Since the days of Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes, fashion designers and choreographers have worked together to create extraordinary costumes and memorable theatrical events. I spoke to Roger Leong, curator of the latest NGV Ballet & Fashion exhibition to get his take on value of collaborative design.
When Serge Diaghilev produced Le Train Bleu (The Blue Train) in 1924 he went in search of a costume designer who would push the boundaries. Renowned for his avant-garde productions which brought together some of the greatest artistic talents of the day, Diaghilev wanted someone who would be ‘truer than true’.
Coco Chanel was the perfect choice. A maverick designer who revolutionised women’s fashion in the early 20th century, she chose comfort over corsets and in the process completely redefined modern style. Unsurprisingly, her response to Diaghilev’s rather broad brief was characteristically elegant and practical.
Le Train Bleu was a light-hearted one-act ballet set on the French Riviera in the mid 1920s. It satirised the Paris elite who travelled south each summer on the blue train to bask in the Cote d’Azur sun. Rather than design special costumes, Chanel chose to dress the dancers in quintessentially modern-day sports clothes from her own collection – black tank bathing tops, striped wool jerseys, tight-fitting knitted culottes and loose tunic dresses. This decision (and the backdrop by Pablo Picasso) firmly set the ballet in the contemporary world. It also resolutely took fashion out of the couturier’s salon and onto the stage.
While Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes carved out a new path for creative collaboration, the relationship between ballet and fashion have had a much longer association.
In the 17th century Louis XIV set new standards of dress and culture in the French court that were soon emulated by nobles across Europe. An accomplished dancer himself, Louis instinctively knew how to harness the power of theatre, dance and design. When he was still a young man he performed a series of dances for the court in Le Ballet de la Nuit (Night Ballet). For his final piece he appeared in a dramatic costume of golden rays that earned him the moniker, Sun King.
Two centuries on, costume designers were now taking their cue from the popular dress fashions of the day. Delicate puffed sleeves, v-pointed waistlines and bouffant skirts became the signature look for Romantic-era ballets such as Les Sylphides and Giselle. The long bell-shaped tutu, and its later incarnation the ‘powder-puff’, is still used for ballets around the world today.
By the turn of the 20th century, modern dance proponents in America, such as Isadora Duncan and Ruth St Denis, were taking charge of the wardrobe department. Corsets, tutus, tights and ballet shoes were abandoned in favour of bare feet, light tunics and the freedom to move as desired. A revolutionary idea at the time, it continued to inspire designers and choreographers for decades to come, including those associated with Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes,
It is those later decades that are the focus of the NGV’s exhibition Ballet & Fashion. A joint project between the NGV and the Australian Ballet, this exhibition showcases some of the most successful collaborations between Australian and international fashion designers and dance companies over the past 30 years.
From Christian Lacroix’s Moulin Rouge-inspired Can Can costumes which were created for American Ballet Theatre’s production of Gaîté Parisienne (Paris Gaiety) to the surrealist fantasies of Victor & Rolf’s creations for the Nederland Dans Theatre ballet 2 Lips and Dancers and Space, the exhibition shines a light on the connection between fashion and art.
The creative process, which culminates in a ballet production, is an endless source of fascination for the exhibition’s curator of international fashion and textiles, Roger Leong.
“Every creative partnership is unique,” says Leong. “Some designers and choreographers collaborate very closely, almost symbiotically, while others work in complete isolation bringing their creations together at the end. Whatever the case, these partnerships can produce utterly surprising, inventive and beautiful works.”
Merce Cunningham is a case in point. Known for his love of leaving things to chance, Cunningham often separates out the production elements of a ballet – music, choreography, set design, costumes and lighting. So when they are all united in the performance at the end of the process, there is always a degree of uncertainty about how it will work.
Cunningham’s collaboration in 1997 with Rei Kawakubo of the French-Japanese fashion label Commes des Garcons illustrates this perfectly. He knew exactly what he was going to get when he asked Kawakubo to produce costumes for his ballet Scenario. Her brief was to create garments just like those in her 1996 ‘Dress Meets Body, Body Meets Dress’ collection.
The costumes were made from fine stretch fabric with padded protuberances inserted in seemingly arbitrary places on the garment. This not only distorted the dancers’ bodies, but also changed the way they responded to the choreography.
“Cunningham choreographed the dance separately before Kawakubo’s costumes arrived,” Leong says. “He left the dancers to cope with the unexpected consequences of the lumps and bumps in odd places on the costumes.”
The way that costume design can impact on the development of the choreography is a common theme in fashion and ballet partnerships. In Trace, a new work commissioned by the Australian Ballet for their 2010 Bodytorque series, the individual creative processes became completely intertwined.
Alice Topp, dancer and choreographer, worked closely with RMIT fashion graduates, Georgia Lazzaro and Crystal Dunn to create a contemporary ballet that focussed on the interplay of costume and movement. From the outset Todd and the designers used the fabric itself to determine the choreography for Trace.
“The dance developed because we worked out what fabrics weren’t strong, what fabrics were going to tear, what provided more resistance, what had more elasticity, what could stretch,” says Todd, “The fabric dictated all the movement. It created it’s own dance vocabulary.”
This integral connection between movement and fabric is also familiar to Graeme Murphy and Akira Isogawa who have worked on five productions together over 14 years. In their most recent collaboration for the Australian Ballet’s 2011 production of Romeo & Juliet, Akira created a skirt with a long train that Murphy loved so much he changed the choreography for Juliet’s dance specifically to show off the design.
Leong believes this is typical of their creative partnership. “Over the years they have developed a way of communicating and sharing ideas where they no longer need to say all that much to each other after an initial discussion,” he says. “It seems Murphy knows what Akira is thinking, and Akira what Murphy is looking for.” There’s no doubt that together they’ve created some of the most memorable dance productions in recent times.
“There’s a wonderful artistic relationship between Graeme Murphy and Akira – they know how each other thinks,” says Leong. “Just by being in each other’s proximity and looking at what each other is doing, they are somehow communicating visually.”
According to Leong this is atypical. “The partnership is one of the most significant ballet and fashion collaborations anywhere in the world. There are very few designers who have worked on that many productions with one choreographer.”
That is, unless of course we go back to Diaghilev and his troop of designers, artists, musicians, dancers and choreographers who worked with him on multiple productions until his death in 1929.
There are probably good reasons why this kind of enduring creative partnership is relatively rare in the world of fashion and ballet. At the very least it’s a huge undertaking for a designer to clothe an entire company for a full-length narrative ballet.
When Akira first started working with Murphy in the late 1990s, he was dressing around 16 dancers at the Sydney Dance Company. With Romeo & Juliet he designed costumes for 70 dancers which translates into more than 300 items of clothing.
All in all, quite a feat – one that doesn’t leave all that much time for the designer’s normal day job. Which is where fashion and ballet really start to merge – the designs of the runway often influence the costumes of the stage, and the inspiration for costumes design ends up in the high-end boutiques of the West.From Chanel and Kawakubo to Akira and Lacroix, the relationship between the fashion and dance is borne out of a special kind of collaboration that, as Vogue Australia Editor-in-Chief Edwina McCann says “(is) art in motion, given life by the human form”.
A sentiment that Diaghilev would surely agree with if he was still around today.
The Ballet & Fashion exhibition was held at the National Gallery of Victoria from 3 November 2012 until 19 May 2013.