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«As adults, we must try to remember, always, what it feels like to be a child»
– Suzanne Osten

In 1913, André Hellé, author of the libretto of La boîte à joujoux and designer of the sets and costumes of its original production, offers Claude Debussy to compose the music for this short ballet for children. Debussy enthusiastically accepts, dedicating his score to his beloved seven-year-old daughter Claude-Emma (whose nickname is «Chouchou»).

But the following year, the First World War breaks out. The creation process is postponed. Debussy suffers from cancer and dies in 1918, the year of the end of the war. The ballet receives its proper premiere the following year, in 1919, only a few months after the tragic death of «Chouchou».

This work, initially designed as a light piece for children, is strangely marked by drama, by war, by death. The node of the action of the ballet is a battle between toy soldiers and commedia dell’arte characters. A battle between dolls, perhaps, but a battle anyway, between wounded and broken souls.

André Hellé writes: «Toyboxes are sorts of towns in which toys live as people do. Or towns are maybe only toyboxes in which people live as toys.» This sentence has become a guiding lights for my project. What is fiction, what is reality? By playing with toys, children get to practice being grown-ups – they experience and learn about different faces of life.

Everything can be destroyed, suddenly and quickly. It takes time to recover and go back to a normal life. This was the cruel experience of thousands of soldiers after the First World War.

On the other hand, here is what the program says in the 1921 Paris production av La boîte à joujoux by the Ballets Suédois: «Modern ballet, this is Poetry, Painting, Music, as much as Dance.»
These words have inspired me. The poetry of the images and the singular scenography by Bea Szenfeld were essential to create a special and unique atmosphere. The music of Claude Debussy, with its colourful modernity, does not sound like ballet music, but more like pantomime, or like music for a cartoon. This music is so narrative that it is impossible to tell anything else than what it tells. Every section is short and rich in contrast. The creative and sensitive lighting of François Menou emphasized these contrasts and atmospheres.

Actually, as usual in my work as a choreographer, the music gave me the keys to use the right language to descirbe the action: classical dance, contemporary dance, character dance, mime (like in silent movies), human gestures and daily life attitudes. The expressive potential of every movement, classical or not, became a purpose in my work, in an era where abstract movements and spectacular ballet combinations dominate the international stages.

The most important thing for me is to create something timeless, with a storyline that today’s audience can follow without knowing anything about it beforehand. My version of La boîte à joujoux is a story told by the toys themselves, turning the pages of a picture book.

Jean-Guillaume Bart