Dressing Up Dance

Dressing Up Dance

A manner maketh man, we are told, but unquestionably a decent suit of clothes would also help smooth the rough edges of savagery.  When dance started out on its theatrical journey, moving from church to court, from ritual to ceremonial, it became, apart from anything else, a fine excuse for dressing up.  Just take a look at pictures of the old court ballets and masques and you will see the performers weighed down with costumes, bedecked with plumes, bedizened with fripperies.

Right through the 19th-century and then right up to the death of Diaghilev in 1929 and a little way beyond, costumes (and settings) played a vital part in ballet, and, for that matter, much of expressionist or modern dance.  Nor was costume regarded as simply decorative, it had an esthetic and sometimes even dramatic purpose.  The designers clustered around Diaghilev in the days of St. Petersburg’s influential art magazine, ‘Mir Iskusstva’ (‘The World of Art’}, particularly Alexandre Benois and Leon Bakst, were almost obsessed with costume and its possibilities when allied with dance.

They were innovators, revolutionaries in a way, who wanted, among other changes in the whole art of ballet, to bring costumes into a symbiotic relationship with dance.  They had been influenced by people like Isadora Duncan, who used her simple flowing garments as a counterpoint to her movement, and even more by Loie Fuller, whose diaphanous and multi-colored veils became a integral part of her choreographic expression.

The choreographer Michel Fokine, chief proponent and theorist of the ‘new ballet’ during the first decade of the century, went out of his way in his famous ‘Five Principles of Dance,’ to lay out the role of the designer, insisting that his approach “does not demand of the scenic artist that he should array the ballerinas in short skirts and pink slippers.”  Costumes should play a vital part of the collaborative, overall expressiveness of dance.

I imagine that Fokine, not to mention Benois, Bakst and Diaghilev himself, would be horrified at the way dance is costumed today.  How many works – in modern dance and ballet – offer dancers in leotards or impersonal, flouncy skirts, and little else?  The costumes very rarely play a positive part in helping establish mood, atmosphere or style.

Probably the trend was set, and the die was cast, when Balanchine, with surely thrift and economy as the handmaids to his invention, settled upon the Spartan costuming of his black-and-white ballets.  This glorification of ballet practice dress was, of course, in this instance not only a dexterously cheap way to rustle up a new ballet, but also a specific statement of Balanchine’s early neo-classicism.  In effect it said, concentrate on the dance and the music, watch the body and see it sing!

Now this is all very well if you are Balanchine or Robbins, but if you are not, such casual disregard of the art of the costumier is not over-smart.

And even Balanchine – who like Ashton didn’t seem to have a particularly strong visual sense of anything that remained stationary – perhaps lost something in his firm refusal to dress up some his ballets.  Take the interesting example of one of Balanchine’s signature pieces, “Symphony in C.”  Before it was revived by Ballet Society, later to be absorbed into the original New York City Ballet repertory, it started life with the Paris Opera Ballet as “Le Palais de Cristal.”

This original version had incredibly ornate and fancy designs by Leonor Fini, and frankly it looked a mess – the ballet had to be viewed through a mirage of chic.  So when Balanchine staged his Yankee version he immediately put it into the black and white simplicity, somewhat amended by the fancy Karinska tutus for the women, we know today.  Yet was that possibly throwing the baby out with the dirty bathwater?

In the early fifties Balanchine experimented with placing the men in “Symphony in C” in orangey-yellowish costumes, a short-lived innovation that was not a success.  At the same time he abandoned the grotesquely ugly costumes by Kurt Seligmann for “The Four Temperaments” in favor of the black and white, which slowly through a series of choreographic masterpieces became a City Ballet hallmark and also exerted a profound influence on the entire dance world.

Yet did, for example, “Concerto Barocco” or the 1950 version of “Ballet Imperial” (later renamed “Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2″) for Britain’s Royal Ballet, gain anything by losing their original scenery and costumes by Eugene Berman.  In the first instance perhaps yes – the cold crystal clarity of the black and white costuming adding to the limpid yet severe baroque architectonic of the choreography.  Yet Berman’s designs for “Ballet Imperial” – oddly enough never seen in the United States – added immeasurably to the ballet’s sense of Czarist grandeur and Petipa homage.

Style in costume can help the choreographer.  Martha Graham, who for many years designed her own costumes, showed a magisterial command in linking costumes to dance – she could do haiku-like things with a simple cloak – and she was typical, although always exceptional, of her time.  The Diaghilev Ballet, the Ballets Suedois, the post-Diaghilev Ballets Russes, and the emergent companies in England and America, all emphasized the importance of design, an importance which stressed the costumier’s art, whether or not he or she was responsible for the work’s total design, which was then usually the custom.

But dressing for dance has become almost as anachronistic as dressing for dinner.  While as a society we are more concerned than ever with pop-couturier fashion, we seem less and less interested in costuming for the theater, particularly perhaps in ballet.  Obviously this is in part the result of the trend towards dramatic ambiguity and plotless choreography, yet mood, atmosphere and expression still exist in this much sought-after poetic ambiguity.  Music itself does not usually spell out literal dramatic utterances, yet this does not confine it to the kind of bland anonymity whch we find today in most ballet costuming.

So what should the modern costumier aim for?  I think the French had a particular flair for it – especially in those years immediately after World War Two, when a certain essential economy was linked to the inventiveness of the new.   Boris Kochno, Diaghilev’s lieutenant and artistic director of the post-war Les Ballets des Champs-Elysees, had an unsurpassed eye for costumes.  I am thinking of Christian Berard’s costumes for “Les Forains,” Jean Hugo’s costumes for “Les Amours de Jupiter” or Jean Cocteau’s costumes for “Le Jeune Homme et la Mort,” three Roland Petit ballets of the late ‘forties which surely exemplified the art of ballet costume.

Today most of our costume designers lack that level of style, taste and, might one say, class?  Class!  As they so poignantly sing in the Kander and Ebb musical “Chicago”: “Whatever happened to class?”  Or the art of ballet costuming.

Copyright©1999, Dance Magazine.

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