Sarah J. Townsend is Associate Professor of Spanish and Portuguese at Penn State University. She is the author of The Unfinished Art of Theater: Avant-Garde Intellectuals in Mexico and Brazil (Northwestern University Press, 2018) and co-editor of Stages of Conflict: A Critical Anthology of Latin American Theater and Performance (University of Michigan Press, 2008).
Sarah J. Townsend
During the final days of 1919, an exquisite animal unfurled its wings on the stage of the Théâtre Fémina in Paris. Composed of Russian émigré artists, the company known as the Chauve-Souris was directed by a voluble and rotund Armenian named Nikita Baliev, who doubled as the master of ceremonies and regaled the audience in his comically poor French during the intervals between the brief scenes. Among the Chauve-Souris’s colorful depictions of pre-revolutionary Russia was “La Nuit chez les Tsiganes,” in which an ensemble of gypsy women sang for the patrons of one of Moscow’s oldest and most legendary restaurants. “Katinka” featured a buxom young woman wearing a stylized version of a Russian peasant’s garb who performed a stilted polka, her body moving with the jerky motions of a mechanical doll to the cues of a peasant man and woman at her sides. The revue also offered a nod to local traditions with its dramatization of the French folk song “La Clair de la Lune,” and the exoticism of the Orient added to the allure of “La Fontaine de Bakhchisarai,” a two-part tableau inspired by a Pushkin poem about lust and violence in the harem of a Crimean khan. “It is not dramatic theater,” mused an enraptured reviewer who found his skills of classification befuddled, “nor is it lyric theater, or music hall, or cabaret, but all of them at once, with singular power and taste.” Other critics compared the Chauve-Souris’s synthesis of song, dance, dialogue, lighting design, painting, and pantomime to the cinema. Wrote one: “before the eyes of the spectators pass, as in a film, subtle and stylized tableaux of characteristic images that are shaded with barely perceptible but lively touches, intonations, and gestures.”