Rolf de Maré and the Ballet Suédoise  

Rolf de Maré and the Ballet Suédoise
The Swedish ballet in Paris,
A talk with Erik Näslund, of the Dance Museum, Stockholm.
Published in ERATO No. 11: Summer 1996

The Hallwyl Palais, erected by Wilhemina von Hallwyl, as a museum and a home. Rolf was her favourite grandson.

C.M-S: Could you tell me something about the dance museum, please? Why Sweden?

E.N.:  Why there is a dance museum here in Stockholm is because of a very wealthy Swedish nobleman whose name was Rolf de Maré. He was an art collector and a lover of dance. In the twenties he founded the Swedish ballet in Paris, which existed between 1920 and 1925 as the rival to Diaghilev's Ballet Rus. They during the period 1909 to the twenties made ballet fashionable art. Of all the arts thriving in Paris at that time probably ballet was the most fashionable. It was being written about, starting fashions, - the crowds came to the ballet. When he had the idea to start a ballet company it was natural to go to Paris with it and not to do it here in Sweden. There was no ground for what he wanted to do in Sweden in ballet at that time. There was the company here at the opera but that was in a poor state artistically.

That's why he decided to got to Paris with his company, and during the five years there it really played an important role in the arts in Paris. When he disbanded the company in 1925 he had lost millions, but he hadn't lost his interest in dance, so after some years he decided to open the world's first research institute and museum for the art of dance - in Paris. That was called Les Archiv international de la Danse (International Dance Archiv) which opened in Paris in 1933 and continued up to the late 1940's. He also ran that enterprise out his own pocket. By then his health was not very good and he had also lost a lot of money, so he decided to disband the Archiv - and one part was given to the French state - and stayed there - and another part he was able to take with him - and this collection was later on placed here in Stockholm - and served as the basis for the Dance Museum which opened here in 1953. So that's why the Dance Museum is here - incidentally the world's only Museum for dance - here in Stockholm. Which is a bit odd since your would expect it to be in London or New York or Paris but because of Rolf de Maré it opened here in Stockholm. Actually it was founded in Paris and based on his experience in Paris. Right after the war when he knew he was going to disband the Archiv he tried to place it in London or Amsterdam or somewhere else, but shortly after the war there were other needs than a museum for dance - so eventually it came to Stockholm where they found a place for it.

But going back a bit in time, de Maré - the founder of the company and the moose. As I said it was natural for him to found a company in Paris because at  that time there was no ground for an avant garde ballet company at that time in Sweden. But there were also other reasons for it - and one was in the first decade of the century he had one of Sweden's most advanced art collections - the focus of which was mainly Cubism. Fernand Leger. Picasso, Braque, and that type of painting. That was very advanced at that time and he was laughed at by Swedish society and aristocracy. They couldn't understand how anyone could spend a fortune on such paintings. They were far too advanced for what anyone could understand at that time in Sweden where mainly the focus was on a realistic type of nationalist painting. During the period of the 1890's it was a big movement for Sweden as a nation - going back in history to the period of the Vikings and there was a reawakening for Sweden's past with an emphasising of our own identity, also in music and literature and so on. De Maré brought all these fantastic paintings from Paris by these fairly young artists and no-one could understand it. So from this experience he knew there was no basis for founding a ballet or dance company here in Sweden.

The reason he started on collecting French painting was because he was the grandson of one Sweden's most wealthy women at the turn of the century - and her name was Wilhelmina von Hallwyl. Today close to the Royal Dramatic Theatre her former home is a big museum and palace. She built this palace as a museum as well as a home in the late 1890's to house her vast collection of art and artworks. He was her favourite grandchild - so he was very well off.

C.M-S.: His father I think was military attaché in Berlin

E.N.: Yes - in the late 1890's. Rolf who was born in 1888 moved to Berlin around 1897 and lived there for a number of years. In Berlin he was given a tutor - and his mother  had an affair with the tutor. This was a big scandal - especially since she wanted to elope with him. So eventually there was a divorce, and she was expelled from the family. Rolf was taken to his grandparents and brought up mainly by them - and he lived in this big mansion-palace-museum here in Stockholm - mainly alone with the grandparents. For a teenager being brought up in that surrounding was dull for him. He eventually got out by doing a lot of travelling with his father - and that started the extensive travelling which continued throughout his life right up until he died in 1964.

