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About the Change

‘Rolf de Mare’

by Erik Naslund

Dance Books Ltd
2009, 615 pages, £50
ISBN: 978-1852731281

Reviewed by Graham Watts

© Dance Books

This book is available from:
Dance Books

Graham Watts reviews

I confess to having known little of Rolf de Maré before embarking on this review. Although largely anonymous in the UK, de Maré lived an exceptional life by any standard, playing a key role in the cultural life of both his native Sweden and adopted France, especially in the maelstrom of Parisian artistic life of the 1920s. He was an adventurer, a patron of the arts, a publisher (including in his portfolio the first-ever men’s magazine, ‘Monsieur’), and a ballet director; but, above all else, he was a collector and it is in the legacy of these collections through the bequests de Maré made to the French and Swedish nations and especially in the creation of the Dance Museum in Stockholm that his adventure lives on. Eric Näslund became director of the Dance Museum in 1989, although his interest in de Maré had begun many years’ earlier, and this opulent book is the product of over 35 years’ research: a paean to a man who clearly loved life and lived it to the full.

For five years de Maré was a serious rival to Diaghilev. His Ballets Suédois was a flame that burned brightly as a direct challenge to the hegemony of the Ballets Russes. de Maré even took the contest into Diaghilev’s back yard by leasing the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées as his new company’s home base. Diaghilev attended the opening night of the Ballets Suédois on 25th October 1920, alongside royalty, nobility and the great and the good of Parisian cultural life (including Saint-Saëns, Fauré, Satie, Cocteau and Picasso). Although the Ballets Suédois faced an especially hostile press back in Sweden (largely for appropriating most of the country’s leading dancers!), it claimed some cultural high ground very quickly both in terms of the experimental nature of Jean Börlin’s choreography and in the multiple collaborations with other great artists, designers and musicians (such as Bonnard, Lanvin and Milhaud). In their respective contributions to culture, there’s no doubt that the Ballets Russes won, hands down, but it also seems clear that the cutting edge experimentalism of Les Suédois – which lasted for less than five years - provoked a response from Diaghilev towards an ever-more modern approach to ballet, which stretched the boundaries of his own company in its final years.

Rolf de Maré was born into a Swedish family that was grossly nouveau-riche; so rich that the von Hallwyls gained a spurious title (Count and Countess) along the way. The young de Maré’s life was influenced early on by the trauma of his mother, Ellen, running off with his tutor, Johnny Roosval, an event which shocked Swedish Society since his father, Henrik, was a member of Prince Carl’s official entourage. To his credit, Rolf seems never to have taken sides in this, or any subsequent relationship upheavals: he engineered his mother’s eventually rehabilitation with his maternal grandparents and remained on excellent terms, throughout their long lives, with both parents and their subsequent spouses. His maternal grandmother, Wilhelmina, Countess von Hallwyl, became one of the foremost art collectors in Sweden and the young Rolf quickly inherited her fascination, progressing from a childhood collection of postcards to amassing - in his twenties - a remarkable collection of modern art, including works by Picasso, Laurencin, Braque and Léger, as well as paintings by Dutch Masters and several by El Greco (although many were subsequently not authenticated as such).

His burgeoning passion for modern art was entwined in a love affair with the Swedish painter, Nils Dardel, who advised him what to buy (and bought much for him): many of Dardel’s own works found their way, expensively, into the de Maré collection. This six-year relationship gave way to a long and passionate affair with Jean Börlin, whom Rolf met as a struggling dancer at the Stockholm Opera. Just as the relationship with Dardel had led to collecting art, so his love for Börlin began a passionate affair with dance. Börlin - an extraordinarily feminine, child-like man - was a protégé of Michel Fokine (following the latter’s estrangement from Diaghilev, he and his wife had gone to work with the Stockholm Opera Company in 1913) and took Fokine’s principles of dance into even more experimental territory. Börlin’s first programme of solo works, performed in Paris, in March 1920 – needless to say, bankrolled by de Maré – included three extraordinary works: giving shape to a native African sculpture in ‘Sculpture nègre’; bringing an El Greco Christ-like image to vivid life in ‘Devant La Mort’; and the whirling skirts of the Arab world in ‘Derviche’. These solos provide an exact summary of Börlin’s output which combined a lifelong interest in every form of world dance with the leit motif of bringing paintings to life through his choreography.


