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November 01 2011

Dancers can tell us little about Picasso's dance art

English National Ballet's rehearsals alongside the Tate's Picasso show will be fun – but they cannot illuminate his complex attitudes to dance

English National Ballet are to take up residence at Tate Britain next spring, holding rehearsals in the long classical Duveen Gallery that cuts the building in two. Dancers will lead classes at the gallery and their presence will tie together the Picasso show with English National Ballet's Beyond Ballets Russes season.

But Picasso was deeply ambivalent about dance – as is obvious from one of the greatest works in the Tate collection. His 1925 painting Three Dancers is one of the most violent and unsettling works he ever created. It may strike some people that Picasso's cubist paintings are inherently "violent" in the way they take apart faces and rearrange the human form. When the first world war broke out, the dislocated perceptions that Picasso and his close collaborator Georges Braque brought to painting in their cubist revolution offered a way for artists to see the brutal conflict.

But the cubism of Picasso's art before the first world war is not intended to be violent or brutal: it is a scientific analysis of reality. It was when he returned to a jarring cubistic style in works like Three Dancers that his convolutions of face and body became images of psychic tension and crisis – observe the blue hole in a chest that reveals blue sky beyond, the faces reduced to savage cartoons.

What changed? Some of Picasso's anger was, as it happens, the result of dance and dancers. As soon as he became famous, he had been drawn by the impresarios Jean Cocteau and Sergei Diaghilev into the world of ballet, where high art and high society entwined. Picasso worked intensively with the renowned Ballets Russes. It was his doorway to a new upper-class international set – and one result was that he married the Russian dancer Olga Khokhlova. Another result, narrated along with this catastrophic marriage in the third volume of John Richardson's biography, was Picasso's first visit to London to design the Ballets Russes production Le Tricorne. Presumably this is why Tate Britain has invited in the English National Ballet to celebrate its exhibition about Picasso's influence in Britain.

But Picasso was no Matisse, whose art praises dance so ecstatically and calmly, and he was no multimedia postmodernist, either. When you look at his painting Three Dancers you are looking in part at his disillusionment with the classicism and theatricality that he brought to his work with the Ballets Russes.

Picasso's work in ballet was an important part of his biography and he created some powerful stage images, especially in Parade. But how much does it help, in trying to understand his paintings, to have ballet dancers in the gallery? Not a lot, because Picasso on canvas is Picasso on canvas, and his art demands direct engagement with the powerful and complex ideas within it. Nothing can ever turn his art into entertainment. If it is popular, it is because we crave real radicalism of mind and heart, and respond to the power of a truly original imagination if we do not immediately comprehend it. Dancers at the Tate will be fun. But they will not have much to tell us about Three Dancers. © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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