Les biches (French: [le biʃ]) ("The Hinds" or "The Does", or "The Darlings")[n 1] is a one-act ballet to music by Francis Poulenc, choreographed by Bronislava Nijinska and premiered by the Ballets Russes on 6 January 1924 at the Salle Garnier in Monte Carlo. Nijinska danced the central role of the Hostess. The ballet has no story, and depicts the random interactions of a group of mainly young people in a house party on a summer afternoon.
The ballet was seen in Paris and London within a year of its premiere, and has been frequently revived there; it was not produced in New York until 1950. Nijinska directed revivals of the ballet for several companies in the four decades after its creation. Les biches, with recreations of Marie Laurencin's original costumes and scenery, remains in the repertoire of the Paris Opera Ballet, the Royal Ballet and other companies. The music has been used for later ballets, although they have not followed Nijinska's in gaining a place in the regular repertoire.
The music for the original ballet contains three choral numbers. Poulenc made the choral parts optional when he revised the score in 1939–1940, and the work is usually given with wholly orchestral accompaniment. The composer extracted a five-movement suite from the score, for concert performance. The suite has been recorded for LP and CD from the 1950s onwards.
Sergei Diaghilev, proprietor of the Ballets Russes, contacted Poulenc in November 1921 with a proposed commission.[n 2] The original plan was that Poulenc should write music for a ballet scenario with the title Les demoiselles, written by the fashion designer Germaine Bongard. The following July it became clear that Bongard did not wish to go ahead; Poulenc wrote to his friend and fellow member of Les six, Darius Milhaud, that instead "I will probably write a suite of dances without a libretto." At about the same time he told Igor Stravinsky that after consulting Diaghilev and the designer, Marie Laurencin, "I have a clear conception of my ballet which will have no subject – simply dances and songs."
The titles of the numbers in the score indicate that Poulenc followed this plan, but he nonetheless retained two important features of Bongarďs proposed work: a choral element, with unseen singers giving a commentary on the action, and the "demoiselles". In an analysis published in The Musical Quarterly in 2012, Christopher Moore describes the former as reminiscent of Stravinsky's Pulcinella, and the latter as "a corps de ballet of flirtatious young women". For the words, Poulenc spent a considerable amount of time in the Bibliothèque nationale de France, seeking out texts for the choral interjections. He found what his biographer Carl B. Schmidt describes as "some slightly obscene eighteenth-century texts", which he used in three of the numbers in the score.
Poulenc struggled to find the right name for the ballet, and eventually had the idea of calling it Les biches, echoing the title of the classic ballet Les Sylphides. His chosen title is, as he admitted, untranslatable into any other language.[n 3] The word biche is usually translated as "doe," an adult female deer; it was also used as a slang term for a coquettish woman. Moore expands on the definition: "As has been often noted, the word biches is itself pregnant with double entendre, referring most obviously to does, but also, in the underworld of Parisian slang, to a woman (or ironically, a man) of deviant sexual proclivities."[n 4]
By the middle of 1923 Poulenc had completed the first version of the score, after some help with details of orchestration from his teacher, Charles Koechlin. In late October, at Diaghilev's request, he travelled to Monte Carlo to help supervise the production. The composer was delighted with the work of the choreographer, Nijinska, which he described as "ravishing"; he wrote to Milhaud that she had truly understood his score. Between November 1923 and the premiere in January 1924, Poulenc, together with Nijinska, oversaw, by his estimate, "at least 72 rehearsals or close to 250 hours of work". Les biches was an immediate success, first in Monte Carlo in January 1924 and then in Paris in May, under the direction of André Messager and has remained one of Poulenc's best-known scores. Poulenc's new celebrity after the success of the ballet was the unexpected cause of his estrangement from Satie: among the new friends Poulenc made was Louis Laloy, a writer whom Satie regarded with implacable enmity. Auric, who had just enjoyed a similar triumph with a Diaghilev ballet, Les Fâcheux, was also repudiated by Satie for becoming a friend of Laloy.
