Fictional Review – Concert Review 17 February 1921: La Boîte à Joujoux

Les Ballets Suédois, on Tuesday evening the 15th of February premiered the ballet La Boîte à Joujoux.1This work was a delight: the allusions were familiar, the music used leitmotivs to show character, and the company proved that they produce more than simply ballet, but a new genre of art! The piece, composed by Claude Debussy in 1913, was originally written as piano music for André Hellé’s scenario of the same name, produced by Rolf de Maré2, and choreographed by Jean Borlin. The scenario, provided both in speech and in the program is this:

“This story takes place in a toy box. Toy boxes are, in effect, kinds of cities in which toys live like people. Or maybe cities are only toy boxes in which people live like toys. Several Dolls dance: a Soldier sees one of them and falls in love with her: but the Doll has already given her heart to a lazy, frivolous and querulous Punch. Then the Soldiers and the Punch figures engage in a great battle, during which the poor little wooden Soldier is unfortunately wounded. Neglected by the villainous Punch, the Doll takes in the Soldier, cares for him and loves him: they marry and live happily ever after. The frivolous Punch becomes a grounds-keeper, and life continues in the toy box.”3

A much needed break from the avant-garde music so often being produced today, La Boîte à Joujoux provided a sense of familiarity. Many of the themes through the piece are allusions to other pieces written by other composers or even Debussy himself! Hearing a melodies that I was familiar with both from the folk-tune genre as well as the high art genre was refreshing, and made me remember back to the past. From the very beginning of the piece, the Rite of Spring comes to mind in the flute melody. At the entrance of the Soldier, Golliwog’s Cakewalk is heard.4 Some other familiar tunes include a theme from Gounod’s Faust, Mendelssohn’s Wedding March, even a few French folk tunes. All of these allusions, and neither vulgarity nor vulgarity.5 How charming!

Blatant musical description plays very simply and well into the ease of the children’s play topic. Similar to the allusions in the piece, Debussy employs the use of leitmotiv to represent characters and their emotional state. For example, the Soldier’s leitmotiv is a simple and diatonic trumpet march. The dancing Doll’s theme is an attractive waltz, very pleasing and runs well with children’s play topic. When conflict appears, the theme becomes confounded with earsplitting dissonance.6 The idea of the children’s play was easy to see and hear in the obvious, but never overbearing leitmotivs.

The entire ballet, and consequently the entire spectacle, on the evening of the 15th of February was strangely reminiscent of Wagner’s gesamtkunstwerk. The Ballets Suédois began the process of creating a performance that is neither ballet nor music, but a modern genre.7  De Maré, whom I have heard speaking, said that, “the word ballet wasn’t sufficient enough for what we want to create.”8 The combination of pantomime, music, design from easel painters, and Rolf de Maré’s9 ingenious production created a child of art for France!10 The choreographer and lead dancer of every piece on the program except for La Boîte11 moved dance expression further by utilizing pantomime. Some critics have said that the “Swedish Ballet Proves Orgy of Weird Impressionism” and “Swedish Ballet Seldom Dances” I believe that Borlin’s choreography, along with the detailed and stylized design of the entire spectacle13, are justified in their distinctive performance.

I thought that this performance was well worth attending, especially instead of seeing Carmen or The Barber of Seville, which were also playing tonight.14  The intention of familiarity in music was evident in the musical allusion and leitmotiv. The Wagnerian affinity did however, not intrude on the charm that Debussy provides, and the perhaps less fine choreography of Jean Borlin.15 The new genre that the Ballets Suédois provide an example of is quite spectacular, and I believe that this is an example of the direction that art needs to move in.


1 “Courrier Des Théatres.” Le Figaro, February 15, 1921. La Boîte à Joujoux translates to “The Toybox”.

2 Rolf de Maré is the wealthy financier/impressario/founder of the Ballets Suédois. He was extremely involved in the production of his Ballets. “de Maré was everywhere and nowhere-Bound to the stage, always ahead, always standing, tireless in pursuing novelty…” (Léger in his article “Vive Relâche”). He attended every rehearsal, performance, handled the administrative end, as well as helped backstage. Baer, Nancy Van Norman, and N.Y. York. Paris Modern: The Swedish Ballet, 1920-1925. San Francisco: Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco ;, 1995, p.33.

3 Debussy, Claude and André Hellé. La Boîte à Joujoux. Durand & Fils, Paris, 1913.

4 Ko, Hsing-Yin. “Evocations from Childhood: Stylistic Influences and Musical Quotations in Claude Debussy’s “Children’s Corner” and “La Boite a Joujoux”.” Order No. 3486485, University of North Texas, 2011., p.17.

5 “La Boîte à Joujoux (1913).” In Debussy and the Theatre. Cambridge [Cambridgeshire: Cambridge University Press, 1982, p.182.

6 Ko, Hsing-Yin. “Evocations”, p.24

7 Ries, Frank W. D. The Dance Theatre of Jean Cocteau. Ann Arbor, Mich.: UMI Research Press, 1986, p.80.

8 Baer, Nancy Van Norman, and N.Y. York. Paris Modern: The Swedish Ballet, 1920-1925. San Francisco: Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco ;, 1995, p.52.

9 Garafola, Lynn. “Rivals for the New.” In Legacies of Twentieth-century Dance. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 2005, p.108. Rolf de Maré was the Ballets Suédois’ impresario and benefactor. He was very involved in the production process: he handled administrative issues, helped backstage, and attended every rehearsal and performance. He was able to back this company to achieve stardom for his lover Jean Borlin (who also happened to be his lover), because Maré was a millionaire.

10 Ries, Dance Theatre, p. 80.

11 “Courrier Des Théatres.” Le Figaro, February 15, 1921. The rest of the program, all performed by Ballets Suédois included Tombeau de Couperin, El Greco, and Les Vierges Folles.

12 Liebling, “Swedish Ballet Proves Orgy of Weird Impressionsim,” New York American, 26 November 1923; “Swedish Ballet Seldom Dances,” New York Evening Post, 22 November 1923. Cited in Paris Modern, p. 31.

13 Dorris, George. 1999. “Jean Borlin as Dancer and Choreographer”. Dance Chronicle 22 (2). Taylor & Francis, Ltd.: 167–88., p.177. Borlin makes very clear and distinctive artistic decisions in every piece. No two are alike, just like there are no two pictures alike. Borlin’s artistic motivation comes directly from paintings or pictures, which he choreographs to become moving.

14 “Courrier Des Théatres.” Le Figaro, February 15, 1921.

15 “Lapommeraye, Pierre De. “Ballets Suédois.” Le Ménestrel 84, no. 8 (1921): 79. Accessed November 19, 2015. Boîte à Joujoux.zoom.