In the third act of Body and Soul, created for the Paris Opera Ballet in 2019, Canadian choreographer Crystal Pite questions the organisation of life in society through the metaphor of a community of insect-like creatures. The dancers take on the appearance of beings from another world, equipped with claws. More than just a decorative accessory, these are true extensions to their limbs, fully integrated into the choreography. Bernard Connan, head of the costume decoration workshop at the Palais Garnier, participated in the design of these unusual elements. On the occasion of the ballet's revival, he looks back on his encounter and exchanges with the choreographer during the creation of these iconic claws.
“I've been working at the Opera for thirty years. The creation of Body and Soul remains one of my most striking memories, as much from a human point of view as an artistic one. The design of the claws to complete the costumes for Act III was a real technical challenge, achieved in record time.
The beginning of my work consists in designing prototypes from models. For Body and Soul, the choreographer Crystal Pite herself arrived with a preliminary prototype made by her father, a cabinetmaker by profession. It was a kind of flat wooden sword with a very specific curve. We were still a long way from what the future costume element would look like, but it served as a working basis.
We took the time to discuss together the expected aesthetic and the need for durability. As time was short, we had two options: either I could use her indications to propose a project that met expectations, a light and slender claw, whilst guaranteeing a secure support for the dancers, or we could propose the design work to the Accessories workshop or to an outside team. The difficulty lay in the material possibility of proposing something easy to handle for the dancers, but in an extremely refined form. These claws were almost accessories, but as they were part of the silhouette, I was finally entrusted with their creation and they were made here, in our workshops, after a prototype had been validated. We had one month to meet this challenge since we were informed of the project late in the summer of 2019. The ballet was scheduled for October.
At the beginning, it was
difficult for us to imagine the final result. Of course, in addition to Crystal
Pite's prototype, we had the models of her collaborator, Nancy Bryant, who had
designed the characters' costumes. We could see that we were close to something
insect-like, but in the design process it wasn't quite obvious. We were really
surprised when we saw the final picture on stage, with the overall effects and
the play of light.
If the idea for the design came from Crystal Pite's imagination, my job was to propose the technical solution to realise them: the materials, the glossy finish. So we made forty-five pairs of claws, offering two different sizes to suit the dancers' morphologies. All the claws are produced from a mould and are therefore identical.
The claw is like a sleeve, with a handle inside. You put your hand in and the sleeve rises up over the wrist, making the hand disappear. The handle is made of moulded resin and, for ergonomic reasons, is shaped like the palm of a hand with a right and left side. It is attached to three curved metal rods that are welded together. The whole thing is then covered with a shell that gives it shape and extends the silhouette. The metal used here is piano wire, a light but strong steel wire. As for the shell, it is a sheet of thermoformable plastic hot-moulded onto a plaster form, itself taken from a clay model. Once removed from the mould, a pin is added to give the appearance of a claw. These forms are then painted with a high-gloss black resin paint to match the appearance of the leotards.
When the dancer wears the costume, the different elements that make it up are not easily identifiable. Indeed, the entire costume is in the same shades of black, as if it were made of one piece. However, the costume is composed of multiple elements: on the one hand an "académique" made by the sewing workshops, a helmet, spines down the back and the claws. The spines also come from our workshops and are made of the same material that encases the metal swords. Initially, there were to be several spines in the back. In the end, this was simplified to just two shoulder blades that seem to emerge from the dancers' bodies.
The dancers were present during the design stages because the question of ergonomics was paramount. As the hand is wrapped, it had to be not too wide to remain in the extension of the arm and there had to be no rupture. At the same time as the costumes were being made, we did fittings to define the heights, the level of resistance and the adjustment of the handles.Crystal Pite and her team were very much present throughout this design work, combining a requirement for high standards with exceptional respect and appreciation.“