Watch Scenes from the “Pink Floyd Ballet:” When the Experimental Rock Band Collaborated with Ballet Choreographer Roland Petit (1972)

We all know that rock opera isn’t actu­al­ly opera. It bor­rows some of the clas­si­cal form’s affects—theatrical bom­bast and loud cos­tum­ing, which seem a nat­ur­al fit—but it doesn’t attempt the extreme for­mal rig­or. Rock and roll is loose, intu­itive, expres­sion­is­tic, best played by or to libidi­nous kids or kids-at-heart; opera is tight­ly con­trolled and per­formed by trained vocal gym­nasts to audi­ences of sophis­ti­cates. Both of these forms excel at emo­tive sto­ry­telling, but beyond that, with some rare excep­tions, their sim­i­lar­i­ties are most­ly cos­met­ic.

Now imag­ine not rock opera, but a rock bal­let. What could ath­let­ic Euro­pean clas­si­cal dance con­tribute to songs about sex and drugs? What could elec­tric gui­tars, drums, and key­boards do for pirou­ettes, arabesques, or grand jetés? Part of the prob­lem with such a mashup comes—as not­ed above—from the intrin­sic for­mal dif­fer­ences between the two. Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour put it well when he not­ed in 1973 that his band found bal­let “too restrict­ing for us. I mean, I can’t play and count bars at the same time.”

Yes, there was once a Pink Floyd bal­let, or, well, almost. For rea­sons that may or may not be obvi­ous, the attempt was not pop­u­lar, and it has not gone down in either rock or bal­let his­to­ry as a mem­o­rable event. But it was an inter­est­ing exper­i­ment, per­haps both more com­pelling and more inco­her­ent than one might think. An unusu­al col­lab­o­ra­tion between the prog-rock super­stars and French chore­o­g­ra­ph­er Roland Petit, the show first began to take shape in 1970 over a series of lunch­es and din­ner and drinks—as a high-con­cept adap­ta­tion of Proust.

But the com­po­si­tion did not come eas­i­ly. For one thing, the band couldn’t get through the source mate­r­i­al. “David did the worst,” remem­bers Nick Mason, “he only read the first 18 pages.” Roger Waters report­ed that he fin­ished “the sec­ond vol­ume of Swann’s Way and when I got to the end of it I thought, ‘Fuck this, I’m not read­ing any­more. I can’t han­dle it.’ It just went too slow­ly for me.” A com­mon com­plaint from attempt­ed read­ers of Proust. Petit then float­ed the idea of adapt­ing A Thou­sand and One Ara­bi­an Nights, then Franken­stein. At one point, Roman Polan­s­ki and Rudolph Nureyev were attached as direc­tor and star. There was talk of a film.

All of these schemes were aban­doned, includ­ing the plan for orig­i­nal music. “Nureyev, Polan­s­ki, and the 108-piece orches­tra,” writes Nicholas Schaffn­er, “were con­spic­u­ous in their absence.” In Petit’s even­tu­al piece, per­formed in Mar­seilles and Paris in 1972–73, the band “game­ly appeared… to pro­vide live ren­di­tions of ‘Care­ful with That Axe Eugene’ and three new­er works in which the Syd-less Floyd had at last dis­cov­ered its rai­son d’être: ‘Echoes,’ ‘One of These Days,’ and ‘Obscured by Clouds,’” among oth­er exist­ing songs. The whole endeav­or was con­sis­tent with the band’s oth­er extra-cur­ric­u­lar for­ays, into film and musique con­crete for exam­ple, but the rote recy­cling of mate­r­i­al was not.

The bal­let, notes Dan­ger­ous Minds, “wasn’t shot live, but an in stu­dio ver­sion was pro­duced in 1977.” (You can see a clip from that rather slick arti­fact at the top of the post.) The oth­er videos you see here come from rehearsals for the live 1973 shows (the clip sec­ond from top fea­tures inter­views with Petit and a shy, French-speak­ing Gilmour). It’s an odd affair: male dancers who all vague­ly resem­ble Bruce Lee—and pull off some Lee-like punch­es; inex­plic­a­ble syn­chro­nized line dances; dancers form­ing pairs to the har­row­ing screams of “Care­ful with That Axe, Eugene”; and a very con­tem­po­rary 70s feel over­all mark these per­for­mances as the kind of thing like­ly to feel deeply unsat­is­fy­ing to con­nois­seurs of either Pink Floyd or the bal­let.

Who, exact­ly, one won­ders, was the audi­ence for this? Maybe you’ll get some sense of the appeal in the brief inter­views and com­men­tary from the French jour­nal­ists in this rehearsal footage. Or per­haps a pro­gram from one of the Mar­seille per­for­mances sheds more light on the inten­tions behind this pro­duc­tion. Petit did sup­pos­ed­ly say, “It all began in the late ‘60s. One day my daugh­ter… gave me an album by Pink Floyd and said, ‘Dad, you have to make a bal­let with this music.’” After some ini­tial skep­ti­cism, “when I heard the music,” he remem­bers, “I agreed with my daugh­ter.” Per­haps he sim­ply couldn’t refuse her a request.

Those who did attend these shows may have been delight­ed, con­fused, bored, enraged, or some com­bi­na­tion of any of these emo­tions and more besides. As for the band’s strug­gles, Gilmour admits, “we had to have some­one sit­ting on stage with us with a piece of paper telling us what bar we were play­ing.” (Before you make a joke about how rock musi­cians can’t count, bear in mind most clas­si­cal play­ers can’t impro­vise.) At the end, how­ev­er, audi­ences wouldn’t have been left want­i­ng. “The bal­let cli­maxed,” Schaffn­er writes, “with a typ­i­cal­ly Floy­di­an flour­ish: ten cans of oil explod­ing like fire­balls from the front of the stage.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hear Lost Record­ing of Pink Floyd Play­ing with Jazz Vio­lin­ist Stéphane Grap­pel­li on “Wish You Were Here”

When Pink Floyd Tried to Make an Album with House­hold Objects: Hear Two Sur­viv­ing Tracks Made with Wine Glass­es & Rub­ber Bands

The “Lost” Pink Floyd Sound­track for Michelan­ge­lo Antonioni’s Only Amer­i­can Film, Zabriskie Point (1970)

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

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