Les Ballets Russes - Synopsis

Bronislawa Nijinska: Les Biches

Les Ballets Russes

Mikhail Fokine /
Bronislawa Nijinska /
Terence Kohler

Music by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Francis Poulenc and Pjotr I. Tchaikovsky

 

SHÉHÉRAZADE

When the curtain rises the Shah Sharyar is seated on the divan with his favourite wife, Zobéide, on his left hand and his brother, Shah Zeman, on his right. Zobéide solicits the caresses of her lord, but he is in an angry mood, for his brother has hinted that his wives are unfaithful. Sharyar summons the chief Eunuch, who commands three odalisques to entertain their lord with dances. But he soon tires of them and announces his intention of starting on a hunting expedition. The women entreat him to stay, but Zobéide suspects that the journey is a pretext of the Shahriar to seek the favours of another. But he is not to be deterred, and accompanied by his brother, passes out of the harem.

As soon as he is gone the women throng about the blue doors, then bring out caskets of jewels, with which they adorn themselves. Presently two of their number depart and return with the Chief Eunuch, whom they bribe to open the doors. From the first comes a group of slaves in rose, from the second a similar group in green. With ingratiating leers they soon make love to the women and, seizing the objects of their admiration, disappear among the shadows. The Chief Eunuch is now approached by Zobéide who bids him open the last door, which he does in great fear of the consequences. From this door emerges a single slave clad in gold, who fawns at Zobéide’s feet. Fruit and wine is brought in and musicians inflame passions with the thrumming of their tambourines. The women and slaves begin a dance which grows more and more passionate and soon becomes a wild orgy. As the orgy reaches its height, there return Shahriar, mad with rage, and his brother. With a dramatic gesture Shahriar raises his hand and guards, armed with flashing scimitars, pour into the harem and cut down slaves and women. The golden slave is the last to be slain.

Shahriar confronts Zobéide, sad at heart, that she, too, has proved unfaithful. He is minded to pardon her, when his brother indicates the body of her lover. At this his rage rekindles and he motions to the guards, but Zobéide snatches a dagger from the nearest and kills herself. As she expires, Shahriar buries his face in his hands.

 

LES BICHES

Scene and time: A summer afternoon on the Côte d’Azur; a villa with wide open windows and undoubtedly also open doors, furnished with an atmosphere of luxurious minimalism, favoured by the fashionable interior designers of the nineteen-twenties.

Dramatis personae: A crowd of young women (the “Biches” of the title*), a mysterious figure in blue, the sophisticated hostess and three rather sportive lads who in their tight-fitting bathing costumes cause the inevitable erotic confusion among the female element.

A frivolous game of flirtation (and behind the scenes maybe more than that): a mixture of giggling naivety and snobbery, the portrait of an age and a society, “the most stylish ballet ever invented”. It is a playful, slightly spiteful comment on the kind of fashionable party in which – although mirrored in a clearly defined epoch – the luxury craving “smart set” of all times can recognize themselves. 

With this work Bronislawa Nijinska pioneered neoclassicism in ballet, long before George Balanchine. After Fokine’s reforms and the avant-garde experiments of her brother Vaslav, Bronislawa Nijinska again used the pure, classical vocabulary in her choreographies, expressive both of the music and the dramatic situation, in a masterly way. The greatness of the music, choreography and setting allows “Les Biches” to transcend its era and speak to the discerning public of each new generation. 

*Les Biches is French for the young hinds, but figuratively also used for young ladies.