Around 1912 he met a young Swedish painter by the name of Nils von Dardell (He dropped the "von" at the time of the 1st World War) who has a similar background to Rolf - he came from an aristocratic family but with two big differences - he was not from a wealthy family, and he had great difficulty all his life to accept who he really was. He had to adjust to his family's needs, and the family demanded, of course, that he marry - which he had to do later on to adjust to the conventions of the time.

Around 1912 these two young men met - and I believe they met in a type of gay aristocratic club that existed here in Stockholm which was very hush-hush, but was led by a rather notorious man.

The club was called Friends of Heliogabolis - a Greco-Roman who was "notorious" in this field. They established an immediate friendship - which was very fortunate for both of them because Rolf had become very interested in collecting and art - he was helping his grandmother catalogue her big collection - and he had the money to be able to collect. Nils Dardel could realise the dreams of art that Rolf had. So there was a perfect symbiosis of the two of them. Rolf immediately started collecting Nils' paintings. Nils had been living in Paris since 1910 where he had gone to study with Matisse and soon got into the circles with many of the (now) great names like Picasso, Bracque, Leger, Sartie, Cocteau, Appoliné, Gertrude Stein etc. So Nils had all these contacts in Paris very early on. So when Rolf started collecting he began with Nils' paintings but wanted to expand to include French paintings. Nils living in Paris, and having good contact with the painters and art dealers, could guide Rolf in his purchases. Shipment after shipment went from Paris to Sweden to the Manor House just opposite the Danish coast which Rolf had got from his grandparents around 1910. So all these shipments with Legérs, Bracques and Picassos came to Sweden where they were hung and shown to the aristocracy - and Rolf was laughed at and ridiculed. They couldn't understand why anyone should pay money for this type of art. But he didn't give up and within a few years established as very big art collection of French paintings from the early part of this century. Today a great part of the collection from this period in the Museum of Modern Art here is his collection which he later on gave to the Museum on his death.

Nils and Rolf started travelling together - already before the outbreak of the first world war - but also during the war years, which was quite exceptional - they made world tours - through the burning Europe to the States and Japan. In Spain Nils advised Rolf to buy paintings from El Greco for instance - which became a focus in his collection later on.

So they established a close relationship and Rolf had great help from Nils and Nils from Rolf.

While in Japan in 1917 they became acquainted with the Swedish ambassador who was from a rich, well-known family called Wallenbury - a big tycoon type of family - extremely wealthy. Nils became attracted to the ambassador's daughter He was under this pressure to adjust to convention and was always looking for a woman who he could be safe with and would "keep up the front". Also typical that he was looking for the "boyish" type of woman - several of whom were bisexual or with lesbian tendencies. She was also attracted to him - he was dark and handsome, the type who attracted both women and men because he was so good-looking. The affair continued when they came home to Sweden - and he asked for her hand in marriage. When the ambassador made enquiries about the future son-in-law and found out about Nils affair with Rolf and that he was not suitable for this wealthy and extremely conventional family, he was given the "push" (cold hand).

Jean Börlin

While the affair was still in progress and no decision was made between the woman and Nils - to keep Rolf "warm" since he didn't know how things would turn out - he put Rolf into the arms of a young friend - a dancer at the Royal Opera, Jean Börlin. He was one of the great talents at the Opera. When he got acquainted with Rolf - late 1917-early 1918 - he had problems at the Opera, was making no progress in the rank of the company, the repertory was rather dull, and he was aspiring to become a choreographer as well. Rolf happened to cross Jean's path at the right time - when he wanted to leave the opera. Which he did thanks to Rolf who took him under his wing. Jean was able to study with the famous Russian choreographer Michele Foucine who he already knew since Foucine had worked at the Opera in 1913/14 and one of the dancers he  had taken out of the chor de ballet had been Börlin. Foucine came to stay in Scandinavia in 1918/1919. So he studied with Foucine and started a career as a dancer and budding choreographer on his own.

