Dali does dance

14 July 2009 | By admin

One of the many astonishing works now on display at the National Gallery of Victoria’s Salvador Dali retrospective is a rare clip from Bacchanale, a Dali-designed ballet. By Margot Anderson.

Presented by the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, Bacchanale received its world premiere at New York’s Metropolitan Opera on November 9, 1939. With the set, costumes and libretto created by Spanish-born Surrealist artist Salvador Dali, Bacchanale caused a sensation in the New York dance world. It also marked the beginning of Dali’s 30-year association with dance and the debut of his collaboration with choreographer Leonide Massine.

The story line traced the mounting delirium of King Ludwig II and was Dali’s attempt at a psychoanalytical ballet. Audiences were confronted by an assortment of bizarre images including dancing umbrellas, a corps de ballet on crutches, dancers with giant fish heads, and Lola Montez in harem pants and a hoop skirt trimmed with false teeth. Dali’s set was dominated by an enormous swan, with a large hole in its breast through which the dancers made their entrances.

The weeks leading up to Bacchanale’s debut read like a Hollywood screenplay, and for those involved must have seemed just as nightmarish as the scenes Dali created on stage. The work had originally been scheduled to open on September 4, 1939 at Covent Garden, but the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo was forced to leave London when England declared war on Germany on September 3. The company arrived in New York having left the costumes for Bacchanale behind in Paris, where they had been constructed over many weeks by the famous French fashion designer Coco Chanel.

The task of constructing a new set of costumes fell to the legendary Russian costumer Barbara Karinska. With only copies of Dali’s original sketches to guide her, she re-created 60 costumes in just one week. The performance itself was famously delayed while Karinska worked feverishly to complete the costumes amidst chaotic scenes backstage.

Margot Anderson is a Curator working with the Arts Centre’s Performing Arts Collection in Melbourne

Image: Bacchanale, Salvador Dalí