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Letter from Europe

  • — Issue 2013/13 posted by hidden europe on

Those looking to depart from convention in Paris usually head for the left bank. No-one goes to the Avenue des Champs-Elysées (on the right bank) looking for revolution. But cast back one hundred years this month and the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées was the venue for some radical departures from choreographic convention. It is an extraordinary building, one that in its style presciently anticipates what later came to be known as art deco. Although disquieted by the architecture, the citizens of the French capital were even more incensed by what went inside the building.

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Dear fellow travellers

Those looking to depart from convention in Paris usually head for the left bank. No-one goes to the Avenue des Champs-Elysées (on the right bank) looking for revolution. But cast back one hundred years this month and the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées was the venue for some radical departures from choreographic convention.

The theatre is on the Avenue Montaigne which cuts south from Champs-Elysées towards the river. The Avenue Montaigne is not regular hidden europe terrain. So much so that we felt decidedly out of place as we walked recently down the avenue towards the theatre. This is Louis Vuitton territory, a place for the chic set who know Dior from Bulgari.

The theatre opened in spring 1913. It is an extraordinary building, one that in its style presciently anticipates what later came to be known as art deco - although it was not until a dozen years later that the Swiss architect Le Corbusier gave a name to the architectural genre. For many Parisians, the assertive symmetry and reinforced concrete of the building was an affront. Although disquieted by the architecture, the citizens of the French capital were even more incensed by what went inside the building.

By 1913, Parisians had grown to love the regular saison russe. Each spring since 1909 the Ballets Russes had performed in the French capital, stealing the hearts of its citizens. Critics applauded the primitive energy of Diaghilev's dancers. Here was a touch of the East on the Paris stage. Suddenly there were Ballets Russes perfumes which added a new dimension to Paris scentscapes. Scheherazade-style pantaloons and even Cossack sabres became part of Parisian haute couture.

The 1913 season of the Ballets Russes was staged at the new Théâtre des Champs-Elysées. Nijinsky's Faune had raised a few eyebrows when it was premiered at the Théâtre du Châtelet on 29 May 1912. A year later to the day Le Sacre du Printemps had its first performance at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées. Every aspect of it was immensely provocative. Stravinsky's music, Roerich's costumes and set and above all the on-stage antics of lead dancer Vaslav Nijinsky incensed the audience. Russia had breached the bounds of Parisian convention and a riot erupted within the theatre.

As we approach the centenary of the premiere of Le Sacre du Printemps, it is good to remember that even around the sedate boulevards of the 8th arrondissement there is scope for revolution. The Théâtre des Champs-Elysées is still going strong, and will mark the centenary on 29 May with a performance of Le Sacre du Printemps that recalls Nijinsky's 1913 choreography in combination with a new staging by German choreographer Sasha Waltz.

Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries 

(editors, hidden europe magazine)

Posted in Places
This article was published in Letter from Europe.

About The Authors

hidden europe

and Susanne Kries manage hidden europe, a Berlin-based editorial bureau that supplies text and images to media across Europe. Together they edit hidden europe magazine. Nicky and Susanne are dedicated slow travellers. They delight in discovering the exotic in the everyday.