Poulenc revised the orchestration comprehensively in 1939–1940 (published 1947). He extracted a five-movement suite from the full ballet score (1948), omitting the overture and the three choral movements. The suite is dedicated to Misia Sert. The published score specifies the following instruments: woodwind: 1 piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 1 cor anglais, 2 clarinets, 1 bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, 1 contrabassoon; brass: 4 French horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, 1 tuba; percussion: percussion bass drum, field drum, glockenspiel, snare drum, suspended cymbal, tambourine, tenor drum, triangle; celeste, glockenspiel; and strings.
The score of Les biches is sometimes described as neoclassical. The form of the piece – an overture followed by a number of unlinked movements – follows 18th-century musical practice, and Poulenc set out to follow classical precedent in his tonal and harmonic writing. He wrote to Milhaud:
Les Biches will be very clear, sturdy and classical. The opening ensemble fluctuates between F major, dominant, sub-dominant, relative minor, etc ... just like the finales of classical symphonies; "Jeu" is in E, B, A, etc... and the final "Rondeau" is in D, A, G, etc. For the songs, I have some beautiful but slightly obscene texts (from the 18th century).
The analyst Gérald Hugon writes that other influences on the young composer's score are French eighteenth-century song (in the Rondeau), ragtime (in the Rag-Mazurka) and composers ranging from the classical era (Mozart and Schubert) to contemporaries such as Stravinsky and Prokofiev, via Tchaikovsky: Hugon quotes Claude Rostand's comment that according to Poulenc the Adagietto was inspired by a variation from The Sleeping Beauty. Poulenc's biographer Henri Hell finds the score "irresistibly evoking the art of Domenico Scarlatti".
The complete ballet score comprises an overture followed by eight movements. The second (Chanson dansée), fourth (Jeu) and seventh (Petite chanson dansée) contain parts for unseen chorus. The published score stipulates a minimum of twelve singers (four sopranos, four tenors, four baritones), although it also seems to indicate that at the premiere there was only one voice to each part.[n 5] When Poulenc revised the score he made the vocal parts optional.
The overture begins quietly, in 4/8 time in C major with a slow duet, marked tranquillo, for flute and bass clarinet. After about one minute the rest of the orchestra enters, the key changes to E major and the tempo to allegro vivace. After several changes of time signature the overture ends with a reprise, at a faster tempo, of the opening theme. The playing time is about 3m 30s.
After a three bar introduction marked "very slow", the Rondeau switches to an energetic allegro molto in F major. The movement is dominated by a theme for trumpet which recurs throughout. The central section, marked "très calme", is quieter and slower. The boisterous first theme returns to round off the movement.
This movement is the first of the three choral sections in the original version of the ballet; it is for male voices with orchestral accompaniment. It begins quietly, with a theme marked "quieto", which in its five bars switches between 4/8 and 6/8 time. This is followed by a strongly rhythmic song for male voices, beginning in 2/4 time in D major, with a later interlude where the key switches to D-flat. The original theme returns to conclude the movement.
The plaintive melancholy of the Adagietto finds Poulenc at his most affecting, in the view of the analyst Paul Horsley. It is dominated by a gentle oboe theme in its outer sections, and unlike much of the score it does not have frequent changes of key or time signatures. Milhaud wrote of this movement, "I know of no other music that touches me so intimately, so completely." In the 1950s Poulenc commented, "The 'Adagietto' must be played without romantic pathos. In this ballet nobody falls in love for life, they have sex! Let's just leave it there." The initial mood of wistful charm – "doucement mélancolique" according to the score – is briefly interrupted by a louder and more emphatic section for a few bars, before the music becomes calm again, leading to a quiet close.
This is the first of the two choral movements for female and male voices. The words are those of a father hoping to marry off his four daughters, and the questions the daughters ask him about picking a husband. The movement is marked "presto", and switches throughout between 5/4, 4/4 3/4 and 2/4 time.
