From the Archive: Anarchists of Style: Barbette

In December 2010, Lisa ntroduced us to Barbette, aerialist phenomenon of the 1920s and 1930s famous for his high wire and trapeze stunts dressed as a woman.

“He walked with a tightrope high above the audience without falling, above incongruity, death, bad taste, indecency, indignation.”

—Jean Cocteau

man ray

We suspect that Barbette, aerialist phenomenon of the 1920s and 1930s, might disagree with being categorized as an “Anarchist of Style.” Anarchy can be, well, so disruptive. In his heyday, his closest were tout Paris; in 1969 this “spare and very erect man,” cringed as a waitress lay down a spoon with a tad too much noise. “Since those years in Paris,” he told a journalist, “I’ve never been able to readjust to crudity.” [1]

Nonetheless, Barbette came to fame doing high wire and trapeze stunts dressed as a woman. His performances were, in his words, “not just an imitation of a women’s trapeze act, but, rather a mystification and a play on masculine-feminine contrast.” [2] Mirroring the enthusiasm of elite Parisian fans such as Jean Cocteau, Janet Flanner, in a 1930 correspondence for The New Yorker, described a chute d’ange fall as taking on “mythical quality of a new Phaethon deserting the sky.” Jean Cocteau, who considered Barbette a muse, called him “an angel, a flower, a bird.”

 

His Persona: While clothed as man in daily life, Barbette’s extravagant onstage costumes included a sequined cape and a dress adorned with 50 pounds of white ostrich plumes.

Cocteau described Barbette’s presence on stage as “a real masterpiece of pantomime, summing up in parody all the women he has ever studied, becoming himself the woman—so much so as the eclipse the prettiest girls who proceed and follow him on the program.”[3]

c. 1924, unknown

“On stage, against black velvet curtains appeared a young woman in a silvery-gold wig topped with plumes and feathers, with a train of rich lamé and silver lace, undressing on a couch of rich oriental carpets,” wrote author Jacque Damase in his history of the Paris music-hall.

“The woman then rose, naked except for the gems on her breast and belly, and began walking a [low] steel tight-rope. Her eyes shaded green, like some mysterious Asiatic jewel, she walked backwards and forwards along the tight-rope, dispensed with her balancing-pole, and contorted her thin, nervous body as the entire audience held its breath… Then Barbette leapt down on to the stage, gave a bow, tore off her wig and revealed a bony Ango-Saxon acrobat’s head: gasps from the astonished audience, shattered by the sudden brutality of the action.” [4]

His  Story: Born Vander Clyde in 1904 in Rolling Rock, Texas, Barbette’s mother changed his life. “The first time she took me to a circus in Austin,” he said, “I knew I’d be a performer, and from then on I’d work in the fields during cotton picking season in order to go to the circus as often as possible.” [5]

After graduating high school, he joined the sister-act, the World Famous Ariel Queens in San Antonio. His first act of gender-bending was pure business. In his interview, one of the sisters explained that “women’s clothes always make a wire act more impressive—the plunging and gyrating are more impressive,” Barbette recalled. “She asked if I’d mind dressing as a girl. I didn’t and that’s how it began.”

man ray

As Barbette began to develop his own act, the gender bending took on a more intellectual inspiration. “I’d always read a lot of Shakespeare, and thinking that the marvelous heroines of his plays were played by men and boys made me feel like I could turn my specialty into something unique. I wanted an act that would be a thing of beauty—of course it would have to be a strange beauty.”

After performing across the United States, Barbette traveled to Paris in 1923. He was soon taken up by society and the avante guard. He was cast in Cocteau’s first film, Le Sang d’un Poete (The Blood of a Poet), as one of a group of Chanel-clad theater-goers giving a standing ovation after the suicide of a card player. (He was “absolutely dismayed” upon seeing the film.)

man ray, 1926

In 1938, after performing at Loew’s State in New York, he was stricken by pneumonia and “a sudden crippling affliction of the bones and joints.” Hospitalized for 18 months, the great performer had to learn to walk again. He continued in the theater, although backstage as a trainer. But it seemed he missed the refinement of the good old Paris days. “I know I’ll be lucky” he told a reporter in 1969, “ if in return for my very handsome salary I succeed in persuading a few young trapezists just not to chew gum during the act. Imagine!”

Barbette committed suicide in 1973.

(Lisa and Monica collaborated on this post.)

For further discussion see:

Cocteau, J and Man Ray. Barbette, 1989

Goldbarth, A. Different Fleshes. Hobart & William Smith, 1979.

Tait, P. Circus Bodies: Cultural Identity in Aerial Performance. Routledge, New York. 2005.

 

 

Notes:

[1-3, 5] Steegmuller, Francis. “An Angel, A Flower, A Bird.” The New Yorker, September 27, 1969.

[4] Damase, J Les Folies du Music-Hall; A History of the Paris Music-Hall from 1914 to the Present Day, English translation of the original 1960 French edition, Anthony Blond Ltd, London, 1962.

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