Described as the first of Dalí's “paranoiac” spectacles, Bacchanale (originally Venusberg) was principally intended to open in London, but plans were changed dramatically upon the outbreak of war in September 1939, and the production moved to the Metropolitan Opera House in New York. Dalí designed both the set and the costumes, which were produced by Coco Chanel, and the choreography was arranged by Léonide Massine for the Ballet Russes de Monte Carlo (see fig. 1). The project presented Dalí with an opportunity to elaborate upon his Surrealist iconography on a truly epic scale. This experience proved highly influential upon his art, inspiring Dalí to explore the genre in greater depth.
While the choreographers Diaghilev and de Basil had employed other Surrealists to conceive of costumes or decorations, Léonide Massine was the first to use Dalí exclusively to design the libretto, costumes, decorations and backdrop to create everything within the framework of the artist's extraordinary vision. Dalí created the maquette between March and May of 1939, and the set was scrupulously completed between the end of May and August of 1939 in the Ballet Russe workshop in Monte Carlo under the leadership of Alexandre Schervachidze (see fig. 2). Dalí was directly involved in many details of the final curtain and backdrop, adding elements only he could have imagined, such as the faceless woman reclining along the frieze that also appears in his painting L’Énigme sans fin of that same year (see fig. 3).
Based on the Wagner opera Tannhäuser, Bacchanale details the dreams of mad King Ludwig II of Bavaria in which stories from Greek mythology, most prominently Leda and the Swan, mingle with historical figures like famed courtesan Lola Montez. The premiere in 1939 garnered both praise and derision. Jack Anderson described the critics responses: “The season's scandal was Bacchanale... Dalí's decor was dominated by a huge swan with a hole in its breast through which dancers emerged, some in remarkable costumes. There was a woman with a rose-colored fish-head. Lola Montez wore harem trousers and a hoop skirt decorated with false teeth. The Knight of Death turned out to be an immense perambulating umbrella. Later, when Ludwig died, a whole set of umbrellas opened on stage. Prudish audiences blushed to behold the male ensemble with large red lobsters…on their thighs, and Nini Theilade, portraying Venus, created a sensation because she seemed totally nude. In actuality, she wore flesh-colored tights from her neck to her toes...” (Jack Anderson, The One and Only: The Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, New York, 1981, n.p.).
George Verdak, a charismatic teacher and ex-dancer of the Ballet Russe de Mont Carlo, along with William Glenn, founded a dance program at Butler University in 1959. When the Monte Carlo company shuttered in 1968, George Verdak organized the donation of the backdrop and set decorations to Butler University. The original wooden swan which sat in front of the opening of the backdrop was destroyed before the donation, likely due to the difficulties it represented for preservation.
Typifying Dalí’s sheer creative energy, the stage set is executed with sensitivity and delicacy, all the while underscoring the iconic elements so celebrated in his oeuvre that have come to define him as a pioneer of Surrealism.
This work has been requested for the forthcoming exhibition, Picasso to Hockney: Treasures from the Tobin Collection of Theatre Arts, to be held at the McNay Art Museum, San Antonio, Texas in Fall 2019.
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