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By Victoria Looseleaf
While tutu chic may be in vogue now—French designer Christian Lacroix's latest made-to-measure gowns sport ostrich-trimmed hems and sparkly puffball skirts of organza and tulle—the archetypal ballerina costume wages war in the contemporary dance world with anther fashion contender, the skirt. Indeed, “to bare (the leg) or not to bare,” that is the question.
Long an aesthetic signifier, setting off a dancer's sculpted gams as she executes the iconic poses and combinations of steps that define her art form, there is no doubt the tutu (its name is probably derived from the French children’s word “tu-tu,” meaning “bottom”), naturally reigns in classics such as Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty.
Evolving from the romantic tutu, which made its debut in 1832 when Marie Taglioni wowed audiences by performing in a costume consisting of a tight-fitting bodice and bell-shaped skirt that fell halfway between knees and ankles, the short classical tutu gained favor when ballet entered the 20th century.
With wire hoops and tulle replacing tarlatan, the stiff skirt became de rigueur as a means of displaying virtuosic technique. Today, with a vast array of fabrics available—from sumptuous silks and satins to space-agey materials informed with a 21st-century sensibility—the art of choosing skirts or tutus begins with the choreographer.
For Australian-born Stanton Welch, artistic director of Houston Ballet and creator of numerous works for other companies, his costuming decisions commence with the score. “It comes with hearing the music,” he explains. “Once I have the concept of what I’d like to do and the style of ballet I'm going to do, it forms with that.” Welch’s 1994 Divergence, a sexy, neoclassical ballet, features rubber tutus and was created while he was dancing with Australian Ballet. In contrast Maninyas, choreographed two years later for San Francisco Ballet, makes use of skirts. “With Maninyas,” recalls Welch, “I was planning on having it very into the ground, with lots of pliés. The movement of the skirt was important to match the movement of the ballet. But the spikiness of Divergence, with its flat lines, works for the tutus.
“Once you put a tutu on someone,” he adds, “what’s an acceptable line for me changes dramatically. You see more of the leg. A skirt is kind of like pants or tights for a man, and in pants, there are certain things you get to hide.”
Welch recently created a Swan Lake and four tutu ballets, including Brigade. This, he says, is a new phase for him. “I’ve had a wave of tutus in the last few years. If you'd asked me when I was 18 or 19, I probably would have said no to tutus. But I've grown into it. It’s challenging, just from the detail of the shape.” He believes that when a dancer is in a skirt, “often just the movement itself—the circularness—can work, since the skirt moves. In a tutu,” he continues, “how the legs move is actually what you're choreographing.”
Pacific Northwest Ballet principal Patricia Barker has danced contemporary ballets in both skirts and tutus. Clad in the latter, she performed Donald Byrd’s Capricious Night and Val Caniparoli’s Torque. Putting on a costume, she says, reflects the mood and visual essence of a ballet. “Whether I am wearing a classical tutu with a tiara, a contemporary tutu, or skirt or dress, this is what helps me get into the mood of the ballet I am dancing. I prefer a tutu, though,” admits Barker, “because I have very hyper-extended legs and think that I look better in a tutu.”
Caniparoli, who’s made more than 60 dances, many with San Francisco Ballet, says he doesn’t begin his choreography with a specific skirt or tutu in mind, no matter how tricked out the garment. “With Torque, I wouldn't in my wildest dreams have thought of a tutu. But the costume designer, Victoria McFall, made a colorful one that wasn’t the stiffer material you would see in a Sleeping Beauty. It gives. If you’re rolling on the floor, it comes back to shape when you get up without the material crushing.”
For his 1995 Lambarena, a fusion of African dance and ballet created for SFB, Caniparoli and designer Sandra Woodall went the skirt route, with hand-painted silk satin gowns taking center stage. “I like the flow of a skirt,” says Caniparoli, “it adds another dimension to the piece and has a life of its own.”
Evelyn Cisneros-Legate, former SFB principal and newly-appointed artistic director of Southern California's Ballet Pacifica School, recalls the Lambarena dresses as so beautiful and flowing that she wanted to keep hers as an evening gown.
With a long career designing costumes for opera, television, theater and more than 125 ballets, as well as having assisted legendary City Ballet costumer Karinska, Willa Kim is currently designing tutus for ABT’s new production of Sleeping Beauty, which premieres in June.
“I have seldom used tutus in the past,” confesses Kim, “but I’ve used circles in a lot of my designs, and the shape of the tutu is very pretty. If dancers are running around barefoot, you're not going to put them into a tutu, unless you’re making a statement.” Kim says she wants dancers to have freedom and be comfortable. “I also want to help clarify their movement, not do anything that's going to obstruct it. If anything, I’d like to help exaggerate it or define it.”
ABT principal Gillian Murphy waxes rhapsodic about being in a tutu, but also enjoys the freedom that comes with a skirt. “It makes perfect sense in the bedroom scenes that Juliet or Medora in Le Corsaire are in skirts. They have freedom to be as natural and lyrical as possible. It’s also easier to be a bit more earthy, more human in a skirt in terms of the positions you can do, like dropping your arms. And,” she adds, “you don't have to stand in a fixed position, like in the tutu, which gives the character more of a structured ballerina sensibility, but also a little more magic.”
New York City Ballet choreographer-in-residence Christopher Wheeldon, who designed his own tutus for a short work he choreographed a decade ago for The Royal Ballet, made use of the iconic costume to full effect in Evenfall seen last year as part of City Ballet’s Diamond Project. “With Evenfall, he explains, “I knew that I was embarking on a tutu ballet. I was intrigued by the possibilities of creating a piece around the shape of the tutu. I made the design and the choreography with a more architectural idea in mind, using the circular shapes of the tutus. By putting the body at different angles, you're able to create some interesting effects with that circular shape.”
Julie Diana of Pennsylvania Ballet, says, “I focus on things differently when I'm in a skirt or a tutu. In a tutu, which I feel is the epitome of femininity, you're much more exposed and incredibly placed and turned-out, focusing on the technique more. In a skirt you can afford to be a little bit more free in terms of expression, focusing on dramatic aspects and the freedom of your movement.” Diana goes on to talk about Balanchine’s Serenade, which uses long skirts made of tulle, so it has the properties of both tutu and skirt. “In Serenade, the swooshy movements of the skirt kind of billows behind you and follows you while you’re dancing, adding to the movement quality.”
Having created seven pieces in the last year, freelance choreographer Konstantin Uralsky says he knew from the inception what his garb would be for Rachmaninov Second, set to the Russian composer’s second piano concerto and made for the Colorado Ballet.
“You listen to the music and think about the movements,” says Uralsky. “I saw this ballet as floating, as light, with more of the dancer’s body open and relaxed. The classical or romantic long tutu would not be in my vision,” he points out, “but I saw it more as a contemporary classical work with a light skirt that could really move.”
And what moves an audience can never be predicted or preordained. Capturing the mystique, that ineffable quality of a memorable performance, is what keeps artists—and audiences—returning to the theater.
“I love dancers,” says Kim with reverence, “and I want them to look as beautiful as I can make them, because they're involved in an art form that's so fugitive, so abstract.”
Victoria Looseleaf is an arts journalist who contributes to the Los Angeles Times, Reuters, Performances Magazine, La Opinion and other outlets. She produces and hosts “The Looseleaf Report,” a cable access TV show on the arts.