Relâche and the Bearded Ladies premiere ‘The Bearded Ballerina’

John Jarboe of the Bearded Ladies will appear in the latest Heath Allen premiere. (Photo by Plate 3 Photography.)

The June 18 program at the Relâche Ensemble’s season finale at the College of Physicians combines music, performance, and film in a way that may remind audiences of the antics and accomplished artistry of Relâche through the decades.

The Second Annual Dina Wind Commission Concert will feature The Bearded Ballerina, a world premiere from Heath Allen,  composer of Opera Philadelphia’s smash 2015 production Andy: A Popera. Allen is also known for his collaborations with vocalist/performer John Jarboe and the Bearded Ladies Cabaret, which co-produces this new commission.

Relâche, an ensemble for contemporary music, is approaching its 40th year, and this concert is a homecoming for some of its earliest members, including bassoonist Chuck Holdeman and composer/musician Allen.

“The theater is dark tonight”

Allen and performer John Jarboe, who will wear a (likely outrageous) costume designed by fellow Bearded Ladies member Rebecca Kanach, all share a taste for wicked satire. For this show, Allen looks back to the historical Dada movement of iconoclastic artists in the 1920s.

Founded in the late 1970s, the Ensemble was named after the 1924 ballet Relâche, which premiered in Paris as part of a Dadaist multimedia work. Relâche, directed by Francis Picabia, joined choreography by Jean Börlin with Entr'acte, a film by René Clair, all set to music composed by Erik Satie.

Relâche is French for “respite” or “rest” — or, more specifically in this case, “the theater is dark tonight.”  In a Dadaist practical joke, the first performance of Relâche was canceled, causing uproar from the large audience waiting outside (the show actually premiered the next week and ran for a year). Today, the Bearded Ladies riff on Clair’s film, featuring a bearded ballerina filmed from beneath a glass table.

“John [Jarboe] suggested I contact London poet Matthew Hurt for the lyrics,” Allen said. Hurt’s resulting poem, The Bearded Ballerina, contains the refrain, “A barbe is a beard is a prick!” (A “barbe,” in case you don’t know, is one of those bushy beards fashionable young men grow to make themselves unattractive to anything but a bear.)

Allen says Relâche’s early days were different than the Ensemble’s current form: “Joe Franklin, founder and director, was the guiding force. It was not the set octet it is today.” It used a wide range of instrumental configurations and vocalists, including Arthur Sabatini and Barbara Noska.

In developing this year’s show, Holdeman had heard Allen’s Popera and promoted him as a candidate for the Wind Commission. Dina Wind, a notable Philly artist and arts patron, served on the Relâche board for ten years. “After her death in 2014, her estate included an endowment for the Ensemble,” Holdeman said. “As an artist, she was a collagist, and the concept of collage in theater inspired Heath [Allen].”

A feast of music and film

The College of Physicians (located above the Mütter Museum) has a concert venue with seating for up to 250. Holdeman says the large space, with multiple movie screens, is ideal for the upcoming film-heavy program.

The concert features Ryan Olivier’s Suite Mash-up (a 2015 Dina Wind commission), accompanied by a stop-motion animation by Sean Olivier using images from Wind’s own artwork. Holdeman created a scanty score for Maya Deren’s 1944 film At Land.

“Deren did not intend any music, as far as we know,” said Holdeman, “so when I was composing I left some silences out of respect for her presumed intentions.”

Two of accordionist and composer Guy Klucevsek’s works, Still Life with Canon and Swither; Kyle Gann’s The Planets; and the dream sequence with Edward Everett Horton from the 1925 silent film Beggar on Horseback by James Cruze, with improvised music arranged by the Ensemble members, round out the program.

The Second Annual Dina Wind Commission Concert, presented by the Relâche Ensemble and the Bearded Ladies Cabaret, is coming up on Sunday, June 18, at 3pm at the College of Physicians, 19 S. 22nd Street, Philadelphia. Tickets ($15 to $25) are available online and at the door.

At right: The Relâche Ensemble accompanies Beggar on Horseback. (Photo by Chris McGlumphy.)