Editorial Feature

Discover The Costumes of Famous Ballet Characters

Explore the ways different designers have interpreted these roles

Ballet costumes play an important role in the ballet community. They are usually the only artifact left at the end of a show run, offering an insight into the staging of that particular production.

Styles of costumes have varied over the decades, taking influence from different time periods, movements and new materials. Here we explore the various ways ballet companies have interpreted some of the most well known characters through costume and find out a bit more about these well-known ballets.


Cinderella

Based on the 1697 fairy tale Cendrillon by Charles Perrault, the famous rags-to-riches story is often adapted into a ballet using music created by Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev. First performed in 1946 at the Bolshoi Theatre, Cinderella the ballet has since been interpreted across numerous stages.

This image is of Cinderella’s costume from a 1972 production that was performed by The Australian Ballet company. The show was an adaptation of a Frederick Ashton production, which first debuted in London 1948. Costume and stage design was created by Kristian Fredrikson. Working across ballet, opera and other performing arts, Fredrikson was known for his sumptuous, jewel-like quality of work and a sensuous level of detail, which can be seen in this costume. The dress is influenced by 19th-century designs which often featured closer-fitting bodices, floral crowns, corsages and jewels, which all add a layer of Romanticism.

Costume for Cinderella Act III, Kristian Fredrikson (From the collection of The Australian Ballet)

Romeo and Juliet

A tale of star-crossed lovers forbidden to love due to their families feuding, this classic Shakespeare play was first adapted into a ballet in 1938. A version performed in 1940 at the Kirov Theatre in Leningrad tends to still be widely reproduced, with music by Sergei Prokofiev and choreography by Leonid Lavrovsky.

The Scottish Ballet’s 2014 performance at Sadler's Wells stepped away from tradition, with choreography coming from Krzysztof Pastor and the story being set in the 20th century. This unique retelling also required a fresh take on costumes, which were created by Tatyana van Walsum. In this still from the production, we see the title characters in costumes that are miles away from the ornate outfits you traditionally see in ballet. Instead Tatyana has stripped the costumes to the bare minimum and kept to a mix of neutral colors. Not only does this denote a different time period but it means the audience focuses purely of the movement of the dancers.

Romeo & Juliet, 2014 (From the collection of The Scottish Ballet)

Swan Lake

Swan Lake is a ballet composed by Pyotr Tchaikovsky in 1875. First premiered in 1877, it was not well-received due to the poor production overshadowing Tchaikovsky’s score. It is now however, one the most popular ballets in the world, with it even inspiring the 2010 Hollywood hit, Black Swan.

This costume belongs to the character Odile, the Black Swan and evil witch who sets out to sabotage Odette, the heroine in the story. The roles of Odette and Odile are often played by the same ballerina, so the costumes play a vital role in distinguishing the two. This costume was designed by Simon Virsaladze for a production for the Bolshoi Ballet, where he was the chief designer from 1964 until his death in 1989. The costume uses black velvet and is decorated with jewels, sequins and mesh.

Costume for Nina Ananishvili as Odile, Swan Lake Ballet, Simon Virsaladze (From the collection of The Bolshoi Theatre)

Giselle

This two-act ballet was premiered at the Salle Le Peletier in Paris on Monday, June 28, 1842. The version choreographed by Marius Petipa during the turn of the 20th century is the one that is frequently revised today. Set in the Middle Ages, Duke Albrecht of Silesia falls in love with the title character Giselle, a shy and lovely commoner. Though Duke Albrecht is promised to Duke of Courtland’s daughter, he puts on a disguise, with the intention of wooing Giselle during the grape harvest festival.

Many dancers’ first role is as one of the Wilis, the group of 18 jilted maidens who play an important role in Act II when Giselle joins them. This is one of the Wilis costumes created by Desmond Heeley for the National Ballet of Canada’s production in 1970. The British costume designer created a long tutu costume said to represent a disintegrating Victorian-style wedding gown. It is decorated with dying roses which have been damaged from years of haunting their woodland home.

Wilis tutu from Giselle designed by Desmond Heeley (From the collection of The National Ballet of Canada)

La Bayadère

This famous ballet was first choreographed by dance legend Marius Petipa alongside the musical works of Ludwig Minkus in 1887. Set in Royal India, La Bayadère is a story of eternal love, mystery, fate, vengeance and justice. The ballet revolves around a temple dancer, Nikiya, who is loved by Solor, a noble warrior. She is also loved by the High Brahmin, but she loves Solor not him, so of course drama ensues.

This costume created for Nikiya is from a production put on at the Opéra Garnier in Paris in 1974. Belonging to the collection of The National Center of Stage Costume in Moulins, France, the tutu has been crafted out of white satin laced with pearl applications. The fancy nature of this costume and the others that featured aimed to allude to the 19th century impression of Royal India and the luxury it exhumed.

Costume of Nikiya in La Bayadere (From the collection of Centre National du Costume de Scène)
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