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Though Markova was dressed by many modern artists, here by Matisse, Dali was the one that got away. © Maurice Seymour

Though Markova was dressed by many modern artists, here by Matisse, Dali was the one that got away. © Maurice Seymour

As a longtime art lover, I was continually fascinated by Markova’s friendships and working relationships with many of the most famous modern artists of her day. While my last post dealt with the enormously complicated construction of classical ballet costumes, Markova was also a star of avant-garde contemporary works, with costumes and sets as cutting-edge as the startling dance sequences. In addition to wearing costumes by Matisse and Chagall (as discussed in earlier posts), Markova was dressed by Giorgio de Chirico, Marie Laurencin, and Andre Derain, among other modernists.

Salvador Dali - the very definition of surreal

Salvador Dali – the very definition of surreal

Salvador Dali was almost one of them, and here’s the amusing behind-the-scenes story.

Dali's theatrical "Mae West" room, recently exhibited at the Centre Pompidou in Paris

Dali’s theatrical “Mae West” room, recently exhibited at the Centre Pompidou in Paris

The Spanish-born Dali (1904-1989) is so famous for his surrealist works that his name has become short-hand for the term. (Check out the fantastical food imaginings of Catalan chef Ferran Adria, which led to his nickname “Salvador Dali of the kitchen.” An exhibit of his edible art renderings is currently on view at Somerset House, London, coming next to the Boston Science Museum.)

Dali's disconcerting painted backdrop for Massine's ballet Labyrinthe (1941)

Dali’s disconcerting painted backdrop for Massine’s ballet Labyrinth (1941)

Even 24 years after Dali’s death, a blockbuster retrospective of his work, first at the Pompidou Center in Paris and currently at the Museo Reina Sofia in Madrid, has broken all previous attendance records. The artist who once famously said, “I don’t do drugs. I am drugs,” never lacked for attention alive or dead. So it’s only natural that Dali’s theatrical public persona would have given rise to commissions for theatrical set design.

Dali's set for Massine's Bacchanale (1939). The dancers emerged from the swan's breast.

Dali’s set for Massine’s Bacchanale (1939). The dancers emerged from the hole in the swan’s breast.

In 1939, the ever-inventive choreographer Léonide Massine hired Dali to design the set and costumes for his one act ballet Bacchanale, set to music by Richard Wagner. As Jack Anderson writes in The One and Only: The Ballet Russe De Monte Carlo“The season’s scandal was Bacchanale . . . Dali’s decor was dominated by a huge swan with a hole in its breast through which dancers emerge, some in remarkable costumes.

As Dali's Venus in Bacchanale, ballerina Nini Theilade appeared to be nude

As Dali’s Venus in Bacchanale, ballerina Nini Theilade appeared to be nude

 “There was a woman with a rose-colored fish-head. Lola Montez wore harem trousers and a hoop skirt covered in teeth. The Knight of Death turned out to be an immense perambulating umbrella.. . . Prudish audiences blushed to behold the male ensemble with large red lobsters (as sex symbols) on their thighs, and Nini Theilade, portraying Venus, created a sensation because she seemed totally nude. In actuality, she wore flesh-colored tights from her neck to her toes.”

As Dali’s contribution to Bacchanale made the only lasting impression in Massine’s less-than-stellar work, it only added to the artist’s legend. As the egotistical Dali once said of himself, “There are some days when I think I’m going to die from an overdose of satisfaction.”

The always amusing Salvador Dali

The always amusing Salvador Dali

But the great surprise in this tale is not that Massine continued to work with Dali, next on Labyrinth in 1941, but rather that the crazy Catalonian was hired by British choreographer Antony Tudor for his planned “intimate” new staging of Romeo & Juliet at Ballet Theatre (today’s American Ballet Theatre). Perhaps Tudor never heard Dali’s comment: “It is good taste, and good taste alone, that possesses the power to sterilize and is always the first handicap to any creative functioning.”

One of Dali's proposed "crutch-themed" set designs for Tudor's Romeo & Juliet.

One of Dali’s proposed “crutch-themed” set designs for Tudor’s Romeo & Juliet.

Alicia Markova was Tudor’s choice for Juliet and his choreographic muse. She laughingly remembered their meeting with Dali to view his proposed set designs. Crutches were everywhere to symbolize doomed love, but perhaps the most memorable suggestion was that the famous balcony be constructed as a giant set of false teeth (your sexual innuendo goes here) supported by gigantic sky-high crutches.

At Markova's suggestion, Botticelli's Primavera inspired the set/costume designs for Tudro's Romeo & Juliet (1943)

At Markova’s suggestion, Botticelli’s Primavera inspired the set/costume designs for Tudor’s Romeo & Juliet (1943)

Though Markova always wondered what Dali had in mind for her Juliet (perhaps a leg cast?) it was the ballerina herself who inspired the eventual design theme executed by the Russian Surrealist (and Neo-Romantic) Eugene Berman. At Sergei Diaghilev’s urging, the teenaged Markova had spent hour upon hour at the Uffizi Museum in Florence studying Renaissance art. As I wrote in The Making of Markova: “The way the female figures in the paintings held their hands in repose, and the subtle tilt of their heads were poses Markova later incorporated into her own delicate dance movements. 

Botticelli's central figure inspired Markova's Juliet costume

Botticelli’s central figure in Primavera inspired Markova’s Juliet costume

Markova and Hugh Laing in Romeo & Juliet, 1943

Markova and Hugh Laing in Romeo & Juliet, 1943

“Her favorite Renaissance artist was Sandro Botticelli, especially his euphoric Primavera. A rapturous work of tremendous scale, the well-known painting provided endless inspiration for the ballet’s saturated palette, costume detailing, and floral motifs.”

To capture the innocence of youth, Markova, aged 32 when she played the teenaged Juliet, had a red wig made to resemble the Botticelli beauty above. The ballerina won rave reviews for her portrayal. But the attention didn’t stop there. The attendant publicity for the much praised ballet caught the eye of several couturiers who immediately turned Markova’s diaphanous, empire-waist gowns into the next season’s big fashion trend.

Dali-inspired shoe hat by Elsa Schiaparelli

Dali-inspired shoe hat by Elsa Schiaparelli

Dali's surrealist jewlery

Dali’s surrealist jewlery

Who knows what trends Dali’s Romeo & Juliet might have inspired? He collaborated with great friend and couturier Elsa Schiaparelli on her infamous shoe hat and lips-pocket suit seen here. And Dali’s own Surrealist jewelry designs – weeping eyes with clock-dial pupils and Mae West’s sexy smile in rubies and pearls – still fetch great sums at auction.IMG_2173

More recently, Women’s Wear Dali (I mean Daily) noted the artist’s continued influence on fashion accessories. Perhaps if Dali’s Romeo & Juliet designs had been used, stylish crutches would have hobbled down runways – something quite useful when wearing today’s sky-high stilettos, don’t you think?

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