The movement begins "presto" in 3/8 time, switches to 6/8 and then 9/8, with a later rapid succession of time signatures, including changes from 2/4 to 4/4 to 5/4 and 6/4 within seven bars. Towards the end of the movement the perpetuum mobile halts and is replaced with a conclusion marked "très calme". Horsley comments that although the movement reflects the fashion for jazz in 1920s Paris, "most listeners will hear more of Paris here than Scott Joplin". As for the mazurka of the outer sections, it is "a long way from Chopin’s piano works of this genre". At more than six minutes' duration this is the longest section of the ballet.
The conductor Norman Del Mar comments that despite the marking, this movement is closer to allegretto if taken at the composer's quite brisk metronome mark. The music, which refers back to the rondeau in its material, veers between what Del Mar calls "gentle ingenuousness" and "rumbustious moments". Towards the end of the movement the music becomes very loud, the brass predominating, but the closing bars, led by the woodwind are marked "très calme" before a final emphatic chord for the brass and lower strings.
In the second of the two choral sections for female and male voices the men woo the women offering laurels as a present; the women insist on bouquets of wallflowers before they will accept the men. The movement is marked "moderato non troppo". As in other movements, there are several changes of time signature, but 4/4 predominates.
The finale is marked presto, at minim=108, a tempo so fast that Del Mar judges it barely playable. It is, he says, "virtuoso writing and needs spectacular playing". A short section in the middle of the finale is more relaxed, but the tempo increases again and the initial theme returns at the same high speed as before to conclude the piece.
Like the music, the choreography of Les biches is neoclassical. In an article about Les biches written in 1930, Frederick Ashton wrote, "the whole ballet is new, and yet it is, at the same time, composed entirely of classical movement with a new expression." In The International Encyclopedia of Dance Gunhild Oberzaucher-Schüller writes that the Les biches was influenced by the legacy of the 19th-century choreographer Marius Petipa, given a modern twist by Nijinska:
Taking the classical repertory of steps as her starting point but using an inventive port de bras, flexed arms, a new kind of pas de bourrée, variations of épaulements and pointe, and asynchronous movements of the torso and legs, she developed new possibilities for classical technique. The work was a triumph for Nijinska, who viewed it as a twentieth-century equivalent of Les Sylphides.
While Nijinska was creating the choreography, she worked out her Hostess role on Ninette de Valois, who was in the corps. Lydia Sokolova later recalled that "when we did Les Biches, and she created the hostess for herself, she improvised mostly. That was the trouble with Bronia. If she suddenly felt she wanted to pull her face this way or that way, she'd do it. She wouldn't leave it as the dance was arranged, she would put in this extra thing, or a little thing with her feet". Clement Crisp describes the ballet as a "delicious piece", noting the "cunningly different ports de bras, the freshness of use of the classical dance, the clarity of texture in the movement all make it a delight", and contends that the soundness of the choreography have contributed the lasting popularity of the work.
The preface to the published score states: "The action passes in a large, white drawing room with just one piece of furniture, an immense blue sofa. It is a warm summer afternoon and three young men are enjoying the company of sixteen lovely women. Just as in 18th-century prints, their play is innocent in appearance only." At the premiere the sofa was a magnificent piece of furniture which the Grand Théâtre de Monte Carlo borrowed from the grand casino next door. In a letter to Diaghilev Poulenc wrote "Nijinska is really a genius. Listen to this: having decided that the sofa is a 'star', just as she herself is, she is making it dance throughout the Game".
