Alexandra Danilova, Alicia Markova, André Derain, ballet costumes, Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, Ballets Russes, Barbara Karinska, Christian Bérard, Giselle, Hamburg Ballet, Isamu Noguchi, John Neumeier, L'Epreuve d'Amour, Leonide Massine, Les Sylphides, Martha Graham, Paris Opera Ballet, Serge Lifar, Sergei Diaghilev, Seventh Symphony, Tamara Toumanova, The Australian Ballet Collection, The Making of Markova, V & A Museum
Pity the poor ballet costume manager. While researching Markova’s biography, I was continually amazed at the painstaking, and enormously expensive, process of designing, constructing, and maintaining dance costumes for an entire company. Just one loose sequin falling on the stage can cause a dancer to slip and be seriously injured. And even in the grand Ballets Russes days, a single extravagant costume needed to be repeatedly altered to fit each prima ballerina performing the same starring role.
Then there’s the original design. As London’s V & A museum explains, “Dance costume is a highly specialised field and as well as having to reflect the overall concept of the work, body movement, the demands of the choreography of a particular work and the effects of different fabrics in motion all have to be taken into consideration.”
And what happens if those precious costumes somehow never make it to the dancers’ dressing rooms by curtain time? Simply put: no costumes, no show.
As a star performer with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, Alicia Markova spent much of World War II criss-crossing the United States by train. The schedule was grueling, with the dancers often spending only one or two days in each city before moving on to the next venue.
And this went on for months.
Though they traveled with their scenery and costumes in a second railcar – quite a time-consuming project to pack and unpack at every stop – wartime needs sometimes intervened. As reported in the Arkansas Gazette in 1942: “Scheduled to give a performance at 8:30 P.M. at the Auditorium yesterday, the [Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo] troupe was unable to appear for the first time in 50 scheduled performances.
“Coming from Columbus, Missouri, scenery, props and wardrobes were sidetracked at Memphis to allow passage of troop trains. ‘Our performances have run late before due to delay of wardrobes, but we have never had to cancel a performance until now,’ Leon Spachner company manager said.’”
Though one would think modern air and overnight shipping would prevent such an event in today’s world, think again. As reported by the Chicago Reader this past February: “Costumes for one of the most anticipated offerings of the season, the internationally celebrated Hamburg Ballet, headed by onetime Chicagoan John Neumeier, were stuck on a storm-delayed freighter. They wouldn’t make it to [the Harris Theater in] Chicago in time for the performances.”
Amazingly, “That crisis was resolved before the public heard about it, when the legendary Paris Opera Ballet, another recent visitor to the Harris and one of the few other companies with the piece in their repertoires, came to the rescue, shipping its own costumes to Chicago by air. The Harris popped for alterations, and everything was back on track.”
But the Hamburg Ballet was twice-cursed in the “Windy City.” During the pre-opening dress rehearsal, an electrical fire broke out in the theater forcing the dancers out into the cold, some wearing just ballet slippers and tights. The show never went on.
The Martha Graham Company had even worse luck when Hurricane Sandy devastated New Jersey and New York in 2012.
“In what has proved to be a fateful decision,” The New Yorker reported at the time, “the company’s sets and costumes—including pieces like the white throne from ‘Clytemnestra’ (1958) and the cloth set for ‘El Penitente’ (1940), both by [Isamu] Noguchi, as well as the Karinska gown from ‘Episodes’ (1959)—were placed in a series of rooms in the basement.”
Everything was later found to be submerged under six feet of water.
A similar waterlogged fate, but under very different circumstances, befell another historic ballet design when Markova was dancing with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo in 1939. From The Making of Markova:
Dubbed “the Riviera afloat,” the gargantuan S.S. Rex was too large to enter Cannes harbor, where the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo was to disembark. That necessitated smaller boats being sent out to ferry the dancers, costumes, and cumbersome sets to the dock. As luck would have it, the Italian ocean liner was running late for its final destination, Genoa, so the captain decided to hurry things along.
In their haste, remembered Markova sadly, the overzealous crew ended up dumping several crates overboard. One was filled with André Derain’s exquisite Chinoiserie costumes and sets for [Michel Fokine's] L’Epreuve d’Amour. The dancers watched horrified as the packing cases sank into the Mediterranean Sea and were quickly washed away. The company was never able to perform the ballet again.
