Lisbon, September the 17th 2002
Each year, Culturgest organises a short homage to different artists (Martha Graham, José Limón, Josephine Baker, Merce Cunningham, etc). […] It is our pleasure to invite you to present for us a homage to Jean Cocteau’s The Young Man and Death which will be performed in Lisbon in June 2003.
António Pinto Ribeiro, Culturgest
This project came to life with this invitation. The Young Man and Death was first performed on 25 June 1946 at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées.
The Young Man and Death in my head, in September 2002:
A few vague images of a black and white film. Jean Babilée, extraordinary dancer.
Recollection marked by his heart-rending movements, his grey face taut, wounded, with an “exaggerated” expression’.
A choreography by Roland Petit.
A man sitting on a chair, his face buried in his hands.
Claire Sombert as a fearsome young girl, in black and white.
The memory of a man who hangs himself and a woman wearing a horrible death mask.
Black and grey.
The jerky movements of the hanging man’s legs, feet, arms and body.
The first scene from the movie White Nights. Intense colours.
Mikhail Baryshnikov, supple, energetic, surprising; plunged inside his desperate body. His pirouettes on a table’s edge, balancing on an unbalanced chair. Falls, leaps...
Jean Babilée’s slowed down and suspended falls. […]
A woman with a hard and impenetrable face, with straight black hair. (I don’t know if Claire Sombert was the other performer in this duet when first performed in ‘46).
A few short passages read in some books on the history of dance…
All this seems a long way from me, way back in time, difficult.
What a strange proposition!
What does it mean to pay homage?
How can I pay homage to a performance I haven’t actually seen?
Do I want to pay homage to it?
Why not pay homage to The Green Table or to Café Müller or any of a number of others?
Go to the theatre.
See performances, with others, anonymously.
Who can talk about it?
Who saw it? Who remembers?
I think about the people who were in the theatre in 1946, the audience, those who were affected by this performance, touched by it. I start speculating on the memories they might still have, that they would have retained of its story, of the characters, the performers, the choreography, the set, the costumes. I also think about the people who had been involved in the creation. I think about the young man and I think about death. What might these people still be retaining in their minds of any of that?
1946. That’s almost 57 years ago, nearly 58.
What’s left behind in me by a performance that I’ve seen by chance?
And by a performance that really made an impression on me?
What is so-called ‘living’ art?
What am I working on?
What is left of a work when those who saw it and those who made it are no longer there to remember, to make it come alive, in their heads, in other people’s heads? A few lines in a book…
October 22nd 2002
I decide to accept the invitation. It becomes my challenge: going off looking for members of the audience in the theatre in 1946 to interview them. Tell them nothing about the performance except when the interview is over. Try to bring out their memories, images, sensations, feelings, but revealing nothing.
I start looking into it.
I’m looking for a booklet that doesn’t exist.
(…) I look for the names of people who might have been in the audience.
(…) I make lists, obviously without really knowing who is still alive. I look at biographies and my lists become lists of dead people. (…) I’m looking for details, an address, a phone number. (…) I would like to find ordinary “genuine” spectators, what I mean is people who aren’t famous, who weren’t part of the artistic milieu at the time. (…)
Excerpts from my letter to Monsieur Jean Babilée, 24 March 2003:
The issue driving this project is this: how can we explore a seminal work in the history of dance when dance is understood as the living art. I thought it interesting to approach the question of what people who were present at the first performance of this work at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées actually remember of it, and the memories of people connected in some way to its very creation. I was born in another era, so I didn’t see this work when it was first performed. I have had access to some documents which do bring together some of the traces that it left behind, but I didn’t see either you or Nathalie Philippart dance: I didn’t experience this unique moment, in this unique context, in this theatre, a little more than a year after the end of the Second World War, in the context of suffering that all war engenders.
How can I approach this question if not by trying to explore the memories of people who shared this moment? […]
Public advertisement on the announcement pages of Le Figaro newspaper on 26 and 29 March 2003, and on the announcement pages of Le Monde newspaper on 16 April 2003:
The choreographer Olga de Soto is looking for people who were in the audience at the first performance of Cocteau’s The Young Man and Death at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in June 1946 to hear their eye-witness accounts.
One person replied to the advertisement. She’s going to write a letter. She lives in Nantes.
A second person rang. He’s a man living in Morbihan.
