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Clothing the Naked.

WE GOT THE IMPRESSION that George Balanchine--that musical weaver of visual miracles and architectural fantasies--didn't give much of a damn for the gentle art of costuming. Practice clothes and leotards--that Spartan black and white of his imperial guard-- seemed, for the most part, good enough for him. Nor was his taste in original costumes very good-remember those first Kurt Seligmann costumes for The Four Temperaments, which made the dancers look like refugees from a peculiarly oily Greek salad, until common sense was restored by putting the dancers in the plain black-and-white garb. Balanchine was lucky that when he did move beyond that school uniform he had at his command the glorious taste and style of Barbara Karinska.

Of course, costume for the dance has a long and honorable tradition that extends from the elaborate Inigo Jones creations for Elizabethan masques, and all those equally fantasticated costumes which characterized the early dance of the Renaissance when ballet itself was in its infancy. During the Romantic period and throughout the whole nineteenth century, ballet costumes became both simpler and more formalized.

By the end of that century, the ballerina's long tutu and the premier danseur's tights, trunks and maillot became de rigueur and virtually standardized. It was Serge Diaghilev and his circle, including, of course, the designers Alexandre Benois and Leon Bakst, and perhaps most significantly the choreographer Michel Fokine, who really revolutionized the whole idea of dance costuming in the course of revolutionizing the whole idea of dance.

It is clear that the "new ballet" postulated at the beginning of the twentieth century was intended to give new creative freedom to the designer. Fokine himself laid this out in his celebrated "Five Principles" contained in a letter to The Times of London on July 6, 1914. As part of his Fifth Principle he wrote: "It does not demand of the scenic artist that he should array the ballerinas in short skirts and pink slippers. It does not impose any specific `ballet' conditions on ... the decorative artist, but gives liberty to their creative powers." Complete liberty--as long as the dancers can move.

Designing for ballet is a very special branch of stage design, involving as it does two absolute prerequisites that can prove crippling to the average stage designer's imagination. As far as scenery is concerned, the dancers must be given space to move--thus normally all settings have to be kept to the back and sides, leaving the center stage free. As for the costumes, except those for certain mime roles, these have to be constructed to offer the dancer total freedom of movement. This involves skills and techniques not encountered in ordinary stage costuming--obviously a Hamlet always has to be mobile, but only in a ballet version of the play might he be required to perform a double tour en l'air.

So the physical requirements of ballet impose their own limitations on the designers. Costumes cannot be too heavy, fripperies and flapperies must be discouraged, and unusual freedom of arm movement must be permitted. Then again, it is not a good idea to use too many encrusted "jewels," otherwise every pirouette is apt to give your ballerina the unfortunate air of casting pearls before swine.

Yet within these limitations, and even to an extent because of these limitations, the challenge to designers has generally been inspiring. Through the Diaghilev era and even beyond, great artists, such as Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse and Andre Derain, started to design for ballet, and their costumes had a wit, charm and, perhaps most important of all, an aptness that made them an essential part of the ballet. Look at Picasso's costumes for The Three-Cornered Hat or, particularly, Parade, or Derain's costumes for La Boutique Fantasque, and you will see an imagination and a sort of integral appropriateness rarely encountered in ballet costumes today.

Nowadays, instead of using artists, dance tends to use designers, even fashion designers, a trend that perhaps was unwittingly started by Diaghilev himself when he commissioned Coco Chanel to design the costumes for Le Train Bleu, but that commission was something altogether different from the Bolshoi inviting Givenchy to provide the costumes for its new Giselle. Despite this occasional incursion of fashion designers and others--sometimes to good effect--costume design in dance has become altogether simpler, at times looking like an art if not lost, at least straying.

Modern dance is indeed very often a matter of a blank stage and leotards--a condition sometimes, one feels, as much a question of economy as design. And in modern dance we have also seen certain trends (hinted at by Duncan and later German expressionists, and used, on occasion, even by Doris Humphrey) toward costume at its bare minimum--nudity. In classic ballet this is not so popular--as Sir Robert Helpmann, on being asked to comment on nude ballet, once memorably remarked: "Not a very good idea, because all those bits jiggle rather dangerously." In modern dance they can sometimes jiggle less.

Whether nude or in modishly modified practice clothes (which is what so much dance is today performed in), my own feeling is that dance, be it classic or modern or all those varieties in between, often lacks the designer's touch. Theatrical dance should ideally be a combined operation of choreography, music and design. Clearly, choreography is the most important of these elements--no one goes to dance primarily to look at scenery and costumes or even (pace Balanchine) to listen to the music.

All the same, a well-designed dance, with costumes that are exciting, imaginative and appropriate, can surely offer something that mere basics rarely muster. This doesn't mean that I want to see Merce Cunningham, with his immaculately picked but simple costuming, or even those plainly dressed Balanchines, thrown to the mercy of an artist's whimsy. Simplicity in costuming has always had its own reward and has never been more rewarding than in pure dance. Clearly, too much concentration on the bathwater of design may involve throwing out the baby of dance--but sometimes a little bathwater is actually worth keeping with the baby. An empty bath tends to be a chilly place.

Senior editor Clive Barnes, who covers dance and theater for the New York Post, has contributed to Dance Magazine since 1956.
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Title Annotation:Costume and dance history
Author:BARNES, CLIVE
Publication:Dance Magazine
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:00WOR
Date:Oct 1, 2000
Words:1038
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