The highlight of this project is a staging of the restored version of the French composer Claude Debussy’s final masterpiece, the ballet The Toy Box (La boîte à joujoux). Conceived for his daughter Emma, The Toy Box offers a poignant look back at the composer’s favorite musical things. It dates from 1913, and it was left partially un-orchestrated at the time of Debussy’s death in 1919. The basis of this production will be the version of the score premiered in 1918 by the Moscow Chamber Theater. That version of the score includes an unknown "jazz overture."
The scenario was written and gorgeously illustrated in watercolor by André Hellé, a prominent children’s writer. He proposed that toy-boxes are “really just like towns in which toys live like people – or maybe towns are really just toy boxes in which people live like toys.” Like Debussy, Hellé intended the ballet to be performed by children or, if children could not be found, marionettes. Yet when the remarkably innovative Ballets Suédois performed a modified version of the work in Paris in the early 1920s, adults played the roles, alternately winding themselves up and down in accord with the unfolding of the simple storyline.
After a preamble titled “The Toy-Box Asleep,” the four scenes bring the various characters into conflict: there’s a doll, a lovesick soldier, a lazy and irritable buffoon named Punchinello who forces himself upon the doll and wins her favor, plus various other figures, including wooden cutouts of an elephant, ducks, and sheep. The characters spill from the cramped toy-box in scene one, cued by a phonograph record; the stage then transforms into a battlefield, a sheepfold, and a suburban development. Clones of the soldier wage battle with clones of the Punchinello; the soldier is wounded, and the doll tends to his convalescence, their love symbolized by an itinerant rose. Scene four, which takes us “20 years” into the future, finds Punchinello transformed into a village constable; the soldier has grown a large white beard, and the doll considerably plumper. Unable to dance, she tries singing instead, but ballet being ballet, she fails. The suburbanites are now the proud parents of a twin girl and boy, who dance a polka as the décor of the first scene slowly returns.
All of this might sound rather benign, but the music and the ballet that emerged from it is a revelation. The Toy Box offers a corrective to the grinding dissonance and ideological heaviness that characterized artistic trends outside of France. It was, in short, a riposte to German Expressionism and Soviet avant-gardism, an effort to define modernism in a positive rather than a negative way.
For one thing, the characters in the original conception derived from the Italian tradition of commedia dell’arte; for another, there were various visual and narrative allusions to silent film, circus and vaudeville. Scholarship on the music tends to focus on the relationship between Debussy’s score and Stravinsky’s 1911 puppet ballet Petrushka. True, the two ballets share some particular technical details, and there are some common instrumental choices. Close study of the two scores reveals that the connection has been overstated. Debussy’s network of musical allusions proves richer than his rival’s. As is well known, Stravinsky borrowed Russian folksongs in Petrushka. Such borrowings become, in Debussy’s hands, a cluster of gentle-spirited references to the most famous works in the Western musical canon. For example, scene changes in The Toy Box quote from Musorgsky’s "Pictures at an Exhibition." If each scene of the ballet pops up like a page in storybook, what better than to quote from a composition that presents a tour through a portrait gallery?
The Toy Box is about a child’s imagination, and but it is also an attempt to return music and dance to a more innocent state. At its heart lies something of the sentiments the French Symbolist writer Charles Baudelaire expressed in his essay “A Philosophy of Toys.” Baudelaire argues that toys are children’s first exposure to art, to the powers of enchantment. Debussy wanted to take us back to that realm of wonder.
The music for the ballet will be conducted by Princeton’s Anthony D.J. Branker and performed by an expanded version of the Princeton student jazz ensemble (the score includes a lot of references to ragtime) with new choreography by Rebecca Lazier. The Toy Box will appear on the second half of a program featuring another short jazz-age ballet, to be staged by Tracy Bersley.