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  • Writer's pictureEllen Wilkinson

Learn more about: A ballet skirt from a century ago - the journey of a Diaghilev costume

Updated: Oct 25, 2023

Le Dieu Bleu, the third exotic ballet staged in 1912 Paris by the trailblazing impresario Sergei Diaghilev for the Ballet Russes, was not a success. Critics described Reynaldo Hahn’s music as “insipid” and Michel Fokine’s choreography as “posed”. Nevertheless, Léon Bakst’s vibrant costumes and set design, inspired by posters from the Royal Ballet of Cambodia’s 1906 trip to Paris, was the ballet’s redeeming feature.

A temple servant skirt costume designed by Léon Bakst for the Ballet Russes' 1912 production of 'Le Dieu Bleu'.

I enter a spacious, bright studio at the Royal Academy of Dance (RAD), catching sight of a striking patterned skirt hanging over a ballet barre, which poses as a costume rail. It is adorned with intricate green and gold triangles, and immediately evokes the Ballet Russes, whose bold visual revolution was as integral to the company's creative influence as its controversial choreography and innovative compositions.The skirt last saw the stage under the twinkling lights of the Théâtre du Châtelet, alongside ballet star Vaslav Nijinsky, and made up part of a costume for a temple servant in Le Dieu Bleu.

It returns to the spotlight in the Odyssey Festival Orchestra’s forthcoming Astonish Me! concert at the Cadogan Hall, which combines orchestra, narration and costume to celebrate the music commissioned by Diaghilev for the Ballet Russes, evoking a flavour of the early 20th century’s multidimensional artistic bravado. I meet a young dancer, Daniel Harrison, and costume designer Annabel Lewis, who has created a bespoke shirt, sash, and pair of dark green pantaloons to make up a complete costume for the Odyssey Orchestra's concert. I ask her how costume-makers of the time would have constructed a piece like the temple servant’s skirt, where Léon Bakst’s eye-catching, flamboyant design sought to contrast the elegant ballet costumes of the previous century.

Each costume was beautifully and meticulously drawn by Bakst before they were made; the original drawings are stunning pieces of artwork. The style of this skirt, with the shape of the patterns and a lot of gold braiding, was very prominent in Bakst’s work.

Annabel Lewis studied at Arts University Bournemouth graduating from Costume with Performance design in 2015. Most of her work has been in TV and Film with credits including Barbie, Wonder Woman 1984, multiple series of The Crown, The Great, and The Diplomat.

The costumes were so heavy, because they were often appliquéd onto, so there was fabric upon fabric upon fabric. This would definitely affect the movement of the dancers. They were also painted onto, and beautifully bold. On the detail of this skirt, we can see green velvet cording, blue velvet thread and dyed green fur, as well as painted shapes. On the inside, there is a dotted printed pattern, which would have been applied using an artisan wooden block print.

The metal woven thread was painstakingly wrapped over cording and then stitched onto the fabric. Nowadays we would do a lot of metal work directly onto fabrics, but this was done separately by hand, so you have more manipulation onto where exactly it is placed. This also gives it more of a 3D effect and a bit more life to the costume.

Having zoomed into the detail of design, I am curious as to where this extraordinary skirt has been for the last century, to be given a new lease of life on the stage in 2023. I pick up the trail of Diaghilev’s wardrobe in 1968, citing an interview with art dealer Julian Barran in the TRETYAKOV GALLERY MAGAZINE. Barran worked for the London auction house Sotheby’s, and assisted on an auction of the costumes of the Ballet Russes. After the company was dissolved in 1929, the items had been kept by the Chairman of the Diaghilev and de Basil Ballet Foundation, Mr. Anthony Diamantides, but the organisation’s financial difficulties prompted a sale.

The number and variety of costumes was immense, and Barran set about sorting, identifying and photographing suitable pieces for the auction, which was held at the Scala Theatre in London’s Charlotte Street, with students of the Royal Ballet School modelling the myriad of items. Barran describes the ambience of the auction evening:

Vaslav Nijinsky as the 'Blue God' in 'Le Dieu Bleu'

Everyone was there. Stars from the ballet, of course. Actors, producers, artists and museum directors. The most glamourous of ‘Swinging London’s’ glitterati were in the audience. The sale was an unbelievable success. Each group of costumes to be auctioned was modelled on stage by student dancers from the Royal Ballet School. The dancers would be preceded onto the stage by strains of music from the ballet they represented. They would do a small dance, then hold the pose until the hammer fell and their lot was sold and then they would dance off. The sale took nearly four hours, but it was a magical evening.”

Among the crowd of hopeful buyers was Barran’s mother, who adored fancy dress. She collected a mass of mixed costumes, including the temple servant’s skirt, which ended up in the family’s dressing-up wardrobe. I interviewed Julian Barran’s sister, Lalage Balage, who obtained the skirt when the costumes were divided between the siblings, and has generously lent it to the Odyssey Orchestra:

Skirt detailing

“When I was in my 20s, I took this fabulous skirt out of the dressing-up wardrobe. I was able to wear it for many years, with a flamboyant shirt on top. It only had three hooks and eyes, and when I reached my forties, I could not do it up, so I have kept it in my wardrobe ever since, making sure to prevent moth damage.

The detail is extraordinary. There is so much going on in the design, but the colours are quite simple. The interior is wonderful: a dark blue with gold buttons of colour. I also rather like the wiring; it curves around your bottom and sticks out in a mermaid’s tale. It is made of cotton, with raised little buttons of velvet, which are so tactile.

Donald Sturrock, the artistic director of the Odyssey Orchestra, got in touch via mutual friends about borrowing the skirt, and I am delighted that it will see the stage again. It has been an honour owning it for 45 years, and I very much look forward to the young ballet dancer wearing the costume!”

Annabel fαstening the gold tassel to the sash

Back in the RAD studio, Annabel is rifling through an assortment of shiny gold ribbons and tassels. “Aha!” She finds a suitable complement to Daniel’s moss green sash, which is tied at the top of the skirt, and kneels to fasten it with a safety pin between her teeth. The precise detail that ties together the elements of a costume remains as crucial today as it was in 1912, as artists painstakingly weave a visual tapestry to animate and enhance a performance.

The role of the temple servant’s costume has developed significantly from a modest feature in an unsuccessful production, to decades as a treasured family garment, and now a theatrical centrepiece in aconcert celebrating the artistic zeitgeist in which it was created. I excitedly await the skirt’s overdue return to the stage, where its audacious gold trim was designed to shine.

Odyssey Festival Orchestra at QEH Jan 2023

Our next concert will be at Cadogan Hall on the 20th of September and will celebrate the music commissioned by impresario Sergei Diaghilev for his pioneering dance company the 'Ballets Russes' with award-winning actor and director Kathryn Hunter and an original costume from Diaghilev's 1912 season making a rare appearance.... The programme for this concert includes Suite No. 2 from Ravel's masterpiece 'Daphnis et Chloé' extracts from Stravinsky's 'Petrushka' and 'Pulcinella' as well as works by Weber, De Falla and Respighi.

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