Le Train bleu


"I would never start over if I wasn’t sure to start a revolution."


On 20 June 1924, Serge Diaghilev, the impresario of the Ballets Russes, presented his new ballet, Le Train bleu, at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in Paris. The ballet was performed on a popular beach where wealthy people paraded around, having a good time, sunbathing, and mincing about. Jean Cocteau penned the libretto, Darius Milhaud composed the music, the sculptor Henri Laurens did the sets,

Picasso did the programme and stage curtain, and Gabrielle Chanel designed the costumes. The casting of dancers was just as prestigious and featured Anton Dolin and Serge Lifar, who can be seen in these photographs. The first was English and the second Russian, both were nineteen, had picture perfect bodies, which were showcased by the costumes created by Chanel, and undeniable charm.

The stage backdrop of Le Train bleu

The stage backdrop measuring ten metres high by twelve metres wide is a theatrical invitation. After a fanfare by George Auric as an opening, this curtain would rise up at the start of the ballet. When Diaghilev convinced Picasso to allow a small 34 x 42 cm gouache on cardboard entitled Deux Femmes courant sur la plage, from 1922, to be reproduced on a large scale for the stage curtain, he had anticipated the visual effect and the impact that these two giant figures would have on the spectator. Alexandre Schervahidze, scenographer, managed the feat of enlarging the subject in less than twenty-four hours. This monumental work was so precise and true to the original that Picasso signed the curtain with his name and a dedication to Diaghilev: Dédié à Diaghilev, Picasso 24. This curtain is the largest piece of work ever signed by Picasso.

Pablo Picasso
Stage backdrop of Le Train bleu
Oil on canvas
1020 x 1170 cm
Victoria and Albert Museum, London (United Kingdom)
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London © Succession Picasso 2013

Le Train bleu

The best synopsis of the provocative and free spirit of Le Train bleu remains that given by Diaghilev, impresario of the Ballets Russes: “The first thing to point out with regard to Le Train bleu, is that there is no blue train. [...]. It has already reached its destination and passengers have gotten off. We can see them on a beach that doesn’t exist, in front of a casino that exists even less. An airplane is flying overhead that you cannot see, and the plot doesn’t tell any story. [...] What’s more, 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 ballet dancer who had never done anything classical. The sets are painted by a sculptor and the costumes are by a famous fashion designer 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 all that, the ballet is one of the most charming pieces you can imagine (seeing).”

Scene from Le Train bleu ballet
BNF/Bibliothèque Musée de l'Opéra, Fonds Boris Kochno, Paris (France)
© Bibliothèque nationale de France
Jean Cocteau with Le Train bleu ballet dancers: Lydia Sokolova (Perlouse), Anton Dolin (Beau Gosse), Léon Woizikowsky (the Golf Player), and Bronislava Nijinska (the Tennis Champion)
Hulton Archive Collection, London (United Kingdom)
© Getty Images/Sasha
Albert Harlingue
Maurice de Brunhoff, Serge Lifar and Serge Grigoriev admiring the stage backdrop by Pablo Picasso for Le Train bleu at the exhibition Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, Paris, Louvre, Marsan Pavillon
Nouveau Musée national de Monaco (Monaco)
© Albert Harlingue/ Roger-Viollet

Serge Lifar

In the ballet Le Train bleu, the dancers are fooling around and flirting, flaunting their perfect bodies, in a parody of the superficial and frivolous society of the Roaring Twenties. Each female role has its male counterpart, as though this leisurely society had erased differences in sex. The four main characters worked as an amorous duo: the tennis champion and the golfer, Perlouse and Beau-gosse. Even the secondary characters are divided into two groups, the Poules (chicks) and the Gigolos, with evocative names. For the couples to work visually, Gabrielle Chanel designed similar costumes, taking after the bathing suit as much as a gymnast’s leotard, giving unity to the ballet. It is certainly this idea of a friendly couple that united Gabrielle Chanel and Serge Lifar, as in this photo from 1937, bearing witness to a steadfast friendship since the creation of Le Train bleu.

Jean Moral
Gabrielle Chanel and Serge Lifar
Dedication “À mon frère Serge, Coco” (To my brother Serge, Coco)
CHANEL Collection, Paris (France)
Photo Jean Moral © Brigitte Moral
Dancers in Le Train bleu ballet: Lydia Sokolova and Anton Dolin in the roles of Perlouse and Beau Gosse
Hulton Archive Collection, London (United Kingdom)
© Getty Images/ Sasha