Les biches

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Les biches French: [le biʃ])[n 1] is a one-act ballet to music by Francis Poulenc, originally choreographed by Bronislava Nijinska and premiered by the Ballets Russes on 6 January 1924 at Monte Carlo.[1] Nijinska danced one of the leading roles. In the corps de ballet was the young Ninette de Valois, who, as director of the Royal Ballet four decades later, persuaded the elderly Nijinska to restage the work.


Sergei Diaghilev, proprietor of the Ballets Russes, contacted Poulenc in November 1921 with a proposed commission.[n 2] The original plan was that Poulenc should write music for a ballet scenario with the title Les Demoiselles, written by the fashion designer Germaine Bongard. The following July it became clear that Bongard did not wish to go ahead; Poulenc wrote to his friend and fellow member of Les six, Darius Milhaud, that instead "I will probably write a suite of dances without a libretto."[1] At about the same time he told Igor Stravinsky that after consulting Diaghilev and his costume designer, Marie Laurencin, "I have a clear conception of my ballet which will have no subject – simply dances and songs."[3]

The titles of the numbers in the score indicate that Poulenc followed this plan, but he nonethless retained two important features of Bongarďs proposed work: a choral element, with unseen singers giving a commentary on the action, and the "demoiselles".[1] In an analysis published in The Musical Quarterly in 2012, Christopher Moore describes the former as reminiscent of Stravinsky's Pulcinella, and the latter as "a corps de ballet of flirtatious young women".[1] For the texts, Poulenc spent a considerable amount of time in the Bibliothèque nationale de France, seeking out texts for the choral interjections.[4] He found what his biographer Carl B. Schmidt describes as "some slightly obscene eighteenth-century texts", which he used in three of the numbers in the score.[5]

Poulenc struggled to find the right name for the ballet, and eventually had the idea of calling it Les biches, echoing the title of the classic ballet Les Sylphides.[5] His chosen title is, as he admitted, untranslatable into any other language.[5][n 3] The word biche is usually translated as "doe," an adult female deer; it was also used as a slang term for a coquettish woman. Moore expands on the definition: "As has been often noted, the word biches is itself pregnant with double entendre, referring most obviously to does, but also, in the underworld of Parisian slang, to a woman (or ironically, a man) of deviant sexual proclivities."[6]

By the middle of 1925 Poulenc had completed the first version of the score, after some help with details of orchestration from his teacher, Charles Koechlin.[7] In late October, at Diaghilev's request, he travelled to Monte Carlo to help supervise the production.[7] The composer was delighted with the work of the choreographer, Nijinska, which he described as "ravishing"; he wrote to Milhaud that she had truly understood his score.[8] Between November 1925 and the premiere in January 1926, Poulenc, together with Nijinska, oversaw, by his estimate, "at least 72 rehearsals or close to 250 hours of work".[8]


Poulenc revised the orchestration comprehensively in 1939–1940 (published 1947). He extracted a five-movement suite from the full ballet score (1948), omitting the overture and the three choral movements. The suite is dedicated to Misia Sert.[9] The published score specifies the following instruments: woodwind: 1 piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 1 cor anglais, 2 clarinets, 1 bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, 1 contrabasson; brass: 4 French horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, 1 tuba; percussion: percussion bass drum, field drum, glockenspiel, snare drum, suspended cymbal, tambourine, tenor drum, triangle; celeste, glockenspiel and strings.[10]

The score of Les Biches is sometimes described as neoclassical.[11] The form of the piece – an overture followed by a number of unlinked movements – follows 18th-century musical practice, and Poulenc set out to follow classical precedent in his tonal and harmonic writing. He wrote to Milhaud:

Les Biches will be very clear, sturdy and classical. The opening ensemble fluctuates between F major, dominant, sub-dominant, relative minor, etc … just like the finales of classical symphonies; "Jeu" is in E, B, A, etc… and the final "Rondeau" is in D, A, G, etc. For the songs, I have some beautiful but slightly obscene texts (from the 18th century).[12]

The analyst Gérald Hugon writes that other influences on the young composer's score are French eighteenth-century song (in the Rondeau), ragtime (in the Rag-Mazurka) and composers ranging from the classical era (Mozart and Schubert) to contemporaries such as Stravinsky and Prokofiev, via Tchaikovsky: Hugon quotes Claude Rostand's comment that according to Poulenc the Adagietto was inspired by a variation from The Sleeping Beauty.[13] Poulenc's biographer Henri Hell finds the score "irresistibly evoking the art of Domenico Scarlatti".

