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Geneva resurrects classic ballet out of Africa

Detail from Fernand Léger's "L'escalier" 1913. Pro Litteris

Geneva's Art and History Museum is currently exploring how African culture influenced leading European artists in the early 20th century by resurrecting the classic ballet, La Création du Monde.

The ballet was considered a groundbreaking work when it was first staged in 1923, both because of its use of Africa as a reference point and because of composer Darius Milhaud’s pioneering mix of jazz and classical music.

The rarely seen ballet is to be performed next month at Geneva’s Grand Theatre. But visitors can get a foretaste by visiting “Fernand Léger and African Art”.

The exhibition, which runs until March 4, features models of the original décor and sketches for the costumes, all designed by Léger, the celebrated French modernist.

“Unlike a lot of artists, Léger was not that interested in African art, says Cesar Mänz, director of the Art and History Museum and curator of the exhibition. “But Léger carefully studied African sculptures and masks to come up with some very striking costumes. I think he got a very good result.”

The project was a major departure for Léger, whose main motivation was to work with other great figures of the time. The poet, Blaise Cendrars, devised the storyline, Milhaud composed the score and Jean Börlin was the choreographer.

“It was a new artistic expression and the critics were not that positive,” Mänz told swissinfo. “But this ballet is important because it is a happy constellation of great talents.”

The exhibition does not just concentrate on La Création du Monde, though. It plots the developments that led to Léger’s brief flirtation with African art.

The museum has borrowed a large number of African and Oceanic treasures from Geneva’s Barbier-Mueller Museum, which contains one of the best collections of primitive art in Europe.

These works help to show how African art was discovered and brought back to a fascinated European public in the 19th century. They have been placed alongside great works by the likes of Picasso, Klee, Rouault, Braque and Matisse to demonstrate clearly how they influenced the masters.

“They were searching for new artistic expressions, and wanted to move away from classical art,” Mänz explains. “African art was one element in the revolution they brought about.”

La Création du Monde was merely, as Mänz says, a “parenthesis” in Léger’s life and work. Other more typical paintings completed around the same period also form part of the exhibition, putting the African experiment into a wider context.

The ballet itself is being revived thanks to the work of the British choreographers, Kenneth Archer and Millicent Hodson. It will be performed by the Grand Theatre Ballet on December 15, 16 and 17.

by Roy Probert

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