Picasso and ballet: The making of dancing pictures

Ballet is a collective endeavor. Besides the obvious elements of dance and music, many other aspects are involved in producing a ballet performance. Paradoxically, two of those often-overlooked components are also notorious: the scenery and the costumes. As an audience member, one can’t miss these couple of elements, but neither does one really have a strong idea of the work behind them and the effort in connecting them with the other ingredients to ensemble a cultural spectacle.

Pablo Picasso is considered by many as the most important painter of the first half of the twentieth century –he changed the meaning of painting forever. Picasso was a restless artist. Painting is a category that falls short to describe his vast oeuvre. He also made marvelous sculptures, mesmerizing drawings and he even dared to write a couple of plays. However, his real contribution for the theater is represented by the astonishing work he did for some of the most imaginative and influential ballets ever created.

His collaboration with remarkable artists like Léonide Massine, Erik Satie, Jean Cocteau, Igor Stravinsky, Coco Chanel and Manuel de Falla, propelled him as one the artists who best envisaged works of art for the stage.


Picasso was a very sociable figure. He preferred to work in solitude, but he definitely enjoyed hanging out with his colleagues –a group of individuals that happened to be among the greatest artists of their time. After working in the afternoons, Picasso enjoyed his leisure time in Paris by going to the cafés and sharing with fellow artists like the writer Jean Cocteau and composer Erik Satie: two of the most renowned members of French Bohemia.

Cocteau devised Parade, ballet réaliste, based on a music-hall performance that included a group of extravagant characters. Cocteau intended to have the settings and the costumes designed by Picasso and the score written by Satie. Picasso had never seen a ballet, but he was very familiar with music halls and circuses. The trio of collaborators then travelled to Rome to meet with Sergei Diaghilev who would supervise the production, presented by his troupe Les Ballets Russes.

Parade, choreographed by Léonide Massine, was not a classical ballet. In fact its mission consisted of tearing down the conventionalisms of traditional ballet, a decision that belonged to the strategic programming of the groundbreaking Russian ballet company. Rather than designing costumes, Picasso devised sculptural figures for the dancers to wear: they were very large and imposing, setting a Cubist atmosphere along with the sets, the curtain and the background. The “costumes” were very similar to many of the circus characters Picasso drew at the early stages of his careers.

Parade was harshly criticized. For many of the critics the costumes were not adequate for dancers, who seemed more like dynamic entities that tried really hard to convey some sort of motion. The audience also expressed its discomfort loudly. Nonetheless, many experts have recognized this groundbreaking work as a genuine landmark of modernism.

El sombrero de tres picos

Spanish composer Manuel de Falla had written a pantomime ballet during World War I under the title of El corregidor y la molinera, a work scored for a chamber orchestra. Diaghilev assisted to its premiere in 1917 and commissioned Falla to rewrite it into a two-act ballet scored for large orchestra entitled El sombrero de tres picos, with choreography by Massine; and sets, costumes and curtain by Picasso.

The ballet tells the story of a magistrate who attempts to seduce a miller’s wife maiden that was engaged to a miller. The curtain depicts a group of people wearing traditional costumes that watch a bullring from a box, while the set shows the view from an arch of a village that has a bridge at its center. The overall look of the picture has a somber mood, perhaps due to the choice of just three colors: pink, blue and black, all of them arranged in a gloomy tone. For the design of the costumes, Picasso showed an impressive loyalty to the Spanish tradition. Picasso worked on the costumes until the last minute. He was even reported to paint some of the dresses on to the dancers before getting onstage.

In the end, the hard work paid off: the ballet was considered a triumph, receiving standing ovations wherever it was performed. El sombrero de tres picos was one of those rare gems Les ballet russes produced that was celebrated unanimously.


Pulcinella was a ballet based on a story of eighteenth-century commedia dell’arte. Diaghilev commissioned the production, with choreography by Léonide Massine and music by Igor Stravinsky. With this work, the Russian composer would enter into the second phase of his career: neo-classicism. Picasso designed the sets and costumes.

The set consisted of an eighteenth-century Italian theater within the theater that has in its center an enigmatic image of a village bathed by the warms colors of night. The theater also shows some balconies occupied by members of the bourgeoisie. The setting offers some sort of provincial luxury: a golden roof and golden walls adorned in an almost rudimentary way. These features match appropriately the music of Stravinsky, which consisted of a re-interpretation of pieces written by Italian composer Pergolesi.

Pulcinella would have its debut at the Paris Opera, but the scenery that Picasso had made was in Italy and there was no time to bring it to the French capital. Picasso had to frantically create, under great amounts of pressure and stress, a new scenery which, given the circumstances, ended up being severely reduced. Nonetheless, the ballet was a great success. Stravinsky, known for being a harsh critic to the work of his creative partners, acknowledged that he felt satisfied thanks to the strong marriage of all the elements of the production. He even referred to the work by Picasso as a “miracle”.

