The Surrealist Parade

May 18: The controversial avant-garde ballet Parade premiered in Paris on this day in 1917. The production was a collaboration of some of modernism’s most famous — music by Erik Satie, scenario by Jean Cocteau, cardboard cubist costumes by Picasso, dancing by Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes company, choreography by Leonide Massine, and program notes by Guillaume Apollinaire, these describing the event as “a kind of surrealism,” the first print usage of that word. If Parade is now regarded as “the first modern ballet” and “an event which revolutionized the notion of the avant-garde itself,” there was a riot on opening night, with everyone involved labeled “cultural anarchists” by the critics. Satie responded by sending the press a series of inflammatory postcards, for which he was charged with “public injury and defamation of character,” and given a sentence of a week in jail (later suspended).

Even Satie’s eccentric friends remarked on his eccentricities — the velvet suits, the white food diet, the avoidance of sunshine. He lived alone in a bed-and-chair apartment into which no one was ever invited, say his biographers. In the apartment after his death, they found dozens of his trademark umbrellas, and a number of musical score manuscripts tucked into the suit pockets, or behind the bed, some of them annotated with the famous subtitles — “Veritable Flabby Preludes for a Dog,” “Sketches and Exasperations of A Big Boob Made of Wood,” “Three Pieces in the Shape of a Pear,” etc. “Satie gave comic titles to his music,” said Cocteau, “in order to protect his works from persons obsessed with the sublime.”

Sublimity, or the prevailing and exclusive notion of artistic decorum, was Parade‘s target. The attempt to “create something new and representative of our own age” led to a fifteen-minute parade of modern styles, sounds, and images — ragtime and jazz, advertising and the cinema, the circus and the music hall, foghorns and clacking typewriters. Picasso’s cubist backdrops and costumes contributed to the discord; made of wood, metal, cloth, papier-mache, and other materials, some of the costumes were ten feet tall, and many were so rigid that the dancers could only stomp about robotically.


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.