The work comprises an overture and eight successive tableaux depicting, in Moore's words, "various scenes of coquetry and seduction". The critic of Le Temps, Henry Malherbe, wrote after the ballet was first given in Paris that in this piece "atmosphere replaces action": in the absence of a plot the composer was free to present a ballet that "does not express anything precise and logical, other than a succession of characters that are pleasing to watch." His fellow critic, Raoul Brunei, described the piece as "a choreographic fantasy whose meaning is not very clear." Moore gives the last word on the plot to the English dancer Lydia Sokolova, a member of the company in the premiere: "There was no story to Les biches – it was far too chic to have anything so obvious". Not only did the ballet have no plot: its characters were not given names, although commentators have frequently invented them. The original programme listed the scenes and participants thus:
|Rondeau||Mmes Doubrovska, Devalois, Maikerska, Nikitina, Coxon, Allanova, Soumarokova, Chamié, Komaroira, Rosenstein, Soumarokova II, Zalevska|
|Chanson dansée||MM Léon Woizikovsky, Anatole Wilzak, Nicolas Zverew|
MM Anatole Wilzak, Léon Woizikovsky, Nicolas Zverew et ensemble
|Rag Mazurka||La Nijinska, MM Léon Woizikovsky, Nicolas Zverew|
|Andantino||Mme Vera Nemtchinova, M Anatole Wilzak|
|Chanson dansée||Mmes Lubov Tchernicheva, Lydia Sokolova|
|Final||Mmes Nijinska, Vera Nemtchinova, Lubov Tchernicheva, Lydia Sokolova|
MM Anatole Wilzak, Léon Woizikovsky et ensemble
Companies such as the Royal Ballet that have revived Nijinska's ballet have maintained the anonymity of the characters. Although not labelled in Nijinska's production, the main characters have come to be known by descriptive titles. They are:
The tableau is danced by the twelve female members of the corps de ballet, dressed in identical pink frocks and ostrich-feathered head-dresses. They form lines, circles, groups, and finally one long line, and at the end six dancers exit on each side of the stage.
Three athletes dressed for rowing enter, with much macho posturing. They preen themselves to impress some of the women.
The androgynous figure often called la garçonne performs a slow dance, largely en pointe, watched by the women and the athletes.[n 6] Towards the end one of the athletes dances with la garçonne and kneels to kiss her/his hand. They exit together.
The women mill about. The sofa is turned around and some of the women conceal themselves behind it. The garçonne and the athlete cross the stage engrossed in each other. The remaining two athletes dance and then lean against the sofa. The women emerge from hiding and pursue them.
The Hostess enters the empty stage and performs a virtuoso solo dance (with intricately rhythmic steps, described by the ballet critic Jan Parry as "a fiendish tongue-twister for the feet").[n 7] The two athletes enter and preen themselves before her; she flirts openly with them and the three dance off, with the athletes in pursuit of the hostess.
The garçonne and the first athlete dance together. They end in a tight embrace.
The girls in grey dance together. Towards the end of their dance they look at each other face on and then exit on opposite sides of the stage
The finale features all the dancers, first the corps, who then dance off as the principals enter. The ballet ends with the hostess dancing with her two athletes, the first athlete with the garçonne, and the girls in grey dancing separately.
The ballet was staged in Paris by the Ballets Russes, at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, on 26 May 1924, just over four months after the Monte Carlo premiere. Diaghilev persuaded André Messager to conduct, greatly to the composer's pleasure as he had been disappointed by the conducting of Édouard Flament at the premiere. The cast was unchanged. As at Monte Carlo, the performance had what Hell describes as a triumphant reception. The critics were mostly enthusiastic, with the exceptions of Adolphe Boschot, who thought it a caricature, Emile Vuillermoz, who thought the music monotonous, and Olin Downes, for The New York Times, who declared the piece "pretentious and artificial" and the music "the last word in insipidity". Those who praised the work included Cocteau, Malherbe, Louis Laloy, Boris de Schlözer, and the correspondent of The Times, who judged the choreography "ingenious" and the score "full of irresistible good spirits and delicious tunes".
Diaghilev took the ballet to London in 1925. There was some speculation beforehand that the official theatre censor, the Lord Chamberlain, might ban the piece for its suggestions of unconventional sexuality, but a licence was granted to perform it, and it was given at the Coliseum, under the title The House Party. The London theatre critic of The Times was tepid about the music, the choreography and the designs, and did not mention – as the highly favourable review in The Manchester Guardian did – the enthusiasm with which the public had greeted the piece. The cast was largely the same as at the premiere, but Anton Dolin replaced Anatole Wilzak as Vera Nemtchinova's partner in the Andantino.
