A pencil drawing of a stock market alarm

Set Design for the Carlos Chávez Ballet “HP”

Carlos Chávez was an influential composer in post-Revolutionary Mexico. During his illustrious career, Chávez wrote a number of musical scores, while also working as a teacher and journalist and founding the Mexican Symphonic Orchestra. He was well-known for his interest in the music of Mexico’s native peoples and his inclusion of many types of indigenous music into his groundbreaking, modern compositions. He wrote a total of five ballet scores between the years 1921 and 1968, a majority of which had as their theme the relationship between native cultures and the contemporary industrial world.

One of these ballets was the cryptically named H.P. (Horsepower). This “ballet- symphony,” as it was referred to by John Martin in his 1932 review of the premiere performance for the New York Times, had its start in 1926 as a compilation of ideas formed between Chávez and his friend, Diego Rivera. It was decided that Chávez would compose the musical score and Rivera would design the costumes and sets. Although the two men started working on the ballet immediately, it was not until 1932 that the piece was actually produced, as Chávez was working on a variety of projects simultaneously, and Rivera was preparing for the 1930 opening of his one- man show of paintings and murals at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Originally it was the hope of Rivera’s dealer and Chávez’s agent, Frances Flynn Paine, that the ballet’s opening would coincide with Rivera’s exhibition at the MoMA but it proved impossible for Chávez to finish the music in time.

The ballet itself was a rather abstract project that lacked a concrete plot. It was conceived of as four movements that all took place against the backdrop of a cargo-ship. Leopoldo Stokowski, the ballet’s orchestral conductor, described the four acts as follows: one, “a steamship leaving New York for southern waters”; two, “passengers have forgotten the steel-edged, jagged life of the North as they approach the tropics”; three, “the music turns from the abstract, and grows completely languorous and sensuous”; and four, “the closing episode takes the passengers back…into the North of prohibition and machine civilization.”

In January 1931, the decision was made that the Philadelphia Grand Opera Company would put on the ballet in its upcoming season and H.P. was built up to be the major cultural event of the year. However, after opening to a packed house that included Rivera, Kahlo, George Gershwin and Aaron Copland, the reviews of the premiere were quite mixed, ranging from applause for its lively nature and modern subject matter to disappointment at its lack of ingenuity in choreography and harsh, literal musical score. However, most critics agreed that Rivera’s contribution to the ballet was a brilliant success and a true feast for the eyes. Mary F. Watkins, the dance critic for the Herald Tribune, wrote,

The setting, costumes and general scheme are the products of Señor Rivera’s genius, and what color and humor and emphasis there are in the work is largely due to him. His fishes, mermaids, coconuts, sugar cane, bananas, cigars and gasoline pumps provide something new and distinctive in ballet investiture; retain as well the qualities of sunlight and simplicity which have been the secret of his success.

Rivera’s elaborate, brightly colored set was seen as imaginative and eye-catching as well as his costumes, which were described by Modern Music’s Marc Blitzstein as “riotous in color, and projecting the amiable product of a child’s imagination.”

Overall the ballet was not a success but Rivera proved himself to be quite capable of this type of artistic work. H.P’s single performance received a great deal of press and Rivera went on to work with Chávez on his next ballet Los Cuarto Soles.

More Works by Diego Rivera