This autumn, Paris pays tribute to its worldwide known Opéra costume ateliers, through two unique exhibitions.
The first one ‘L’étoffe de la Modernité, Costumes du XXème Siècle à l’Opéra de Paris’, held last September at the Palais Garnier, traced back a whole century of the famous theatre’s history.
The second one is held until December 31st 2012, in central France’s small town of Moulins, at the CNCS (National Center of Stage Costumes and Scenery), a museum that gives us the chance to take a closer look at the wonderful work of Couturier Christian Lacoix who designed costumes for the ‘La Source’ ballet, presented at the Palais Garnier in 2011.
The exhibition shows go through each step in the setting up of this ballet performance, from inspiration boards, to the choreography (by Jean-Guillaume Bart) and scenery sketches (by Eric Ruf).
The Paris National Costume Workshops employ 153 people for 44 productions a year for both the Palais Garnier and Opera Bastille.
Each performance can count up to 530 costumes, as was the case for director Yves Beaunesne’s ‘Carmen’. For the ‘La Source’ ballet, 128 costumes had to be made, 55 for male dancers and 73 for female ones.
The Opéra’s workshops include several departments: sewing, millinery, jewellery, costume decoration, footwear, knitwear, fabric library, and wig and makeup units. In addition, there are wardrobe units with 32 dressers, a refurbishment workshop and a laundry/dry-cleaning one.
Mastering all the Haute Couture techniques, these ateliers have also received specialized training for stage costumes, which enables them to design pieces from different historical periods just as well as more contemporary outfits like tuxedos. Their exciting but difficult task requires endless hours of handiwork and a constant search for creative and practical solutions, all on a tight schedule as they prepare several productions plus international tours all at once.
‘La Source’ was a challenge for the theatre as it was a ‘remake’ of a typically French ballet in two acts and two ‘tableaux’, initially staged in 1866. It tells the ‘Orientalist’ tale of a cruel Khan and his harem, nymphs, a Spring Goddess and the tormented love story of Hunter Djemil and the beautiful Nouredda.
Having designed costumes for numerous ballets (‘Tarnished Angels’ for Karole Armitage and ‘Gaîté Parisienne’ for Mikhail Baryshnikov’, etc) and Opera productions (‘Thaïs’ by Jules Massenet at the MET, New York, 2009 and ‘Agrippina’ by Handel at the Berlin State Opera in 2010), in the past, Couturier Christian Lacroix was very enthusiastic about this new project.
After closing his Couture House in Fall 2009, Lacroix stated that: “(his) approach was never a purely ‘fashion’ approach; on the contrary, (he) used stage techniques in order to produce (his) Couture ideal, since (he) was always more or a theatrical, operatic designer than a trendsetter or a ‘streetwear’ designer…” (cited in ‘Fashion Designers at the Opera’, Helena Matheopoulos, Thames & Hudson, 2011)
When asked about ballet costumes’ characteristics, Lacroix explained that they must be ‘readable’ from far away, just like the scenery, which they must complement, on the contrary to Haute Couture outfits, which are meant to be seen and examined from up close. Costumes need to be extremely lightly adorned and the weight of the decorations used (pearls, Swarovski crystals, etc) has to be spread across the whole surface of the garment. All different pieces are sewn together to guarantee the artist’s comfort, while minimizing dressing and undressing time, as dancers usually have less than four minutes to change costume.
The Opéra Garnier has a long tradition of employing famous painters for its scenery (Maurice Denis, Georgio De Chirico, André Derain, Jean Cocteau, Marc Chagall and Victor Vasarely in 1984) but the use of acclaimed designers for its costumes dates back to the ‘Ballets Russes’ and Serge Diaghilev who was the first to commission Coco Chanel for the ‘Train Bleu’ costumes in 1924.
Ever since, numerous famous designers have experimented with ballet costumes, like Yves Saint Laurent (‘Notre Dame de Paris’, 1965) or Kenzo Takada (‘The Enchanted Flute’, 1989), among many others.
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