One of Nils friends in Paris was a theatre and newspaper man called Jacques Erbertot who brought a company of French actors to Scandinavia including Stockholm in the summer of 1919. Being a friend of Nils in Paris he was introduced to all the artists, also Rolf and Jean. The idea was born to take a company of Swedish actors to Paris as a response to the big success of the French actors here. But they realised later on it was not a good idea because no-one would understand the actors, but perhaps a company of dancers since dance is a language without language barriers. There was a good company at the opera but with a dull repertory, since Erbertot knew Rolf and Jean it was natural that Jean Börlin would be the star of the company going to Paris.

There had been such an idea even before the war when Foucine would have been the star choreographer. Now Rolf wanted to launch the company to get his friend started - as Diaghilev had done with Niijinsky. There are many parallels between the two pair - both men founding the company for their lovers, not doing it in their home country but in Paris. Neither Diaghilev nor de Maré was an artist himself. The big difference between Rolf de Maré and Diaghilev was that de Maré was very wealthy and Diaghilev was not - his life was a constant struggle to find financial-support for his company.

So it was decided that they would go to Paris with a company, Ebertot would help with administration, and in the Spring of 1920 Börlin had a solo recital in Paris - as curtain raiser. The company existed for five years, and when you see the list of collaborators with the company it is a list of the foremost names of artists in Paris in the 1920s. From Legér, Cocteau, Sartie (and many others ????). It became a hothouse for the avant garde in the 1920s and played an important part in focusing ballet and dance for the avant garde and of course the competition between the Ballet Russe and the Ballet Suedoise to be the first to present the newest in Paris in the 1920s. Really Diaghilev followed in the steps of the Ballet Suedoise. For instance when the had started to engage French composers like the group of Le Six, like Milhaud, Poulenc, - Diaghilev was very quick to engage them also as composers for his company. When the Ballet Suedoise introduced film into the ballet Diaghilev also did a production including film in the ballet. There was great competition between the two companies in the 1920s which really pushed it towards a more avant garde, more internationalist but also towards more involvement of the French artists in the two companies. There were great debates around the Ballet Suedois - mainly because what they wanted to do was something completely new. Event if the critics were very harsh sometimes on the one point they agreed - what the company did for French art in the 1920s. They commissioned all these new scores, new librettos, new decor by great French artist of the period - which the Paris Opera didn't do.

C.M-S: So this music from Debussy, and Porter for example was commissioned?

E.N.: The critics said that we can differ on the artistic level. But on this we must agree - what the Ballet Suedois has done for French art - and taken it abroad. The asked why the Ballet Francais wasn't doing for French art what the Ballet Suedois - and the Ballet Russe - was doing for French art. The Ballet Suedois was touring around Europe - and went to the States in this five years.

From the very start of the company there was a big press campaign against the company here in Sweden. It is a very sad chapter in Swedish press history and of the company itself. There really was a notorious, evil-minded, campaign against the company and against de Maré, Börlin and also Nils Dardell. Dardell served as the Eminence Grise since he had all these contacts in Paris, and these artistic friends became collaborators with the company. When Rolf and Jean came to  Paris in 1920 the had already these contacts from Nils.

Throughout the five years there was a very harsh campaign in the Swedish press against them. It is strange that the reason for it was no described until I went through the archives here. The reason was that a Swedish writer and journalist whose name was David Sprengel - a great francophile - also a friend of Nils Dardell, when he got to know about the company starting he offered his services to Rolf de Maré as a public relations person. De Maré even sent him a cheque which Sprengel took as a fee, but he was writing letters to Rolf asking which he didn't inform him of what was going on. Later he understood he was not going to be engaged for this work by the company. He was a very vengeful person - de Maré probably knew of the intrigues around Sprengel and I think he understood it would be difficult if he brought him into the company. This was a mistake, because when he realised he would not be engaged Sprengel took revenge by starting this campaign in the Fall of 1920, with a big, but unsigned article in a major newspaper. But the details in the article couldn't come from anyone else but Sprengel.

