Jean Cocteau’s Surreal Spectacle

Following the horrific destruction of World War I, Paris countered the aftershocks with its own explosions of wildly original creativity, led by artist, writer, filmmaker and playwright Jean Cocteau.

click to enlarge concert:nova musicians at a previous performance
concert:nova musicians at a previous performance

Following the horrific destruction of World War I, Paris countered the aftershocks with its own explosions of wildly original creativity, led by artist, writer, filmmaker and playwright Jean Cocteau. His frequent collaborators were six composers dubbed with the highly original name “Les Six.”

Nothing bound the musicians other than friendship and appearing in concerts together, according to Darius Milhaud, one of Les Six. The others — Georges Auric, Louis Durey, Arthur Honegger, Francis Poulenc and Germaine Tailleferre — were simply chosen by a music critic writing on French music in 1920. Each composer’s style was distinctive and collaboration was never a priority.

But when it happened, sparks frequently flew. Cocteau’s outrageous satirical ballet The Wedding Party on the Eiffel Tower premiered in 1921, creating a scandal, thus ensuring frequent performances for at least a decade. concert:nova brings this succès de scandale to life with The Roaring ’20s, which also includes works by Les Six composers.

Cocteau wanted to create a spectacle, but he didn’t have multiple composers in mind. He commissioned Auric, but as the deadline neared, Auric begged his friends to help out and all except Durey pitched in.

For what it’s worth, here’s a plot summary: On Bastille Day, a wedding party luncheon group assembles on the Eiffel Tower’s first platform. A telegraph station appears, an ostrich jumps out of the photographer’s camera and a lion eats one of the guests. Cocteau originally wanted the title to be The Wedding Party Massacre, but cooler heads prevailed.

The most recent performance of The Wedding Party was in New York in 1989. concert:nova’s artistic director Ixi Chen came across it while doing research for last year’s cabaret that featured music of the French Belle Époque. “I’ve always been intrigued by these composers, and especially their collaborations,” she says.

Chen recruited two leading exemplars of French culture to head the cast:  Aimée Langrée — screenwriter, author, and wife of CSO music director Louis Langrée — and Jean-Robert de Cavel, who needs no introduction, star as Phonograph I and II, respectively. Langrée discovered the ballet as a teenager when she studied dance in Paris. Her research led her to re-create one of the dances. “I don’t remember much of what I danced,” she says, laughing, “but I do remember, with great pleasure, the great sense of farce, the circus atmosphere and sense of surrealism.”

de Cavel knew of Cocteau’s work from photographs, but he’d never heard of the ballet. He became a fan after the first rehearsal. “I love the fact that it makes no sense,” he says with his trademark mischievous grin.

Joining them onstage are actors Jodie Linver and Derek Snow and dancers Dawn Kelly and Britton Spitler. Everyone shares parts and dialogue — in English.

“It’s a challenge,” admits de Cavel with a laugh, “but I’m doing it for pleasure.” And fortunately for us, he’s not giving up his day jobs.

“It’s really fun getting back to that period of time that was so important,” he adds. “It’s what made Paris Paris.”

Langrée agrees. “After World War I, they had such a need to be creative, to have fun and push boundaries,” she says. “They were amazing.”

Langrée lived in Montparnasse, the same neighborhood that was home to many of these remarkable artists: Picasso, Modigliani, Chagall, Hamnett, Miró, as well as American artists dubbed the Lost Generation by Gertrude Stein, who also resided in Paris.

When asked to describe the irreverent ballet, Cocteau responded, “Sunday vacuity, ready-made expression … ferocity of childhood, the miraculous poetry of everyday life.” He also called it a grand spectacle, and like his other ballets, it’s an aesthetic manifesto, minus the rants.

concert:nova performs a special arrangement by Marius Constant for wind and string quintets, trumpet, trombone, harp and two percussionists. The score is hilarious, mocking all pretenses in the wedding and funeral marches and dances.


concert:nova presents THE ROARING ’20s Monday and Tuesday at The Transept (1205 Elm St., Over-the-Rhine). More info: concertnova.com.


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