Picasso contributed to ten ballet productions, including six for the Ballets Russes. His involvement was sometimes limited to just a stage curtain, or instructions for making one - this is the case for example for Le Train bleu (1924) and Le Rendez-vous (1945). However, between 1917 and 1924, he was very actively involved in four major productions: Parade (1917), The Three-Cornered Hat (1919), Pulcinella (1920) and Mercure (1924), ballets for which he designed sets, costumes and stage curtains.
These creations coincided with Picasso moving away from the Cubist style. After a decade of systematic research, which took him from the Proto-Cubism of Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907) to Synthetic Cubism, he began to explore new directions. He started once again to produce naturalist drawings in 1915. Neo-classical and Cubist elements coexisted in Parade. Picasso continued to incorporate little touches of the Cubist style into his different creations, before replacing them with a first form of Surrealism in Mercure. As such, the artist's successive changes were reflected in the world of ballet.
From the 1970s onwards, some of these ballets were recreated by the Paris Opera. After Parade, recreated in 1979 on the occasion of a tribute to Erik Satie, The Three-Cornered Hat, Le Train bleu and Le Rendez-vous were all added to the Opera repertoire in 1992. Five of Picasso's ballets – including Icare, in a new production created at the Palais Garnier in 1962 – currently feature in the institution's repertoire.
Composed by Cocteau, Parade's plot is very simple: in front of a tent, performers try to persuade audience members to come in to watch their show by giving them a preview of their numbers (the "parade"). Cocteau wanted to draw on the "life force" present in the circus to "fertilise" a theatrical art considered to be moribund. This project could not have been better suited to Picasso - particularly drawn to the world of entertainers, he identified with Harlequin, the "melancholic double" who featured prominently in his work. Upon Cocteau’s request, he agreed to participate, alongside Massine and the composer Erik Satie. He created a Cubist set, which contrasted with the neo-classicism of his stage curtain. Furthermore, Picasso made significant changes to the ballet. He introduced the characters of the managers, whose costumes were designed as Cubist sculptures, as well as a "horse suit" number, based on the one he had seen at the Cirque Medrano. His costumes largely contributed to the scandal of the creation of Parade, which nevertheless ended up attaining success.
Following the success of Parade, Diaghilev invited Picasso to participate in a second, entirely Spanish ballet, El Sombrero de tres picos (The Three-Cornered Hat), based on the picaresque novel by Pedro de Alarcón. Manuel de Falla composed the music and Massine was once again in charge of the choreography, guided by Félix Fernandez, a flamenco dancer. The plot of the ballet unfolds around the characters of the miller and his wife, who is coveted by the governor of the province. After many twists and turns, the governor is beaten, before the crowd launches into a final jota, a traditional Spanish dance. Picasso created the softly coloured set, which was both naturalistic and subtly Cubist, and against which his highly colourful costumes, inspired by popular attire, stood out vividly. The Three-Cornered Hat, which took him back to his Andalusian roots, allowed him to express his passion for bullfighting, which he infused into the ballet: he had matador and picador dance among the villagers, and depicted an arena on a bullfighting day on the stage curtain.
In April 1917, the Ballets Russes toured Italy, performing in Rome before moving on to Naples. While Picasso worked on Parade, Diaghilev and Massine gathered the materials for a new ballet, inspired by Commedia dell'Arte. Adapting an 18th century Neapolitan play, Massine wrote the plot of Pulcinella a few months later. Having collected manuscripts attributed to Jean-Baptiste Pergolèse (1710-1736), Diaghilev suggested to Igor Stravinsky that he use them to compose the music for a new ballet. Picasso joined the project in December 1919 and produced a first series of sketches evoking the aesthetics of the Second Empire. After several refusals from Diaghilev, he opted for a night street scene: Naples was depicted according to Cubist principles, overlooking Vesuvius. The costumes he designed borrowed both from 18th century attire and Neapolitan folk traditions, which he had discovered in 1917. Pulcinella was premiered by the Ballets Russes at the Paris Opera on 15 May 1920.
In 1924, Diaghilev and Cocteau created Le Train bleu. Upon request, Picasso agreed for one of his paintings to be reproduced as a stage curtain. At the same time, Count Étienne de Beaumont launched a competing project. For his "Soirées de Paris", he put together a team formed of Satie, Massine and Picasso, to whom he commissioned a ballet based on the god Mercury.
Picasso had carte blanche. Moving away from Cubism, he created surrealist "plastic poses" - the Three Graces appeared in drag, and some characters were represented by mobile sculptures. The artist also explored a new technique, based on continuous lines - this style, known as "calligraphic" or "curvilinear", would feed into his work in the following years.
When Mercure premiered on 15 June, 1924, a group of Dadaists led by André Breton and Louis Aragon initiated a cabal targeting Satie and Beaumont. A few days later, however, they painted a complimentary portrait of Picasso in the press - his last major ballet thus marked his entry into surrealism.
In 1962, Serge Lifar was invited by the Paris Opera to recreate his ballet Icare. The plot he composed was inspired by Greek mythology - with the wings made by his father Daedalus, Icarus launches himself into the air, but intoxicated by the act of flying, he goes too close to the sun, the wax of his wings melts and he falls into the sea. Created in 1935, the ballet was a manifesto where the dancing was choreographed separately from the music. In addition to the choreography, Lifar was in charge of the "rhythms" that accompany it, orchestrated by Arthur Honegger.
For this reproduction, the former dancer designed new costumes himself and suggested to his friend Picasso, whom he had met through the Ballets Russes in the 1920s, that he create the set and stage curtain. Picasso had not worked on any more ballets since 1924, with the exception of a curtain for Roland Petit's Le Rendez-vous (1945), based on an existing design. The artist nevertheless agreed to design this new piece - he provided Lifar with a sketch reminiscent of another "fall of Icarus", that of the fresco he painted in 1958 for the UNESCO headquarters.
Back to top