On 22 July 1919 the curtain rose at the Alhambra Theatre in London for the première of The Three-Cornered Hat, which delivered a dose of Andalusian culture to the British capital, albeit through a Russian ballet company.
Based on the original novel by Pedro Antonio de Alarcón, the ballet was performed to traditional Andalusian folk music, composed by Cadiz-born Manuel de Falla. Instead of classical ballet steps, The Three-Cornered Hat mostly used the techniques of Andalusian dance, adapted or rather simplified by Russian choreographer Léonide Massine. Another famous Andalusian, Pablo Picasso, was brought in to add his avant-garde touch to the staging of the ballet.
The Three-Cornered Hat was commissioned by Russian ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev, who had started working with Picasso in 1916, when he invited him to help with the staging of Parade in Paris. It was through that first experience in set design that the artist met his future wife, Olga Khokhlova.
For Diaghilev, Picasso was an obvious choice to design the set for The Three-Cornered Hat, a ballet about his native Andalucía. On 25 May 1919, Pablo and Olga arrived in London, the artist's first visit to the British capital. The Picassos stayed in room 574 at the Savoy Hotel, the ballet's headquarters. On 1 June a Sunday newspaper, the Weekly Dispatch, carried what would have been the first interview with Picasso in England.
The artist was given a space to work at 48 Floral Street in Covent Garden. It was a large, top-floor room reached by a narrow staircase. Picasso used to go daily to the studio, and showed a keen interest in the work of the scene painters, among them Vladimir Poluin. The artist asked them to respect the individuality of his drawings and to pay particular attention to their colours. Picasso had also done individual sketches of the dancers' make-up, and even applied it himself.
It is thought that the painter felt especially responsible for correctly depicting Spain, or rather Andalucía, in England, through the ballet. So his stay in London was almost totally devoted to the project, although he did have some time to look around. On one occasion, he asked Clive Bell, an English art critic, to accompany him on a visit to the East End.
Composer Manuel de Falla had arrived in London in June to prepare the show. However he was unable to conduct the first performance as he had to return to Andalucía to see his dying mother. He left hours before the curtain rose. As it did, it revealed to the audience a mill in the Andalusian countryside.