The complete ballet score comprises an overture followed by eight movements. The second (Chanson dansée), fourth (Jeu) and seventh (Petite chanson dansée) contain parts for unseen chorus. The published score stipulates a minimum of twelve singers (four sopranos, four tenors, four baritones), although it also seems to indicate that at the premiere there was only one voice to each part.[n 4] When Poulenc revised the score he made the vocal parts optional.[15]


The overture begins quietly, in 4/8 time in C major with a slow duet, marked tranquillo, for flute and bass clarinet. After about one minute the rest of the orchestra enters, the key changes to E major and the tempo to allegro vivace.[16] After several changes of time signature the overture ends with a reprise, at a faster tempo, of the opening theme.[17] The playing time is about 3m 30s.[18]


After a three bar introduction marked "very slow", the Rondeau switches to an energetic allegro molto in F major. The movement is dominated by a theme for trumpet which recurs throughout.[19]

Chanson dansée[edit]

"Chanson dansée": text and translation

Men's voices only.

This movement is the first of the three choral sections in the original version of the ballet; it is for male voices with orchestral accompaniment. It begins quietly, with a theme marked "quieto", which in its five bars switches between 4/8 and 6/8 time. This is followed by a strongly rhythmic song for male voices, beginning in 2/4 time in D major, with a later interlude where the key switches to D-flat. The original theme returns to conclude the movement.[20]


The plaintive melancholy of the Adagietto finds Poulenc at his most affecting, in the view of the analyst Paul Horsley. Unlike much of the score it does not have frequent changes of key or time signatures, and is dominated by an oboe theme in its outer sections.[21] Milhaud wrote of this movement, "I know of no other music that touches me so intimately, so completely."[22] The initial mood of wistful charm – "doucement mélancolique" according to the score – is temporarily shattered by loud rhythmic interruptions from brass and percussion, before the music becomes calm again, leading to a quiet close.[23]


"Jeu": text and translation


  • Men's voices: plain text
  • Women's voices: italic text
  • Both: bold text

This is the first of the two choral movements for female and male voices. The words are those of a father hoping to marry off his four daughters, and the questions the daughters ask him about picking a husband. The movement is marked "presto", and switches throughout between 5/4, 4/4 3/4 and 2/4 time.[24]


The movement begins "presto" in 3/8 time, switches to 6/8 and then 9/8, with a later rapid succession of time signatures, including changes from from 2/4 to 4/4 to 5/4 and 6/4 within seven bars. Towards the end of the movement the perpetuum mobile halts and is replaced with a conclusion marked "très calme".[25] Horsley comments that although the movement reflects the fashion for jazz in 1920s Paris, "most listeners will hear more of Paris here than Scott Joplin". As for the mazurka of the outer sections, it is "a long way from Chopin’s piano works of this genre".[22] At more than six minutes' duration this is the longest section of the ballet.[18]


The conductor Norman Del Mar comments that despite the marking, this movement is closer to allegretto if taken at the composer's quite brisk metronome mark. The music veers between what Del Mar calls "gentle ingenuousness" and "rumbustious moments".[26] Towards the end of the movement the music becomes very loud, the brass predominating, but the closing bars, led by the woodwind are marked "très calme" before a final emphatic chord for the brass and lower strings.[27]

Petite chanson dansée[edit]

"Petite chanson dansée": text and translation


  • Men's voices: plain text
  • Women's voices: italic text
  • Both: bold text

In the second of the two choral sections for female and male voices the men woo the women offering laurels as a present; the women insist on bouquets of wallflowers before they will accept the men.[28] The movement is marked "moderato non troppo". As in other movements, there are several changes of time signature, but 4/4 predominates.[28]


