My past comes to life at a ballet revival

I glanced at her sideways. And then even more sideways at him, one seat farther along the row.

On the face of it, they did not look like the kind of couple - he white-haired and amiable looking, she with a sweet-natured face and much involved with the organization of multiple plastic shopping bags around her feet - who might start "hitting one another with fans and bawling each other out like fishwives," as one writer put it later. They surely wouldn't hiss and howl and catcall.

No. To me they looked well-adjusted, discreet, polite, not in the least likely to "lose it" - which, by all accounts, is exactly what the audience did on May 18, 1917, when the very first performance of the ballet we were about to watch was a notoriously scandalous success - or a successful scandal. Whichever.

"Parade" brought together various giants of the modern art and dance world. Serge Diaghilev - founder and director of the Ballets Russes - was the entrepreneur. Jean Cocteau was the instigator and librettist. Léonide Massine was the choreographer and one of the dancers. Erik Satie was the composer. And Pablo Picasso - he was the designer of sets and costumes. Photographs of them show up in all the books about the Spanish artist.

In essence, "Parade" was a sort of avant-garde invasion of the world of classical ballet. It paraded a disparate mix of characters who seemed largely to belong to the world of music hall and street circus rather than "high art."

Although this groundbreaking ballet has been revived a number of times, this was to be the first time I had seen it. That probably went for the 2,888 other members of the audience at the Edinburgh Playhouse. It is a cavernous, dark theater that has the kind of vast seating capacity needed for the annual run of International Arts Festival dance productions. It was chock-full that night. It is often packed.

The audiences that come here are not balletomanes. Nor are they noticeably dripping with jewels (as Misia Sert, friend of Diaghilev, had quite inappropriately been on the night of the first performance in Paris). Edinburgh Festival audiences are quite ordinary, for the most part. They are just as likely, I suspect, as I look around, to attend "Cats" or a revival of "Oklahoma" or a pop concert at the same venue.

Not that the couple next to me looked like pop-concert people. But neither did they look quite like Picasso people.

"Do you live in Edinburgh?" I asked, by way of conversation and curiosity.

"Oh, no," said the man. "No - we live in northwest Yorkshire."

I was immediately very interested.

"Where exactly?" I said. "I used to live down there."

"A place called Bentham."

There is nothing so engaging as the discovery that you share common ground with complete strangers.

"Bentham?! Well! I lived very near there for 10 years, right through the '70s! It's a wonderful part of the world." They agreed heartily. "I wonder if you know the place I lived in..."

It was the smallest place imaginable, containing far more cows and sheep than people. A few scattered farms, one or two barns converted into houses. It was not the kind of place anyone but a local would know existed and had a name - a name like something out of Tolkien.

When I tell people in Glasgow (where I have lived for almost 23 years) where I used to live, I have to say, "Oh, a tiny place not so far from Skipton and Settle." Even then they may not know where I mean. I might have to resort to a larger context. "It was in the west, sort of south of Cumbria and just on the border with Lancashire."

"I wonder," I said, "if you know where Eldroth is?"

They did. Yes, of course they did.

And we were all three of us tickled pink. The man looked around the theater with a sweeping movement of his head. "Just think!" he laughed, "we are probably the only people in the whole theater who have heard of Eldroth! And we are sitting next to each other! What are the odds against that, I wonder?"

Well, the curtain went up - Picasso's curtain, beautifully re-created. "Parade" was enigmatic, colorful, funny, and full of unexpected disconnections. It was danced by the dancers from Bordeaux with conviction and aplomb. The hilarious horse, the little American girl in her white sailor dress, the acrobats with blue flames on their tights, the Chinese prestidigitator, but above all the still preposterously unballetic "managers." The dancers inside these elaborate cubist constructions were all but overwhelmed.

Watching "Parade," you felt you were witnessing a piece of history brought charmingly to life again.

There were three other ballets, two more of them designed by Picasso, one by Georges Rouault. The audience was massively appreciative. In 1917, the first appearance of the cubist managers had reduced the audience to a welter of shouting and tumult. Today, "Parade" delights but doesn't stir. It is surreal, but not with the faintest hint of the sinister. The critical anathema poured over it seems incomprehensible now. Cocteau's later designation of it as "a big toy" seems quite accurate. The stuffy, indignant gentleman who said at the première, "Had I known it was so silly, I would have brought the children" may have been unwittingly correct.

"Parade" light-heartedly reduces its audience to a bunch of kids chuckling at a piece of theatrical mischief. The horse is pure pantomime, and what's the harm in that? The pleasures of childlikeness should not be underrated. It was Picasso who observed that, as a child, he could draw like Raphael, but it took him a lifetime to learn to draw like a child.

And did my neighbors from Yorkshire and I discuss all this in the intermissions, and then again when we left the theater together in jubilant mood and climbed up toward the castle on the Mound?

Of course not.

We talked about Eldroth.

About the extraordinary beauty of the hill country in that part of England. About one or two famous people who live or lived around there. About local amateur dramatics - both the husband (who it turned out had been an English teacher) and I had been inveigled into directing one-act plays in the area.

Then I asked if, by any chance, they knew of Frank Sedgwick. I told them how Frank had adopted us and our farmhouse for about three years, coming daily to build walls, greenhouses, windows, fireplaces, and heaven alone knows what else he didn't build for us, all without wanting or asking for pay. He was a retired farmer at loose ends - and once he'd found us, his ends were no longer loose.

"There are a lot of Sedgwicks in that area," I was informed. But then, by a process of deduction and elimination worthy of Mr. Holmes, we discovered that they did know Frank's wife, and knew exactly where they lived, and what a lovely garden they had.

Oh! All our yesterdays! It was the past brought to life again. And Picasso didn't get a look in.

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