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Bells [1950, Paris, Théâtre des Champs-Elysées]

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Film Identifier: F.2011-05-0101
Run Time
0h 27m 45s
Date Produced
May 1950
(The) Bells is a ballet in 5 episodes, choreographed by Ruth Page and based on the poem of the same name by Edgar Allen Poe. It was premiered on April 26, 1946 at the Chicago University Composers Series; it was originally performed by Page, J. Andrews, and R. Josias. It was then produced by the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo (in August at the Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival in Lee, Massachusetts and September 6 at the City Center, New York). Later program descriptions suggest the ballet is about a married man who seeks refuge from his broken marriage with a group of homosexuals. The collapse of the chapel set at the end is meant to be a symbolic representation of the disintegrating marriage and society as a whole. This version was filmed during a 1950 European tour of Les Ballets Americains (Ruth Page & Bentley Stone's dance company of the time). One of the key stops on this tour included a performance in Paris, accompanied by members of the José Limón Company (Limón himself, Pauline Lawrence, Betty Jones, Lucas Hoving, and Pauline Koner). Les Ballets Americains, managed by the French agency Le Bureau de Concerts de Paris, was the first American ballet company to perform in Europe after World War II, appeared at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in May. This film appears to be recorded at this point; (The) Bells was included in the company's repertoire alongside Frankie and Johnny, Billy Sunday, Americans in Paris, The Moor's Pavane, and La Malinche. In her article “Paris Dance Audiences” (1950, housed at the New York Public Library's Jerome Robbins Dance Division) Page describes the scandal that greeted this Paris performance in particular.
The film begins with a shot of a chapel roof, including a tower and six bells, simply constructed against the back curtain of a stage. (Part I) Four female dancers, apparently dressed as bells, perform an opening number containing both balletic and vernacular dance elements. They are followed by the entrance of a couple, which performs a pas de deux. (Part II) Then all exit and the back curtain is raised to reveal the remainder of the chapel: four tall columns supporting the roof. Six angels then perform a dance together. Soon, the man from the couple slowly enters from the back of the stage, walks through the 'entrance' of the chapel, and performs a solo; he is soon followed by the woman, dressed in bridal clothes. Once the two appear to 'get married,' the bride's wedding clothes are taken away and they perform another, longer, pas de deux. (Part III) A group of witch-like characters in pointed hats then enters and attempts in various ways to tear the couple apart. (Part IV) Following these suspicious characters, another group attempts to separate the couple, and with more success. This group consists of a male leader and a set of hooded minions carrying batons/swords. The leader focuses on winning over the husband, seeming to hypnotize him into mimicking his own steps; the hooded figures mainly hold the wife captive. (Part V) During the final section, the leader is joined by numerous other minions, including one of the witch-like figures from earlier, who he reveals to be a well-dressed man. During this chaotic final scene, both the husband and wife begin stiff marches around the stage and are ultimately torn apart; then the chapel falls down completely and the leader stands triumphant.
00:05-00:15 - The film opens with a slightly out of focus shot of a stage, on which the only set is a simply constructed chapel roof and steeple featuring six bells 00:16-00:27 - A woman costumed in a white dress and hat enters and performs a brief solo, consisting of both ballet steps and vernacular 'twist'-like dance steps 00:28 - Two more women join her from stage right, and it becomes apparent that they are perhaps meant to represent bells. 00:40-01:15 - The film comes fully into focus as the three women form a circle at center, and then open out into various formations while dancing at times in unison and at times not 01:15-02:32 - A fourth "bell" enters from stage left and joins the dance formation; they continue to dance in a ballet-based style with vernacular elements imported 02:33-04:33 - A couple enters from upstage left and performs an amorous pas de deux that includes both petite allegro sequences and grand lifts 04:33-04:47 - As the couple melts to the ground, apparently enveloped in their love, three of the "bells" rush back in from stage left and dance around the couple 04:48-05:32 - The fourth bell joins them again from stage right; as the bells circle the couple, they rise from the ground and join the bells' dance. Then, all exit. 05:38-05:56 - The back curtain begins to rise and brings with it the chapel roof & steeple, revealing behind it the four tall columns supporting this roof. At the same time, four feathery angelic characters enter, two from each side of stage, and begin a bourrée-heavy dance. 