists' Dada beliefs of rejecting reason and logic in favor of absurdity as a reaction to the devastation of WWI. Fellow Dada artist Tristan Tzara proclaimed as such in a song: “Dada, Dada, Dada, crying open the constricted pains, swallowing the contrasts and all the contradictions, the grotesqueries and the illogicalities of life.” In a playful manner, Relâche criticized the dominant and "bourgeois" ballets and realistic theater of the time. Nonsensical actions evolved throughout the night, including a fireman chain-smoking, a group of men in tuxedoes undressing to reveal polka dot leotards underneath, Man Ray pacing the stage taking measurements, gloomy dancers being carted around the stage in a wheelbarrow, and the creators of Relâche driving on stage in a mini Citroën car.
At the time of the performance, Francis Picabia was not speaking with poet and impresario André Breton because they were in conflict with some of the tenets of the Surrealist manifesto, published just one month before Relâche. Here is an excerpt from a 1923 poem that Picabia published in his 391 Journal:
“André Breton is insane, André Breton never said shit, André Breton lost his watch.”
Signs posted in the Théâtre des Champs Élysées read “If you’re not satisfied, go to hell!” and “Whistles are for sale at the door”, intended as criticism of Breton’s more erudite and highbrow intentions for Surrealism. Many of the artists in Relâche later became involved with Surrealism, and Relâche is considered the beginning of Surrealist movement.
Committed to bringing the history of artists’ performance to life in vibrant ways, Performa's Relâche takes us into the mind and spirit of those earlier times with a decidedly New York twist.
Marc Arthur is a writer and artist based in New York. He has worked at Performa since 2009, where he currently heads the Research and Archive Department.