Claudel and Dance

I define dance as the proof offered to an audience, beneath the lights of the projectors, of the impossibility for the human being, caressed, carried away, stimulated, scoured by music of escaping from weight as well as from impulse…

Everything is said, or almost everything.

Dance… here is a territory, unexpected in certain eyes, that Claudel made his own, however, and in more than one manner. No doubt there are few specific writings to enumerate here on the subject, in contrast with Valéry, Mallarmé or Baudelaire (or Gautier), but it is easy to highlight, starting from the considerations that Paul Claudel disseminated on dance and on his direct experiences (discovery of certain creations, encounters, or even collaborations with some dancers), his fundamental principles: with Claudel, dance, even latent, is omnipresent. Since forever and lasting forever, even before the first of the Five Great Odes, (entitled “Les Muses”, 1901/1904) where the poet accords to the figure of Terpsichore, first to be named, a preponderant role of creation and impetus:

Terpsichore, discoverer of the dance! Where would the chorus be without the dance? which other would captivate

The eight fierce sisters together, to harvest the bursting hymn, inventing the inextricable figure?

up to the dramatic author’s last « plastic » reveries on the subject, in all the 1930s (Le Festin de la Sagesse, Le Jet de pierre), while passing by so very many markers and milestones.

Here in fact we do not only find ourselves facing a writer who is interested—happily—in dance, but actually facing a poet, a dramatic author, a playwright who seeks the means to make poetry, music and dance fuse together (no hierarchy here: these three “sisters” are “twins” and the character of Ysé from Break of Nooncan be defined as “a listening dancer”) in a spectacle in accord with his heart, and doubtless even more, with his soul. Everything, in his entire work and in its revealing counterpoints (Journal and correspondence) proves it. And Faith itself doesn’t omit dance: David dancing before the Arc…

The bases and the principles

True dance comes from the body animated by respiration. It is respiration that lifts the arms in amplification of the breast’s movement. Respiration wrests the body from the earth and detaches it from the ground. One must constantly feel it, respiration must fill up the body to the tips of the fingers. The leap is only an escape or an effort (Journal November 1920).

In Claudel’s works, these remarks are as constant as they are fundamental: dance is for him the product of the body functioning with rhythm, the rhythm of that internal leap that untiringly renews life and movement. One notices that this dance is much more “oriental”, in which “the feet rarely leave the earth”, in fact starting from the ground where it has its roots and where it draws its force and unfolding, than “classical”. In contrast with Mallarmé who nourishes a quasi-abstract reverie on the subject starting from ballet and the points of the ballerina, from movement launched onto the ground where it inscribes itself, Claudel shows little interest for so-called classical dance, a creation or convention that is in fact relatively recent but which since Gautier has aroused well-documented enthusiasm. The male dancer even seems to interest him more than the female dancer, this man who walks, this man who goes, showing off the musculature and the vivid sensuality of the body, whereas the goal of the female “star”, often an animated doll, an evanescent phantom or an ethereal sylph, would rather be to make us forget them. Technique, performance, are not what he admires, nor even the leap for itself, when it would try to make us forget the weight, the materiality of the body, whereas in his eyes, this leap, which he ultimately values, signifies “the victory of respiration over the body”, or again the flight of the “great bird, coming to meet a sublime defeat”. Concerning Nijinski, subject of one of his commentaries, it has to be admitted that we have rarely seen the fall, the tumbling down (obviously followed by other leaps and rebounds…) so glorified, or the preference to characterize his tigerlike gait, “elastic complicity with weight like that of the wing with air of all this muscular and nervous apparatus, of a body which is not a trunk nor a statue, but the whole organ of power and movement”…or again tirelessly given as example the admirable expression of his arms, of his hands, of his fingers, true antennae animated by an electric pathway, just as he saw him, in his interpretation of the role of the Black man in Sheherazade.

Experiences: circumstances and contacts

His preference thus goes to creations or expressions that are less known in France at the turn of the century, things he had seen of a different type, such as he discovered them successively in the great Universal Expositions, first historic places for the meeting of different cultures, in the Chinese neighborhoods of New York, then in the course of his long sojourns in the Far East. This taste, the later but passionate frequentation of Japanese theater (nô and bunraku in particular which are derived in fact from a danced art) could only confirm and amplify it. But one should also keep in mind all the work, as yet precocious, of translation of Aeschylus’s trilogy, of reflection on the chorus in motion and on the rhythmic representation of the text, for which he had—already—turned to the very young Darius Milhaud. And not neglect to mention the experience that Paul Claudel, at the time consul in Frankfurt, was able to make in 1913 of eurythmy, introduced for the singers (and why not for the actors?) in Hellerau, in the suburbs of Dresden, by Émile Jaques-Dalcroze (Cf. Claudel and architecture) which he describes as “movement become the perfect expression of rhythm”.

As for the Ballets Russes, the great revelation of the moment, Claudel discovers them fairly late (1917 during their tour in Rio, then in 1920 in Paris, thus almost at the end of their brief existence). More “classical” than people generally think, but who, he will admit it later, bring to ballet “all at once life, a wild sincerity”, doubtless they do not generate enthusiasm in him like that of Jean Cocteau. Nevertheless they provide him immediately an inestimable gift, the example of a work in rehearsal (in his French Legation in Brazil): vigorous, raw work, far removed from the famous flashiness and brilliant patterns, superb though they be, of “this paradise of color” disembarked from their “gaudy boat” which he appreciates nevertheless, since it is a work… in work clothes, precisely. And the direct contact with Nijinski, already mentioned, whom he dreams of having dance one of his own works. To these experiences we will add… a few refusals or rejections! (Loie Fuller, Isadora Duncan, Anna Pavlova), but also some other fortunate encounters: some Oriental or Spanish dancers or actors, some isolated interpreters, anonymous or famous. Thus “I.R”, Ida Rubinstein, tragic actress and dancer (the Clytemnestra of “his” Libation Bearers in 1935), interpreter and sponsor (Jeanne au bûcher, Le Festin de la Sagesse), star and patron whose collaboration with Paul Claudel turns out to be sometimes stormy, sometimes disappointing, often remarkable. We will not forget that, on the subject of dance, Claudel found in Jacques Copeau a committed interlocutor (Cf. Correspondence), and an even more important encounter, in Jean-Louis Barrault an actor-mime, an almost-dancer, capable, among other things, in order to interpret Mesa in Break of Noon, of following the recommendations of the author who cited Nijinski as an example!

Claudel choreographer: L’Homme et son désir

Finally, it is rare to find poets who are choreographers, authors not of scenarios for ballets but of an actual ballet, conceived here in a new language, the language of movement that sends the expected text back to the wings. A “mute” work, written only for the benefit of its execution in rhythm and space, on repetitive and expressive music by Darius Milhaud, which comments on, more than it “dramatizes”, the slow passage of the man from night to light. Conceived originally for Nijinski, lost to dance too soon, the role is created by Jean Börlin, soloist of the Ballets Suédois, in Paris, in 1921. We can wonder however if this page and a half by Paul Claudel, completely full of indications of rhythm and movements, forms and signs, reflections and shadows, does not “read”, unbeknownst to the poet, in the light of everything the public knows or thinks it knows about the general human adventure that is also personal to the central character. Nevertheless, this essential man is indeed a naked man who dances, both stripped bare and rich with this inextinguishable desire that was his life. Dance, presence and sign, more and better than any other art, perhaps, to speak the duality of the human, its combat and its victory?

It is the possession of the body by the spirit and the use of the animal by the soul

Monique Dubar