05:57-06:20 - Two more angels join from stage right, and the group begins an ensemble dance in unison 06:20-06:40 - The man from the couple slowly walks in from far upstage right, crossing behind the chapel columns and then turning through its center as if through a doorway toward center stage. As he does so, the angels form a "V" beckoning toward him. 06:41-07:38 - The angels then pose stoically and watch the man perform a solo, eventually accompanying him with slow background movements and simple accents. 07:38-07:56 - The man's bride appears from the upstage right corner as the man continues his solo and the angels beckon toward her; she, too, slowly walks toward and through the center of the chapel. As she arrives, all others kneel. 07:58-08:33 - The bride slowly approaches her groom, who is still kneeling and watching her from downstage; she performs a brief solo before him and the angels 08:33-9:01 - As the bride reaches her groom, three of the angels pick up her train and follow her slowly around the stage while the other three circle the groom 09:02-10:20 - The angels all kneel and watch the couple dance together slowly at center; then three angels remove the bride's large bridal gown and the other three remove her veil. All of the angels bourrée offstage and leave the couple alone. 10:20-12:35 - The couple performs a long pas de deux, during which the camera comes in and out of focus. 12:35-12:48 - As the couple ends their dance in a final embracing pose, two witch-like characters in black cloaks and pointed hats drag themselves in from stage right on their stomachs and flank the couple. 12:50-13:15 - The witches claw at the wife and the couple tries to escape upstage; the witches then stand up and begin a threatening dance which upsets the once-happy couple. 13:15-14:25 - A third witch enters from stage left and helps to briefly separate the couple from one another; all three then menacingly circle the couple, shrink to the ground, and take turns launching back up at the couple. They are continually rebuffed by developés from the woman. 14:25-15:40 - Three more witches then enter and surround the couple, but again the couple fights back, largely via the man swinging his wife and her legs at them. Then the witches manage to separate the couple again, lifting each one, kicking, high over their heads. 15:41-16:55 - Again, the couple reunites and attempts to ward of the witches, who fall to the ground, get up again, jump around, and form a cluster in between the now-desperate couple. After reuniting for the final time, they seem to fall to the ground in exhaustion as the witches are frightened off stage right by the entrance of a single male figure in a dark unitard and a feathery headdress from upstage left. 17:07-18:35 - Four more dark figures, all hooded and en pointe, enter from each corner of the stage to join this leader. They each hold two long knives or batons and march to surround the couple on the ground. 18:35-20:15 - The leader tries to pull the (conscious) wife away from her (apparently unconscious) husband, but she runs back to him; even as the leader pulls her away, she reaches back for him. 20:15-20:50 - As if hypnotized, the husband rises and joins the leader and his processional in a march around his wife, who he only acknowledges briefly. 20:50-21:55 - Like the witches before them, the four hooded figures drag the wife away from her husband, who proceeds to struggle with the leader as his wife is restrained. 21:55-22:53 - Just as the leader successfully subdues the husband, the wife breaks free from her captors and attempts to break the spell on her husband, who the leader leaves kneeling at downstage left. 22:53- 23:38 - The wife finally seems to successfully woo her husband back, but then the leader appears from stage right with a witch. The leader removes the witch's cloak and hat to reveal a well-dressed gentleman not unlike the husband, who also seems hypnotized. As the two men bow to the leader's commands, the wife despairs and is once again corralled by the hooded figures. 23:38-24:20 - The wife breaks free to join forces with her husband but the two are wobbly together, whereas this unmasked witch jumps onto the leader's shoulders and they appear strong against the couple; in moments an army of minions appears from stage right, and six immediately mount the shoulder of the other six to form an army double-tall. 24:20-27:00 - The couple is repeatedly separated and subdued, even as they continue to rejoin one another. The wife becomes just as hypnotized as the husband (as evidenced by her stiff mimicry of the various 'evil' marchers). 27:00-27:45 - Following the couple's final embrace, crouched at center and surrounded by the various evil characters, the husband emerges and performs the hypnotized march in a circle; as the wife watches, the chapel roof comes back down and the entire structure collapses. The leader, triumphant, spreads his arms wide, while the rest fall to the ground. The film ends here.
Additional Credit
Milhaud, Darius (is composer)
Page, Ruth (is choreographer)
Related Place
Paris (production location of)