The finale is marked presto, at mimim=108, a tempo so fast that Del Mar judges it barely playable. It is, he says, "virtuoso writing and needs spectacular playing".[29] A short section in the middle of the finale is more relaxed, but the tempo increases again and the initial theme returns at the same high speed as before to conclude the piece.[30]


Like the music, the choreography of Les biches is neoclassical. In an article about Les biches written in 1930, Frederick Ashton wrote, "the whole ballet is new, and yet it is, at the same time, composed entirely of classical movement with a new expression."[31]

The preface to the published score states: "The action passes in a large, white drawing room with just one piece of furniture, an immense blue sofa. It is a warm summer afternoon and three young men are enjoying the company of sixteen lovely women. Just as in 18th-century prints, their play is innocent in appearance only."[32] At the premiere the sofa was a magnificent piece of furniture which the Grand Théâtre de Monte Carlo borrowed from the grand casino next door.[33]

The work comprises an overture and eight successive tableaux depicting, in Moore's words, "various scenes of coquetry and seduction".[1] The critic of Le Temps, Henry Malherbe, wrote after the ballet was first given in Paris that in this piece "atmosphere replaces action": in the absence of a plot the composer was free to present a ballet that "does not express anything precise and logical, other than a succession of characters that are pleasing to watch."[34] His fellow critic, Raoul Brunei, described the piece as "a choreographic fantasy whose meaning is not very clear."[1] Moore gives the last word on the plot to the English dancer Lydia Sokolova, a member of the company in the premiere: "There was no story to Les biches – it was far too chic to have anything so obvious".[1] Not only did the ballet have no plot: its characters were not given names, although commentators have frequently invented them. The original programme listed the scenes and participants thus:[35]

Rondeau Mmes Doubrovska, Devalois, Maikerska, Nikitina, Coxon, Allanova, Soumarokova, Chamié, Komaroira, Rosenstein, Soumarokova II, Zalevska
Chanson dansée MM Léon Woizikovsky, Anatole Wilzak, Nicolas Kremnew
Adagietto Vera Nemtchinova
Jeu Vera Nemtchinova
MM Anatole Wilzak, Léon Woizikovsky, Nicolas Zverew et ensemble
Rag Mazurka La Nijinska, MM Léon Woizikovsky, Nicolas Zverew
Andantino Mme Vera Nemtchinova, M Anatole Wilzak
Chanson dansée Mmes Lubov Tchernicheva, Lydia Sokolova
Final Mmes Nijinska, Vera Nemtchinova, Lubov Tchernicheva, Lydia Sokolova
MM Anatole Wilzak, Léon Woizikovsky et ensemble

Companies such as the Royal Ballet that have revived Nijinska's ballet have maintained the anonymity of the characters.[36] Although not labelled in Nijinska's production, the main characters have come to be known by descriptive titles. They are

  • The Hostess, in party attire with pearl necklace and a long cigarette holder (originally danced by Nijinska).[37]
  • Three male athletes dressed for rowing.
  • "La garçonne", or "the girl in blue" or "the page boy": a sexually ambiguous figure played by a ballerina dressed in a boy's costume of blue velvet, who dances a pas de deux with one of the athletes.[38] The role was originally danced by Vera Nemtchinova.
  • "The grey girls": two young women whose interactions suggest they are a lesbian couple.[38]


The ballet was staged in Paris by the Ballets Russes, at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, on 26 May 1924, just over four months after the Monte Carlo premiere. Diaghilev persuaded André Messager to conduct.[39] The cast was unchanged. As at Monte Carlo, the performance had what Hell describes as a triumphant reception.[40] The critics were mostly enthusiastic, with the exceptions of Adolphe Boschot, who thought it a caricature, Emile Vuillermoz, who thought the music monotonous,[41] and Olin Downes, for The New York Times, who reported that the piece was "pretentious and artificial" and the music "the last word in insipidity".[42] Those who praised the work included Cocteau, Louis Laloy, Boris de Schlözer, Henry Malherbe.[41] and the Paris correspondent of The Times, who judged the choreography "ingenious" and the score "full of irresistible good spirits and delicious tunes".[43]