Markova had her own series of costume mishaps at the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. As the first British prima ballerina in a predominantly Russian company, she was considered an interloper who had no right to “usurp” starring roles that “rightfully” belonged to the Russian ballerinas. (Markova’s great lifelong friend Alexandra Danilova, also a prima ballerina at the company, was happily an exception.) Not only did Markova have to contend with jealous dancers, but the all-Russian contingent of costume designers and seamstresses also had it in for her.
The first costume debacle occurred on opening night of Léonide Massine’s glorious Seventh Symphony in 1938. Markova starred as the “Spirit of the Air and Sky,” with a lighter-than-air costume designed by French artist Christian Bérard. Topping an all-over white silk leotard was a sky blue silk chiffon skirt appliquéd with almost imperceptible horsehair pale pink clouds. A larger cloud was to be appliquéd across Markova’s breast and one shoulder, leading up to a delicate winged hair ornament.
On opening night, the Russian couturière Barbara Karinska (whose famous Martha Graham gown was destroyed in the above-mentioned flood) waited until the last minute to deliver Markova’s costume – or half a costume as it turned out. The ethereal skirt was finished but had no top or headpiece. Whether it was out of spite or poor planning, the result was the same. Markova couldn’t go on. Fortunately, the wildly creative Bérard came to the rescue. Rushing to Markova’s dressing room, he spotted a pale blue chiffon gown she had planned to wear to the after-party. Grabbing its matching scarf, the designer quickly draped and stitched the material into a top. Next he took a pair of scissors and cut wings from a piece of white paper, decorating them with black eyebrow pencil from the dressing table. The makeshift headpiece was fastened to her hair as Markova rushed on stage. The ballet was a triumph!
Markova’s next costume calamity was decidedly premeditated sabotage. Following her great success in Seventh Symphony, she was to star in the company’s debut performance of Giselle in London. It was Markova’s most acclaimed role to be danced in her hometown – sure to be a sellout.
But her partner was the egotistical Russian star Serge Lifar, who bizarrely re-choreographed the ballet to greatly expand his own role, that of Prince Albrecht. (A joke went around Paris that his Giselle should be renamed Albrecht!) Lifar wanted to dance London’s opening night with his fellow Russian, the beautiful Tamara Toumanova, a less fragile, curvier ballerina than the tiny Markova. The two Russian dancers were incensed that Toumanova had to play second fiddle to Markova. So too were the Russian seamstresses.
Quite nervous that her new costume wasn’t ready for the full dress rehearsal, Markova was nevertheless assured it would be in her dressing room opening night. When it finally arrived just a few minutes before curtain, lo and behold, the dress was way too big, having been “accidentally” made to fit Toumanova’s measurements. While this is a long and very entertaining story in all its detail (yes, you’ll have to buy The Making of Markova to find out!), Markova outfoxed everyone by bringing one of her old Giselle costumes to the theater as back-up. Lifar exploded, there were tears and screaming, but the show eventually went on.
Despite such a ruckus, Markova received an astounding 24 curtain calls, but Lifar refused to let her take any center stage bows without him. He was not only booed by the audience, but had to be physically restrained in the wings by stagehands to appease the Markova-loving crowd. This led to a major donnybrook – death threats, fisticuffs, and even a proprosed duel! – when Markova debuted the same role with Lifar at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York. For more on that story, see my former post “Dirty Work Afoot: Treachery at the Ballet.”
Markova continued to experience costume sabotage with the company: an Act II costume slashed while she was on stage in Act I, packing needles hidden in her tutus, and other nefarious plots to physically harm or unnerve her – all to no avail. She would become the most famous, widely traveled, and highest paid classical ballerina of her generation.
One of my favorite “costume” stories took place in 1934, the year Markova made her London debut in Giselle. From The Making of Markova: . . . even people who had never been to the ballet now knew the name of Markova. One evening, a taxi driver escorted the ballerina, her flowers, and costume/makeup cases home from the theater. As the driver helped unload all her belongings, he suddenly called, “Ere, Miss, you’ve left your wings in the cab.” “My wings?” Markova asked.
The driver pointed to a single remaining case. ”They tell me you’re the dancer with the invisible wings, so I suppose you take ‘em round with you.”
Markova did indeed appear to effortlessly fly on stage, sometimes even letting her “wings” show, as when costumed for Les Elfes or Les Sylphides, one of her most celebrated roles. A pair she wore in 1926 as a sylph at Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes is carefully preserved for posterity in The Australian Ballet Collection.