16 September 2020 – 11 January 2021
For the 1924 season, Serge Diaghilev, the illustrious director of the Ballets Russes, commissioned a ballet from some prominent young artists. He chose those who best embodied a moment that he wanted to be light and elegant: Francis Poulenc for the score, Bronislava Nijinska – sister of the famous dancer – for the choreography, and Marie Laurencin for the sets and costumes.
Marie Laurencin (1883-1956), Les Biches, 1923
© RMN-Grand Palais (musée de l'Orangerie) / Hervé Lewandowski © ADAGP, Paris 2020
Working perfectly together, these three young artists created a "ballet of atmosphere" without any plot or narrative, and whose only real theme was desire: a few sophisticated young women and three young men are gathered in a huge room bathed in sunlight, furnished only with an enormous blue sofa, where they engage in refined gallant banter and much irony. The libretto is summed up in the title, Les Biches. Thirty years later, Poulenc recalled in Entretiens avec Claude Rostand: "I was looking for an animal title, like Les Sylphides, and suddenly I cried out: ‘Why not Les Biches?’ playing on the animal side of some of Laurencin's women, and on the double meaning of the word 'biche' in the French language. This is the reason why Biches cannot be translated into English". The day after the ballet opened in Monte Carlo on 6 January 1924, the press was abuzz with praise. "Les Biches is a sparkling work of youth and joy" commented Le Matin.
Marie Laurencin threw herself enthusiastically into this first experience of designing sets and costumes even though she already had a highly successful career. She had been Guillaume Apollinaire’s partner and was involved with the early Cubists. After the First World War spent far from Paris, she took her place once again on the art scene producing portraits of society figures such as Jean Cocteau, Baroness Gourgaud, Coco Chanel and Lady Cunard. Her dealers accompanied her, Paul Rosenberg above all, but also Paul Guillaume who became a close friend. Guillaume retained in his collection, the composition, which, produced on a large scale, was used for the stage curtain for the performance. A number of characteristics that defined Laurencin’s paintings from then on, were established with these sets. Cocteau would refer to her as "A graceful ambiguity, a gazelle".