Diaghilev took the ballet to London in 1925. There was some speculation beforehand that the official theatre censor, the Lord Chamberlain, might ban the piece for its suggestions of unconventional sexuality, but a licence was granted to perform it, and it was given at the Coliseum, under the title The House Party. The ballet critic of The Times was tepid about the music, the choreography and the designs,[44] and did not mention, as the highly favourable review in The Manchester Guardian did, the enthusiasm with which the public had greeted the piece.[45] The cast was largely the same as at the premiere, but Anton Dolin replaced Anatole Wilzak as Vera Nemtchinova's partner in the Andantino.[46]

Wassily de Basil's Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo included Les biches in its repertoire in the mid-1930s.[47] In the late 1940s the Grand Ballet du Marquis de Cuevas revived the work;[48] Nijinska, as the company's chief choreographer, supervised the revival.[49] The company included Les biches in its London seasons and gave the New York premiere of the piece in 1950; the company included Marjorie Tallchief as the garçonne and George Skibine as the leader of the three athletes. In The New York Times John Martin called it "one of the masterpieces of the modern ballet".[50]

In 1964 Ninette de Valois – a member of the original cast, and by this time director of the Royal Ballet – invited Nijinska to re-create the ballet at the Royal Opera House.[51] Svetlana Beriosova danced Nijinska's old role of the hostess; Georgina Parkinson played the garçonne.[36] Subsequent performers of the role of the hostess in the Royal Ballet's production have included Deanne Bergsma, Monica Mason, Marguerite Porter, Darcey Bussell and Zenaida Yanowsky; the garçonne has been danced by Vergie Derman, Viviana Durante, Mara Galeazzi and Leanne Benjamin.[52]

The work has been less frequently staged in the US than other Diaghilev ballets.[53] The visiting Royal Ballet company presented it in New York in 1968; in 1982, Irina Nijinska, the choreographer's daughter, staged a revival for the Oakland Ballet, and the following year that production was seen in New York, given by the Dance Theater of Harlem. That staging was notable for including the three optional choral sections, sung by a solo soprano, tenor and baritone.[53]

Notes, references and sources[edit]