Three people rang. The first lives in Lyons, the second in Tourette-sur-Loup and the third in Cannes, but she didn’t leave her name.
A man from Boulogne rang today.
Three people rang, two live in Paris and the third in Bordeaux. (…)
In the end the booklet only contains a few lines written by Jean Cocteau in the programme for the production. I find contact details for Jean Babilée with the help of the Internet. In only a few weeks I meet Jean Babilée, Madame Evellin, Monsieur Stern and Monsieur Merlin. I meet Madame Hesse and Monsieur Genin. I won’t be able to meet everyone before June. Not enough money, not enough time, either to do it or to include all these accounts in the time I’ve been given: twenty minutes. I decide to divide the project up into stages and to make it follow the progression of my meetings. I devote myself to spectators in northern France. I leave the south for the winter, risking the fact that some of them won’t be there any more.
I transcribe the interviews: hours of talking. I work at the computer. It is the dance of the fingers. I give colours to phrases. I set myself transverse objectives to connect between them some of the interview contents. On paper, people begin to answer each other. And then my brother, the king of editing, turns up and the images of the spectators I’ve interviewed meet each other. They become actors.
In the beginning, a short story told by Jean Cocteau to Roland Petit, Wakhevitch, Karinska, Jean Babilée and Nathalie Philippart.
Cocteau died in 1963.
Roland Petit cannot be found.
Georges Wakhevitch died in 1984.
Karinska died in 1983.
Jean Babilée is in good health.
Nathalie Philippart, very difficult to find, very difficult to meet.
Boris Kochno, then Director of the Ballets des Champs Elysées, died in 1990.
Jean Robin, a trustee of the company at the time. Also in good health.
Vincent Druguet joins us in Brussels. With him we view the excerpts that we, my brother and I, have edited, on an old screen with a video projector. Begin working in the studio. I decide to devote myself to the first of four parts that I would like to envisage: that of the story told in the spectacle.
(…) Lisbon, first outline. A first stage.
Questions on the different meanings of the word story.
August – October 2003
I can’t stop looking for other spectators. I’d like to carry on with the project but, as always, the funds aren’t there.
I meet Frie Leysen and Christophe Slagmuylder in Brussels and show them the work I did in Lisbon. They are very moved by my material and by what I want to develop: they give me the opportunity to finish my research for the next Kunstenfestivaldesarts in May 2004. I leave again. New phone calls, new meetings, new words. I discover that great dancers of the time were there in 1946 watching as well.
I look in the south, Lyons, then Paris again. Time is moving on.
I get back in touch with the lady in Cannes, the one who replied to my advert last March but she doesn’t remember the advert nor our brief exchanges, nor The Young Man and Death.
November 24th 2003
I have received an email from Claire Verlet. She told me that the Centre National de la Danse would like to become a partner, and to co-produce the piece. It is the first time in my life that I receive such a proposition by mail. I am happy.
December 2003 – March 2004
Other faces have emerged from the past and I’ve continued recording other eyewitness accounts. There are nine of them now who have delved into their memories of The Young Man and Death digging them up some 60 years later, the impression this spectacle left on them, first performed as the war drew to a close. Memory is subjective; it has its low points of forgetfulness and its high points of lucidity, its accidents, its hesitations, but also sometimes astonishing hidden resources. histoire(s) lets voices and stories, cracked open by time, be heard.
The Young Man and Death is in them. They were young, some of them very young, today old and wrinkled. In their homes I took the time to listen to them, to watch them, to wait for them. Sometimes a memory that had returned gave them children’s eyes again. The emergence of traces of what’s been left behind is like a flash of light.
What is left, or part of what is left, is there, just above the skin.
I continue to imagine a film montage, like a choreography, where the source material is the word, the intention, and the intonation. The emotions rushing back are diffracted counterpoints based on the same subject. Where are they taking me? Sometimes somewhere else, a long way from the initial theme. Sometimes very close. I’d like to continue acting as a catalyst.
During editing, lots of questions. Complex. They touch on human beings, on their words, on their memories. How can these voices be put together without letting them down? How can a rhythm of the spectacle be adjusted without betraying their own rhythms? How can a movement be articulated which is anchored in a common history – collective memory – then drifting at the same time wherever personal memories, their stories, take it?
© Olga de Soto, 2004.