Watch the 1917 Ballet “Parade”: Created by Erik Satie, Pablo Picasso & Jean Cocteau, It Provoked a Riot and Inspired the Word “Surrealism”

In 1917, a hand­ful of Europe’s lead­ing avant-garde artists col­lab­o­rat­ed on a project that it’s hard to believe actu­al­ly exists. Con­ceived “in the fer­tile, cre­ative mind of Jean Cocteau,” writes Muse­wor­thy, the bal­let Parade com­bined the tal­ents of Cocteau, Erik Satie, Pablo Picas­so, and Sergei Diaghilev’s dance com­pa­ny the Bal­lets Russ­es in a cubist slice of dream­like life. Its brings pop­u­lar enter­tain­ments into the high art of bal­let, some­thing sim­ply not done at the time, and fea­tures a very ear­ly use of sound effects in the score, added by Cocteau, to Satie’s annoy­ance. Parade was Satie’s first bal­let and the first (but not the only) time he would work with Picas­so.

Cocteau’s short, one-act sce­nario presents us with a troupe of car­ni­val per­form­ers try­ing to entice passers­by into their shows. They are unsuc­cess­ful, this troupe, con­sist­ing of a Chi­nese magi­cian,  young Amer­i­can girl, a pair of acro­bats, a horse, and sev­er­al dancers in huge card­board cubist cos­tumes so heavy and awk­ward they can hard­ly move.

But “if any­one found Picasso’s cos­tume designs a bit wacky, they’d sure be pleased with his gor­geous set designs,” Muse­wor­thy notes, point­ing out the back­drop above. Indeed it was hard­ly unusu­al for an avant-garde mod­ernist painter to design for the bal­let; “Sal­vador Dali, Marc Cha­gall, Andre Derain, Joan Miro, and Léon Bakst all worked on cos­tumes and scenery, much of it for the Bal­lets Russ­es.”

But there was some­thing espe­cial­ly infu­ri­at­ing about this piece for audi­ences. (You can see an excerpt from a recent pro­duc­tion at the top, and a low qual­i­ty video of a longer per­for­mance above.) The pre­miere pro­voked an even big­ger riot than Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring had four years ear­li­er. It’s said that Erik Satie was slapped in the face by an angry attendee. “Crit­ics weren’t much kinder than the mass­es,” Muse­wor­thy adds. After one scathing review, Satie sent the crit­ic angry post­cards call­ing him a “block­head,” “cretin,” and an “arse.” He was con­vict­ed of libel but man­aged to evade a prison sen­tence.

Picas­so, on the oth­er hand, “came out of the Parade deba­cle quite well” and would mar­ry one of the dancers, Olga Khokhlo­va the fol­low­ing year. His high­ly-regard­ed design and cos­tum­ing part­ly inspired the poet Guil­laume Apol­li­naire to coin in his pro­gram notes the word “sur­re­al­ism” before Sur­re­al­ism became an artis­tic phe­nom­e­non in Paris. As such, Parade should maybe be required view­ing for every stu­dent of Sur­re­al­ist art, dance, film, etc. from Dali to David Lynch.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Watch an Avant-Garde Bauhaus Bal­let in Bril­liant Col­or, the Tri­adic Bal­let First Staged by Oskar Schlem­mer in 1922

A Son­ic Intro­duc­tion to Avant-Garde Music: Stream 145 Min­utes of 20th Cen­tu­ry Art Music, Includ­ing Mod­ernism, Futur­ism, Dadaism & Beyond

Hear Igor Stravinsky’s Sym­phonies & Bal­lets in a Com­plete, 32-Hour, Chrono­log­i­cal Playlist

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (5)
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  • trevor richard wells says:

    you have failed to men­tion: chore­og­ra­phy by Léonide Mas­sine, who starred in the pro­duc­tion and is pic­tured in the pho­to­graph above -

  • Ariane Csonka says:

    Unbe­liev­able that this arti­cle omits Léonide Mas­sine, whose bril­liant chore­og­ra­phy made rhe whole piece mag­i­cal.

  • Mark Carlson says:


  • Maya Chafe says:

    And the Cuadro Fla­men­co that is men­tioned above, where are they? Who were they? Was that Ruth St Denis and Ted Shawn, who had a per­for­mance in San­ta Bar­bara, Ca in the ear­ly 1920’s with their group of the same name?

  • Andrew Foster says:

    Olga Khokhlo­va nev­er danced in Parade. The two wom­en’s roles were danced by Lydia Lopoko­va (acro­bat) and Maria Cha­bel­s­ka (Amer­i­can girl).

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