Wassily de Basil's Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo included Les biches in its repertoire in the mid-1930s. With an English title 'The House Party' Nijinska staged the work for the Markova-Dolin Ballet in 1937; Alicia Markova took the part of Nemtchinova and Anton Dolin that of Anatole Wilzak, and Diana Gould was among the cast as the Hostess. In the late 1940s the Grand Ballet du Marquis de Cuevas revived the work; Nijinska, as the company's chief choreographer, supervised the revival. The company included Les biches in its London seasons and gave the New York premiere of the piece in 1950; the company included Marjorie Tallchief as the garçonne and George Skibine as the leader of the three athletes. In The New York Times John Martin called it "one of the masterpieces of the modern ballet".
In 1964 Frederick Ashton – by this time director of the Royal Ballet and a great admirer of the choreographer – invited Nijinska to re-create the ballet at the Royal Opera House, and he took close personal interest in the rehearsals and costume fittings. Svetlana Beriosova danced Nijinska's old role of the hostess; Georgina Parkinson played the garçonne. Subsequent performers of the role of the hostess in the Royal Ballet's production have included Deanne Bergsma, Monica Mason, Marguerite Porter, Darcey Bussell and Zenaida Yanowsky; the garçonne has been danced by Vergie Derman, Viviana Durante, Mara Galeazzi and Leanne Benjamin. Two years later Ashton introduced Nijinska's other masterpiece, Les noces, into the Royal Ballet repertoire. Kavanagh sees its influence in several Ashton ballets, from the early A Tragedy of Fashion and Les Masques up to Varii Capricii.
In France, Les biches was taken into the repertoire of two leading companies: Ballet Theatre Français performed it in the 1980s as part of a quadruple bill of Diaghilev ballets (with L'Après Midi d'un Faune, Le Spectre de la rose and Pétrouchka). The work entered the Paris Opera Ballet repertoire in 1991.
Two new ballets have been created using Poulenc's score. In 1964 BBC television commissioned and broadcast Houseparty, choreographed by Peter Darrell, which took the original Nijinska scenario and sought to update it to reflect the mores of the mid 1960s. In 2002 Thierry Malandain rechoreographed the ballet for the Malandain Ballet, Biarritz.
The work has been less frequently staged in the US than other Diaghilev ballets. The visiting Royal Ballet company presented it in New York in 1968; in 1982, Irina Nijinska, the choreographer's daughter, staged a revival for the Oakland Ballet, and the following year that production was seen in New York, given by the Dance Theater of Harlem. That staging was notable for including the three optional choral sections, sung by a solo soprano, tenor and baritone. Le biches was featured in the 2009 "Fall for Dance" series in New York, danced by Ballet West.
The Royal Ballet production of 1964 was filmed that year, with its original cast.
The complete ballet score, including the choral sections, was first recorded by Varèse Sarabande in 1972, with Igor Markevitch conducting the Orchestre National De L'Opéra De Monte-Carlo (now the Monte-Carlo Philharmonic Orchestra). It was subsequently recorded by EMI in 1981, with Georges Prêtre conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra and Ambrosian Singers. It was issued on LP, and included in the 20-disc CD set "Poulenc Integrale: Edition du 50e anniversaire 1963–2013" issued in 2013 to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the composer's death. A later recording by the Choeur de l`Orchestre de Paris and Orchestre de Paris, conducted by Semyon Bychkov, was released on the Philips label.
The suite from the ballet has been recorded several times. Poulenc strongly favoured the version by the Paris Conservatoire Orchestra, conducted by Roger Désormière at the Maison de la Mutualité in Paris in June 1951 (Decca LXT 2720).[n 8] The recording was reissued on CD in 2003. Later LP and CD versions of the suite have been recorded under the batons of French conductors including Louis Frémaux, Louis de Froment, Prêtre, Yan Pascal Tortelier, Stéphane Denève and Jean-Luc Tingaud, and non-French conductors including Charles Dutoit, Thierry Fischer, Anatole Fistoulari and Michael Gielen.