There was this big attack on Rolf, Jean and Nils, portraying them as a menage a trois whereby Jean ands Nils were sucking Rolf dry of money and ended by hinting that the grandparents had tried to pay the two men off with large sums of money, and had tried to have Rolf declared non compos mentis. This was a big bombshell with despair and shock from the Dardell family. It was demanded by the family that Nils defend himself against accusations that he was "gay" and the other awful things written in the paper. Nils was better with the brush than with words so he did  a water-colour painting called The Executioner or The triumph of the Swedish Ballet. The article did big damage of course. For years there were articles about Rolf and Jean being lovers and portraying them nastily. When I was looking through the articles the words used were quite extraordinary. They called Jean Rolf's little "vaseline" boy, and relating this to one of the very interesting ballets where Jean danced half-naked. This is the first time this has been brought into the open - and explains why Rolf didn't want to found the company in Sweden because it would have cause a scandal if he had founded the company here in Stockholm for his lover. So it was not only artistic reasons why he went to Paris.

The campaign continued throughout the five years, although when the company came to Stockholm in 1922, the leading art critics said the nonsense should stop because what they are doing is extraordinary and of the highest quality. So at least when they came here they got the deserved artistic recommendation from the leading art critics. But the bitter campaign continued and as late as the 1930s when Sprengel's wife - who was a well-known writer who published novels - which Sprengel partly rewrote - he included in one novel a parody of the Ballet Suedois which he gave the name of a provincial town as if you called something similar in Germany "The Leverkusen Ballet" and depicting it mainly as a disguised brothel. Sprengel could never forget Rolf's cold shoulder. It's a very sad story not only in the history of the Ballet Suedois but Swedish press history. It was using all the homophobia in the press which people asked why? And it is based on the fact that the men were gay. Sprengeler had difficulties with that side of himself - he even wrote about his attraction for young (boys/jungs) although I don't think it became physical. Frequently when you have trouble you take it out on someone else, so it's a complicated story.

Rolf lived in Stockholm most of the war years, but the main reason he lived abroad was that he could live a different life than he could here. For many years he had a coffee farm in Kenya where there was a leisurely type of life and there were no sexual restrictions under the British. Also for his health it was good because he was an asthmatic.

C.M-S.: The musicians that they commissioned music from - were they involved in ballet or not?

E.N.: Both - some were not involved before they came to the company, others were interested already. Cole Porter for instance who lived in Paris for several years in the 1920s had never done anything before for the ballet, and didn't do another one. He was very rich from the beginning Cole Porter - he never had to work. He was leading this rich playboy life along with many other Americans, Scott Fitzgerald and many others who were rich boys living Paris and on the Riviera.

C.M-S.: How did you come to head of this museum?

E.N.: It's a long story, but I had a affiliation with the museum here in the 1970's when I did some exhibitions. Actually it started with me doing some research on Ballet Suedois when I was intending to write a doctoral thesis on that. That got me involved with the museum and the previous director. I was also editor of a dance magazine which the museum published between 1973 and 1981. I was working as a writer and a critic on the performing arts - dance, opera, music, and theatre. Then in 1988 when my predecessor was going into retirement - I was asked by the board if I was interest in becoming the new director. Since I was tiring of reviewing I found it an interesting opportunity to do something else.

C.M-S.: I think you are openly gay yourself -

E.N.: Yes.

The exhibition opened one month ago in New York, and will then move on to San Antonio (Texas) and San Francisco (in June) and this side with the more open gayness attracts a lot of interest there. Now I will continue with research because I have been asked if I would write a book on the topic.

C.M-S.: Is it planned to tour Europe with the exhibition?

Last year it was in Paris, but now it is touring the States for a year. It is an art exhibition and it is very expensive - high insurance costs - since we have something like 70 Legérs alone, so it demands high security.

There were several art exhibitions around the company and many artists were interested in the company and did works of art around the company after it had been in Berlin. In Berlin at one of the big galleries in the 1920s of Alfred Flechtheim - who was also one of the famous gays of the 1920s - he was an art dealer in Paris - also a friend of Nils Dardell.

C.M-S.: When one thinks of all the avant garde art that was going on in the 1920s it was not surprising.

Colin de la Motte-Sherman

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