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« The Manly Bearing » of the dancer

Interview with Martine Kahane and Roberta Oakey — By Anna Schauder

In both the ballets Onegin and La Fille mal gardée, the wide variety of costumes for the male dancers contributes to the theatrical illusion, transporting the spectator to a 19th century bourgeois milieu and an 18th century village at harvest time respectively. In his Lettres sur la Danse, published in 1760, Jean-Georges Noverre defended realistic costumes as opposed to tonnelets and masks. “Even if the costume is not absolutely realistic, there should at least be a semblance of truth. […] By costume, one should comprehend anything that can contribute, through faithful imitation, to procuring the delight that illusion affords the eye…”. What has characterised the dancer’s wardrobe since this reform in the history of ballet costumes? Encounter with Martine Kahane, former director of the Museum-Library of the Paris Opera and Roberta Oakey, in charge of the Tailoring Workshop at the Palais Garnier.   

How does one tackle the history of ballet costumes for men?

Martine Kahane: We have, alas, very little detailed information on either the history or the evolution of costumes for male dancers. There is a great lack of source material: we know even less about men’s costumes than women’s. One thing is certain: the male costume varied according to the role. With the rise of Romantic ballet, masculine dance virtually disappeared until Serge Lifar gave increased importance to the masculine roles during the 1930s. We haven’t been able to establish a parallel between the history of feminine ballet costumes, in which the tutu is a characteristic feature, and that of the costumes for men. As early as the Baroque period, costume served as a means of indicating the role: a knight wore his tonnelet over his armour; the wizard over a long robe, whilst an oriental would have worn trousers. Roles like those of a knight, prince, peasant etc., were to take shape essentially from the French Revolution and the Romantic period onwards.   

Audric Bezard (Onéguine) et Jérémie-Loup Quer (Lenski) dans Onéguine de John Cranko, Palais Garnier, 2018
Audric Bezard (Onéguine) et Jérémie-Loup Quer (Lenski) dans Onéguine de John Cranko, Palais Garnier, 2018 © Julien Benhamou / OnP

Which items of dress have influenced male dance costumes?

M.K.: Military dress has had most influence on ballet costumes because the military silhouette, particularly that of the cavalry, was considered to give soldiers a “manly bearing”. Aristocratic cavalry men wore boots, close-fitting trousers and an extremely tight tunic which in fact served as a corset to support the back. Sometimes, moreover, the man wore a corset under his dolman. Often used as a costume for dancers, the military dolman clearly resembled a corset – or the top part of a tutu with long sleeves. There has always been a correlation between the soldier’s art (ars militaris) and that of the dancer (ars dansandi). The first dancing masters were military men. And in the 19th century, the great majority of directors of the costume workshops at the Paris Opera were military tailors, as were their assistants. Then, sports clothing began to influence dance costumes. For the men, their working apparel, that worn in dance classes, corresponds exactly to the clothes worn for fencing, with a culotte (a term for trousers) that came down to the knee.   

Mathias Heymann (Colas) dans La Fille mal gardée, Palais Garnier, 2007
Mathias Heymann (Colas) dans La Fille mal gardée, Palais Garnier, 2007 © Sébastien Mathé / OnP

Everyday clothing has often served as a model for ballet costumiers. What is the difference between a dancer's suit and a conventional man’s suit?

Roberta Oakey: The cut of the suit is radically different for a dancer. The manufacture is very particular because the suit has to be strong, comfortable and attractive, and in addition to all that it must be adaptable to all kinds of fabric! Each of the six costumes in Onegin, for example, was made from a different material (wool, leather, ottoman silk, velvet, corduroy and crinkled chiffon) and it is up to us to transform these materials to make a dance costume. Even if the characters in La Fille mal gardée are peasants, most of the costumes are made with rich fabrics because they are easier to dye and to cut. We cut the costume in accordance with the performer’s build, so that he can still move freely. Lightness is an essential quality for dance costumes. The revolution in fabric technology has allowed us to reduce the weight of costumes: the use of Lycra completed changed the making of men’s costumes. Before the 1970s, the same fabrics were used for both everyday suits and theatrical costumes. And we still used the same techniques as for 19th century everyday apparel! Amongst other things, Lycra allows the creation of shirts that are lighter and easier to care for. In the case of Onegin, we made a plastron to go under the shirt. The front looks like a real shirt in poplin with a bowtie or a necktie, but the back is in Lycra to reduce the amount of fabric.   

What are the principal stages in the production of a dance costume?

R.O.: We begin with a model. Next, using the dancer’s measurements, we make a paper pattern which forms the basis for the creation of a "toile" (canvas prototype). The workshop then prepares the costumes for fittings. This is a key moment in the making of a dancer’s costume, given that their build is very specific. During the fittings, we can see if we need to add more room or if the trousers are too tight. Double stitching in the crotch of the trousers is typical of dance costumes. Next, we make our alterations and send them off for the finishing touches and the decorative elements. This process is very specific to dance costumes; it doesn’t happen at all like that in the world of fashion. The two milieus are very different from one another because of the way costumes are used. At the Paris Opera, our primary concern is to think in terms of an athlete’s build and freedom of movement.   

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