The sequence of successes of El sombrero de tres picos and Pulcinella gave Picasso a well-deserved notoriety among the theater circles of Paris. With his extraordinary talent at devising art for the stage, the Spanish painter was able to prove to the critics and the audience that he was not just one of the greatest names in the world of galleries and museums: he was also an exceptional man of theater.

Cuadro flamenco

Picasso was commissioned by Diaghilev to create the setting and costumes for Cuadro Flamenco, a suite of traditional Andalusian pieces arranged by Manuel de Falla. Picasso worked once again on the idea of a theater within the theater. Hence, he painted what looks like a nineteenth-century theater lavishly decorated with red and golden tones. Rich women expose their sophisticated attires from her balconies. The proscenium, the curtain and the ceiling were designed to convey some sort of grandiloquence. The whole picture radiates luxury. Since the choreography consisted of traditional Spanish dances that were performed by real Gypsies from Sevilla and the score also paid homage to Spanish folklore, Picasso had to design traditional costumes as well. These pieces were built with an impressive amount of detail and an astute arrangement of colors that instill them vivacious and graceful features.

Le train bleu

Le train bleu was the last production of Les Ballets Russes Picasso worked for. Its libretto was written by Jean Cocteau and choreographed by Bronislava Nijinska. Picasso’s involvement in this ballet meant the creation of the largest piece of that bears his signature: a backdrop measuring ten meters high by twelve meters wide. Diaghilev was confident that a small painting (measuring merely 34 x 42 cm) and entitled Deux femmes courant sur la plage, made by Picasso in 1922, had a huge potential for the theater in the form of a huge stage curtain. The Russian impresario, a true master in the art of persuasion, convinced Picasso to reproduce the painting on a large scale. Alexandre Schervahidze was given the task of enlarging it. The final result paid so much loyalty to the original that Picasso gave his approval by signing the backdrop with his name, and dedicating it to Diaghilev.

The best way to describe the ballet is by quoting Diaghilev on the subject, in which he highlighted the many contradictions that enrich this production: “This ballet isn’t a ballet –it’s an operetta to be danced. The music is composed by Darius Milhaud, but it is nothing like the music he usually makes. It is danced by the real Ballets Russes, but it has nothing to do with a Russian ballet. It was created for Anton Dolin, a classical dancer who had never done anything classical. The sets are painted by a sculptor (Henri Laurens) and the costumes are by a famous fashion designer (Coco Chanel) who has never designed theatre costumes. The stage curtain is one of the greatest artworks of Picasso. It is an introduction to the ballet, but it was never painted with that purpose in mind. So as you can see, there are many contradictions, but despite it all that, the ballet is one of the most charming pieces you can imagine”.


Antigone was not a ballet per se; it was more a proper theater play. But Picasso’s involvement in this production followed a similar pattern and made him share with the usual suspects he had worked with previously: Cocteau wrote the play, Honegger wrote the incidental music and Coco Chanel designed the costumes. Picasso’s role consisted of providing the décor.

Picasso disposed of a white wooden panel that acted as the background. Cocteau impelled him to use that surface “to bring to mind a sunny day”. The account given by the people who were present that day is nothing but fascinating: “Picasso walked to and fro upon the stage, then began to rub the rough white boards with a stick of sanguine: they assumed the appearance of marble. Then, holding a bottle of ink, he swept out some masterly lines: and then all at once he blackened a few blank places and three columns started into sight. Their appearance was so sudden, so astonishing, that we all burst out clapping”.


Jean Cocteau and his influential friend Count Etienne de Beaumont conceived Mercure, a work that isn’t properly a ballet, but one that in many ways resembles it. Picasso, as the designer of scenery and costumes, then joined the roster of artists solicited to craft the elements of the production: Satie wrote the music and Massine did the choreography. According to his close friends, Picasso was very excited to return to work on a ballet. The curtain was conceived in a rather soft tone, and it shows two musicians painted by only two colors with an emphasis on silhouette and form, established by the use of curves. In the background lay a mountain under a subdued sky. The atmosphere hints to a setting that doesn’t belong to reality –it’s actually dreamy.

Rather than dancers, the ballet called for the performance of mobiles, evidence that the main ambition of Cocteau and Beaumont’s creation was a tribute to motion. With Mercure, Picasso said goodbye to the magnificent world of ballet. Public and critics alike received Mercure reservedly. The Surrealist painters, many of them friends of Picasso, did not approve of his participation in the production. However, they admired him for never ceasing “in his perpetual creation of the disquiet, the searching anxiety of our modern days nor in giving it the highest form of expression”.


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