© Dance Books

de Maré’s infatuation with Börlin led not only to the creation of a ballet company around him; but to his money buying a collection of choreographies (perhaps the equivalent of collecting Dardel’s paintings), since all 22 of the Ballets Suédois’ works were created by Börlin. But, the adventure of the Swedish Ballet in Paris was to end in tears after 720 performances, in 1925. de Maré had invested a fortune in the enterprise, particularly losing heavily on a costly American tour, and discovered that he had been systematically swindled by a double ticketing system operated by his Theatre Manager. Typically, to avoid scandal, de Maré took no action against the erstwhile friend and swindler but simply dissolved the ballet company. However, he continued to own and manage the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées for another two years, operating it as an Opéra Music Hall, catering for the new sounds and images of Jazz and Vaudeville. This brief addendum to his life as an impresario included the launch of Josephine Baker’s career in Paris.

The relationship with Börlin – who died in New York, in 1930, aged just 37 – gave way to a succession of homosexual partnerships, including with the actor Marcel Herrand; Hans Evert, his Secretary and companion; a postman, Folke Willsson; and finally an electrician, Lars Nilsson who shared the last ten years’ of de Maré’s adventurous and eventful life. It seems that de Maré did little to disguise his sexuality through difficult and prejudiced times and avoided much of the outrageous persecution that his similarly-inclined contemporaries often suffered. Perhaps his wealth and the patronage of the von Hallwyl dynasty kept trouble at bay; perhaps he was just – as Näslund’s relentlessly sympathetic account suggests – far too nice a man to bring down!

After the demise of the Ballets Suédois, de Maré established the Archives Internationales de la Danse (AID) in 1931 and organised the world’s first choreographic competition in 1932 (others followed after WWII). He continued to travel extensively –having circumnavigated the globe as early as 1911 he did so many more times, concluding his last tour in 1960 – and for 25 years de Maré owned a farm in Kenya where he lived for long periods.

Näslund’s epic biography is itself a work of art. I’ve reviewed many books destined for the coffee table, but never one that could almost be a coffee table, itself! The heavyweight paper (150gm) makes it a joy to turn the page, doubly enhanced by the exciting prospect of photographs and other illustrations liberally spread throughout the text. There must be in excess of 1200 illustrations in total. The colour separation is glorious and some of the poster images for the Ballets Suédois are gorgeously reproduced. In addition to the images on every page there is also a 70-page photo album appendix (on 170g Gallerie Art Gloss) that captures every facet of de Maré’s fascinating life. The book’s sumptuous design also includes “scrapbook” pages regularly interspersed throughout the text, on differently-coloured paper. These two page insertions explain in detail – and in chronological order – particular tributaries of de Maré’s life and times, providing commentary on individual ballets and relevant places and events. There is also an interesting device of each principal “character’s” handwriting spread vertically across random pages, perhaps to give some added psychological insights.

Occasionally, the text repeats itself in criss-crossing lines of enquiry which trip over a linear interpretation of de Maré’s life and even more sporadically a fact is lost in translation: towards the end we read that de Maré began his final relationship with Nilsson in 1964, which is in fact the year he died. But these very minor quibbles in no way detract from a beautifully-designed and always enjoyable biography of a man whose life was lived so close to world events of the early to mid-twentieth century that one could be forgiven for thinking that the whole transcript is a spoof: like William Boyd’s fictional “autobiography” of John James Todd in ‘The New Confessions’!

But, Rolf de Maré lived a very real life of affluence and discrete hedonism, producing nothing of substance himself, but encouraging others to do wonderful things, much of which he preserved and collected before donating it to the people of the two nations that meant so much to him. We are extremely indebted to Eric Näslund for his long devotion to chronicling this extraordinary life and to David Leonard and Dance Books for making Roger Tanner’s translation available to the English-speaking world. This monumental undertaking is a great credit to all who have collaborated in bringing de Maré’s life into such a vivid focus, and always so evocative of his times.

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