How Design Duo Harriet Jung and Reid Bartelme are Bringing Back the Spirit of the Ballets Russes
New York-based costume designers Reid Bartelme and Harriet Jung are in high-demand. Though the duo, who together make up Reid & Harriet Designs, work with major choreographers around the world, they're often frustrated with the backseat role that design plays.
So when Guggenheim Works & Process general manager Duke Dang approached them with an idea to create a designer-driven program exploring the creative methods of the Ballets Russes, they were intrigued.
Bartelme and Jung immediately felt that they could relate to the Ballets Russes' highly collaborative style. In the early 20th century, the impresario Sergei Diaghilev brought together celebrated artists including Igor Stravinsky, Pablo Picasso and Coco Chanel to work with choreographers on new ballets. Diaghilev was focused on the gestalt; the idea that the whole of the work should be more than the sum of its parts.
On April 28 and 29, Bartelme and Jung will present Design Dialogues at Works & Process in partnership with NYU's Institute for the Study of the Ancient World's exhibition Hymn to Apollo: The Ancient World and the Ballets Russes. The pair commissioned choreographers Christopher Williams and Netta Yerushalmy to create modern takes on the Ballets Russes' classic Daphnis and Chloe.
We touched base with Bartelme and Jung to hear about how this project came together, and what they learned from their time researching the Ballets Russes.
Getting the Team Together
When choosing choreographers to collaborate with, Bartelme and Jung first thought of Christopher Williams. The genre-bending dancemaker frequently explores the ancient world. "It's all he's obsessed with," says Jung.
As for Yerushalmy, the duo was looking for an artist who's interested in research and history. "Over the past couple of years Netta has been developing her Paramodernities, where she's been looking at all of these different vernaculars, one of which was Nijinsky's Rite of Spring, so it felt like a really good fit," says Bartelme.
Why Daphnis and Chloe?
The Ballets Russes debuted Daphnis et Chloé in 1912. The one-act ballet, split into three scenes, was composed by Maurice Ravel and choreographed by Michel Fokine, with designs by Léon Bakst and dancers Vaslav Njinsky and Tamara Karasavina in the titular roles. The ballet tells the ancient Greek story of the romance between Daphnis, a goatherd, and Chloé, a shepherdess.
The choice of ballet was Williams' idea. "Netta was also open to it," adds Bartelme, "and I think we all thought it would be interesting to see how they interpreted the same music in different ways."
The Research Process
Bartelme and Jung started their research as part of a fellowship on Merce Cunningham at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts last fall. Cunningham used a similarly collaborative approach as the Ballets Russes, which led the duo to look for comparisons between the two eras. They kept their focus on the Ballets Russes' creative process, as opposed to Bakst's finished designs.
"We thought that all of these artists collaborated in harmony, but in reality Diaghlev seemed to have the final say, so even when a designer disagreed, they'd have to change things," says Jung. "It made me relate to that time, and those famous artists, which was comforting but also a little sad."
Dancers in costumes for Yerushalmy's piece.
Courtesy Reid & Harriet
A Surprising Takeaway
Nevertheless, the Ballets Russes was very design and spectacle driven, says Jung. "This meant that the clothes could be out there, and maybe even restrictive, if it served the purpose of the show, versus these days, where it's very rare for us to be allowed to do something a little tricky if it affects the dancers' movement."
Much like the two choreographers' styles, Bartelme and Jung's approach to their designs was very different. "We approached Netta with fabrics, colors, prints and ideas," says Jung. "But Christopher came to us with images."
Here, Bartelme and Jung were able to exercise the sense of agency that they'd learned from the Ballets Russes.
"We told him we were going to take his ideas, but not directly reference every image he showed us," says Jung. "We don't want to explore that kind of conventional collaborative process, where choreographers tell designers what to do," adds Bartelme. "It's sort of antithetical to what this is all about."
Yvonne Rainer's Parts of Some Sextets (AKA "the mattress dance") hasn't been revived since it premiered in 1965. Nor has Rainer had any wish to do it again, to ask performers to heave 10 mattresses around while carrying out 31 tasks that changed every 30 seconds. It was an unwieldy, difficult dance. (Even the title is unwieldy.) But Emily Coates, who has danced in Rainer's work for 20 years, became curious about this piece and was determined to see it again—and to dance in it. She will get her wish November 15–17, when the mattress dance will be performed as part of the Performa 19 Biennial.
Back in 2011 when Joe Lanteri first approached Katie Langan, chair of Marymount Manhattan College's dance department, about getting involved with New York City Dance Alliance, she was skeptical about the convention/competition world.
"But I was pleasantly surprised by the enormity of talent that was there," she says. "His goal was to start scholarship opportunities, and I said okay, I'm in."
Today, it's fair to say that Lanteri has far surpassed his goal of creating scholarship opportunities. But NYCDA has done so much more, bridging the gap between the convention world and the professional world by forging a wealth of partnerships with dance institutions from Marymount to The Ailey School to Complexions Contemporary Ballet and many more. There's a reason these companies and schools—some of whom otherwise may not see themselves as aligned with the convention/competition world—keep deepening their relationships with NYCDA.
Now, college scholarships are just one of many ways NYCDA has gone beyond the typical weekend-long convention experience and created life-changing opportunities for students. We rounded up some of the most notable ones:
"The show must go on" may be a platitude we use to get through everything from costume malfunctions to stormy moods. But when it came to overcoming a literal hurricane, Houston Ballet was buoyed by this mantra to go from devastated to dancing in a matter of weeks—with the help of Harlequin Floors, Houston Ballet's longstanding partner who sprang into action to build new floors in record time.