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Daniel Pratt on costumes for ballet

Posted on May 1, 2018

I wasn’t in London for the premiere of Christopher Wheeldon’s Corybantic Games in March, but a profile published on British Vogue’s website of Erdem Moralıoğlu, Wheeldon’s costume designer for the Hellenistically-infused ballet, excited me. Fashion and dance are intoxicating bed fellows; it’s satisfying that a contemporary fashion designer from the UK is working with a company of The Royal Ballet’s profile. Fostering these partnerships is what invigorates ballet. Both art forms have many parallels, particularly in their esoteric symbolism: a dress is not simply a dress in fashion, the same way a pas de cheval is not simply taking one’s foot off the floor in ballet. This month, I won’t be giving you an authoritative consideration of costume within dance, but instead a personal reflection on my relationship with the clothes I have worn on stage.

I’ve noticed a change in my preferences with each passing season; my general rule today seems to be the less costume the better, at least for dancing in. It was not always so. The first costumes that left an impression on me – though I didn’t wear them – were Yolanda Sonnabend’s designs for Anthony Dowell’s 1987 production of Swan Lake. It was early in my ballet-going, but the textures and jewel-tones of Sonnabend’s palette had a confidence and drama that took flight in my mind. I even had the luck a few years later to talk to Sonnabend on the telephone. I was doing GCSE Art and Design and my final project used her designs as a starting point. I fired off a hopeful email to her agent, found by some judicious googling, received a positive reply and conducted a brief phone interview. The arrogance of youth – no notes from this conversation remain. What I can recall is how she wanted the silhouette of the swan to quietly infiltrate the shapes of the costumes: dresses would bulge at the rear to suggest the folded wings of the birds. The way the soft, rhythmic curves of ovals and eggs were used throughout the designs to embody an expectation, an anticipation of something significant that befitted the story and satisfied Sonnabend’s symbolist agenda. This was a lesson in how design covertly communicates across the footlights.

Small, significant details worked along the same lines in the Karinska-designed tunic I wore for a role in George Balanchine’s Emeralds. These touches even helped illuminate some aspects of my choreography. The bottom panel of the tunic is fringed with scallops, triangles and, finally, verdant diamond shapes finely connected with gold thread so they moved freely. It recalls medieval chainmail, as well as some of the delicate diadem formations for the female corps de ballet in the ballet’s opening. Indeed the fragility of these burnished shapes relates to the way in which I partnered my ballerina during the “Walking pas de deux”, Balanchine making use of origami-style “finger-tip” partnering. Karinska’s designs across all three ballets that make up Jewels are masterful with these details. The way the motifs on the men’s tunics recall yet depart from one another displays the same creative enterprise a composer like J S Bach employed in the Goldberg Variations. You might think it’s frivolous to compare a composer with a designer, but the quality and innovation of design and construction is just as comparable between one and the other. These tunics were made in two parts: an undervest for the sleeves with a beautiful puff at the shoulder to give the arm the shape of Michelangelo’s David, and an embroidered body that rested on top. They were a pleasure to wear and move in.

In Liam Freeman’s article for Vogue, Erdem makes reference to how his designs for Corybantic Games are influenced by his previous work, and indeed previous eras. This archaeological layering, where one thing is simply not of itself, is true of the designs by Cecil Beaton, Sophie Fedorovitch, André Levasseur and André Beaurepaire for Frederick Ashton’s post-war ballets. For me, Beaurepaire’s costumes for Scènes de ballet are the apex of the kind of sophistication these designers acquired, now crystallised forever, a touchstone with a glamorous time now swept away. Virginia Woolf wrote that clothes “change our view of the world and the world’s view of us,” a sentiment that reveals the transformative quality of costumes. They hold talismanic power for the dancer, enabling us to curate the movement style of different eras. It’s interesting to note how I’ve seen a ballerina’s pirouettes improve when a coach told her to imagine she was wearing a stiffly boned tutu as you would see in a 19th-century ballet like The Sleeping Beauty. Costumes help us “embody a character”; Nicholas Georgiadis’ designs for Kenneth MacMillan’s ballets – Mayerling and Manon most sumptuously – are virtuosic examples of how a designer can alloy authentic historical representation with the physical needs of executing dance steps.

Fashion is the art of adorning the human body, so it says more than your nakedness allows. Today, I’m beginning to feel more comfortable with my unadorned frame. Dancing in Balanchine’s black and white ballets have been exhilarating experiences because your limbs are transformed into architecture, taking yourself and the spectator on a metaphysical journey. Within that lies an honesty and ease I’ve only felt in skin-hugging Lycra.

It was curious for me to confront these feelings writing this blog. Though dancers spend hours every day scrutinising themselves in the mirror, we have fragile relationships with our body image. I think you eventually reach a level of acceptance and confidence. You realise time is limited, you won’t always have the Apollonian shape you have during your dancing days, so why not celebrate your form now? Royal Ballet soloist Olivia Cowley once posted on social media a picture of herself in a brown unitard, writing that it was her audition unitard during her graduation year. Cowley said wearing it would make people believe she was confident, even if she felt the opposite. Perhaps, in a similar way, I wear the same design of unitard – a different colour for each day of the working week – to take class and rehearse in. You’re being honest with yourself in a liberating way. Merrill Ashley wrote that people always stripped down to the simplest leotard and tights when Balanchine taught class, and that during her career, Ashley was never attached to leg warmers or baggy layers detracting from the body’s line. It was how Balanchine knew you were there to work, not simply to warm up.

This could seem like a harsh sentiment, one that resonates with the hard monochromatic look of ballets such as The Four Temperaments and Agon, but it’s one that affords the human form the tantalising drama it deserves. Erdem’s designs for Corybantic Games in their nude tones, made of fabric of such “low denier they almost appear naked above the waist” responds – unknowingly – to Balanchine’s puritanical utilitarianism. There will always be tunics and tutus, achingly glamorous, even freshly interpreted, like Karinska’s puff ball tutus for ballets such as Raymonda Variations and Diamonds, but these will have the feeling of dressing-up. Dancers are at their most frank when it’s just their physique in front of you. Perhaps one day I’ll grow to hate confronting my body in Lycra. Perhaps that will be my warning light to stop. As Wheeldon-muse Lauren Cuthbertson said: “what would be the point of hating something I’m supposed to love?”

Pictured: Dancers of The Royal Ballet in Corybantic Games. Photographs by Andrej Uspenski.

For a different view of the costumes for Corybantic Games, see the Letters page of the May 2018 issue of Dancing Times.

Daniel Pratt was born in south London, and trained with Janie Harris and Stella Farrance. He attended The Royal Ballet School Associates Programme, and then Central School of Ballet. He is a dancer with Sarasota Ballet and has written a number of articles for Dancing Times.

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