  1. ^ An untranslatable term, in this context. The literal meaning of "biche" is "doe" – a female deer, but for the nuances of the term in French usage see the main text of the article.
  2. ^ According to Poulenc's biographer Carl B. Schmidt, it is possible that Jean Cocteau, the guiding force of Les six, put the idea into Diaghilev's mind, but it is also possible that Cocteau was retrospectively exaggerating any input he may have had.[2]
  3. ^ Commenting on this fact, Poulenc observed that in London the ballet was given under the title House Party.[5]
  4. ^ "Artistes du chant (Monte-Carlo): Mme Romanitza; M. Fouquet (ténor); M. Cérésol (baryton)".[14]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g Moore, p. 305
  2. ^ Schmidt, pp. 123–124
  3. ^ Schmidt, p. 124
  4. ^ Schmidt, pp. 124–125
  5. ^ a b c d Schmidt, p. 125
  6. ^ Moore, p. 319
  7. ^ a b Schmidt, p. 103
  8. ^ a b Moore, pp. 305 and 335
  9. ^ Poulenc (1948), p. 1
  10. ^ Poulenc (1948), pp. 1, 19 and 36
  11. ^ Moore, Christopher. "A Perfect Accord: Music and Gesture in Francis Poulenc's Les Biches", Les Cahiers de la Société québécoise de recherche en musique, 13(1-2), September 2012, pp. 97–104
  12. ^ Quoted in Moore, Christopher. (2012). "A Perfect Accord: Music and Gesture in Francis Poulenc's Les Biches", Les Cahiers de la Société québécoise de recherche en musique, 13(1-2), September 2012, pp. 97–104
  13. ^ Hugon. Gérald. Notes to Naxos CD 8.573170 (2014)
  14. ^ Poulenc (1924), unnumbered introductory pages
  15. ^ Harrison, Max. "Period Piece", The Times, 26 September 1981, p. 15
  16. ^ Poulenc (1924), pp. 1–2
  17. ^ Poulenc (1924), pp. 10–11
  18. ^ a b Notes to EMI CD set set 5099997216551, "Poulenc Integrale: Edition du 50e anniversaire 1963–2013", 2013
  19. ^ Poulenc (1948), pp. 1–18
  20. ^ Poulenc (1924), pp. 18–28
  21. ^ Poulenc (1948), pp. 19–36
  22. ^ a b Horsley, Paul. "Suite from Les biches", Program notes, Philadelphia Orchestra, retrieved 21 June 2018
  23. ^ Del Mar, pp. 183–184
  24. ^ Poulenc (1924), pp. 36–56
  25. ^ Poulenc (1948), pp. 36–83
  26. ^ Del Mar, pp. 188–189
  27. ^ Poulenc (1948), p. 98
  28. ^ a b Poulenc (1924), pp. 78–86
  29. ^ Del Mar, p. 190
  30. ^ Poulenc (1948), pp. 99–127
  31. ^ Oberzaucher-Schüller, Gunhild. "Biches, Les", The International Encyclopedia of Dance, Oxford University Press, 1998, retrieved 20 June 2018 (subscription required)
  32. ^ Poulenc (1948), unnumbered introductory page
  33. ^ Schmidt, p. 129
  34. ^ Quoted in Moore, p. 305
  35. ^ Poulenc (1924), unnumbered preliminary page
  36. ^ a b "Les biches, 1964", Royal Opera House performance database, retrieved 21 June 2018
  37. ^ Burt, p. 93
  38. ^ a b Craine, Debra, and Judith Mackrell. "Biches, Les", The Oxford Dictionary of Dance, Oxford University Press, 2010, retrieved 20 June 2018 (subscription required)
  39. ^ Poulenc, p. 44
  40. ^ Hell, p. 28
  41. ^ a b Hell, pp. 27–28
  42. ^ Downes, Olin. ""Diaghileff Ballet Russe in Paris Loses Its Originality and Color", The New York Times, 27 July 1924, p. 125 (subscription required)
  43. ^ "Music in Paris: Russian Ballet Season", The Times, 3 June 1926, p. 12
  44. ^ "Russian Ballet", The Times, 26 May 1925, p. 14
  45. ^ "E. B.", "Russian Ballet: The House Party", The Manchester Guardian, 26 May 1925, p. 19
  46. ^ Grein J. T. "The World of the Theatre", Illustrated London News, 13 June 1925, p. 1148
  47. ^ Martin, John. "The Dance: A New Troupe", The New York Times, 28 June 1936, p. 6X (subscription required)
  48. ^ "Classic Music and Surrealist Scenery: New Ballets and Revivals in London by the Grand Ballet De Month Carlo", Illustrated London News, 16 July 1949, p. 101
  49. ^ Martin, John. "The Dance", The New York Times, 5 October 1947, p. 6X
  50. ^ Martin, John. " Nijinska's Ballet is Presented Here", The New York Times, 14 November 1950, p. 37 (subscription required)
  51. ^ Percival John. "Thoroughly modern medley", The Times, 7 June 1991, p. 7
  52. ^ "Les biches", Royal Opera House performance database, retrieved 21 June 2017
  53. ^ a b Kisselgof, Anna. "Ballet: Nijinska 'Biches,' by the Harlem Dancers", The New York Times, 29 January 1983, p. 16


  • Poulenc, Francis (1924). Les biches complete ballet: vocal score. Paris: Heugel. OCLC 976572560. 
  • Poulenc, Francis (1948). Les biches: suite d'orchestre. Paris: Heugel. OCLC 435921801. 
  • Poulenc, Francis; Stéphane Audel (ed); James Harding (trans) (1978). My Friends and Myself. London: Dennis Dobson. ISBN 978-0-234-77251-5. 
  • Schmidt, Carl B (2001). Entrancing Muse: A Documented Biography of Francis Poulenc. Hillsdale, US: Pendragon Press. ISBN 978-1-57647-026-8. 

External links[edit]