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Backstage at the Paris Opera Ballet



By Patricia Boccadoro

PARIS, 20 April 2006‚ÄĒLa Bayad√®re, Rudolf Nureyev's last production at the Paris Op√©ra, which delights and draws in the crowds, is a classical ballet set in India but full of Russian colour, excess and emotion. The superb production, premiered in 1992, contains one of the most beautiful "white acts" in the history of dance and a story-line that still hangs true today: a man in love with two women who stop at nothing to keep him. It's about love, jealousy, weakness and betrayal.

However, the work is not only rich in story and in dance, but has been made unique by its decor and costumes. For Rudolf Nureyev staged what he called, "real productions", putting together all aspects of the theatre as did Diaghilev, Lifar, and Roland Petit before him. And although he chose Ezio Frigerio to create the decor and Franca Squarciapino to design his costumes, his own flamboyant taste is evident in each rustle, swish and swirl on stage, illustrating his belief that every spectator who came to a performance sees with his eyes but needs to eat too. "If he doesn't eat, he's hungry when he leaves the theatre",  he was wont to say.

Above all, Nureyev had access to the Paris Op√©ra's costume workroom, which was given what appeared to be a seemingly unlimited budget. This was the Russian giant's last work; people knew it and no expense was spared although the scenery department at first argued that they had run out of money for his large, extremely life-like, richly decorated elephant which trundles on  bearing Solor to his engagement celebrations. It was one of the last things he fought for.

Agn√®s Letestu, Jos√© Martinez  in La Bayad√®re
© Photo: Sébastien Mathé

Squarciapino was inspired by Indian/Persian paintings  as well as by what she termed the "oriental inflences" of the nineteenth century, and the fabrics used for her costumes, chosen in collaboration with Nureyev, echo Frigerio's "dream of the Orient" inspired by the Taj Mahal. Nureyev himself had memories of the "realistic", but heavy traditional costume he wore when he first danced Solor in 1959 which he subsequently simplified, and both he and his designer were fully aware of the difficulty of keeping a unity of style throughout the ballet particularly where tutus were worn in the third act.

While dancers wear exquisite dresses made from richly embroidered saris with pointe shoes in Act I, much of the choreography is performed on demi-pointe , and if boleros, saris, exotic drapes and veils  make their appearance in the mimed, "action parts", then they are worn with low-heeled shoes. Tutus belong to the purely classical third act and to the formal appearance of Gamzatti with her handmaidens. "Traditional" costumes, weighed down with decorative materials are worn by the many "extras" who have walk-on parts.

Fourteen years later, many of these costumes have had to be renewed and repaired. At the time, most of the fabrics came from Bali, and one of the problems of the costume workshop was in finding similar materials to those used at the creation.

"Most of the costumes are made from saris which come from India", Etienne Bretel, the person responsible for the production in the workshop told me. "Sometimes it has proved impossible to find exactly the same fabric used at the creation, but we manage to find something more or less the same, and often dye things to get the exact shade we need."

Agnès Letestu in La Bayadère
© Photo: Sébastien Mathé

"We work with several Indian boutiques in Paris as well as with a supplier in Germany who imports directly from India", he continued, "and we use the embroidered borders of all the saris. Many of the costumes are so fragile, being made of pure silk, that they cannot be dry-cleaned too often. "

Bretel showed me the sparkling new costume that had been made to measure for étoile Nicolas Le Riche, pointing out that the delicate white material, shot through with metallic threads was particularly vulnerable to oxidation from perspiration which caused it to darken to an unsightly moss green and that new outfits frequently had to be made for each of the étoiles.

"At a creation, all the costumes are made to measure for each interpreter", he said, "and when new dancers take on the roles we first try to rework each costume and tutu on them. There's a massive trying on session where we nip in a bodice here and let out a few stitches there."

"The simple tutu worn by the corps de ballet, with its bodice in white satin and lamé, made in its entirety by one seamstress, takes three days to make, while those worn by the soloists, which are covered in gold and silver embroidery, take five. We sew on some of the braid by machine when we can, but all of the heavy embroidery has to be stitched on by hand. The bodices of the temple dancers in act three are so heavily encrusted that we then have to cover our handiwork by placing soft white organza under the arms so that the girls don't hurt themselves on the metallic decorations."

Photo: Yves Boccadoro

A tutu, he told me, which was made out of approximately a dozen meters of tulle from suppliers in France, Germany and England, was approximately forty to forty-two centimetres in dimension   and contained eleven or twelve flounces. Each layer was basted, each flounce being loosely hand stitched to the one below separately, and starched, before being turned upside down to dry and stiffen. The √©toiles however, were free to reduce the number of flounces if they preferred to carry less weight, and also to choose their own headdress and personalise their outfit as they pleased. They could also choose their own ear-rings, bracelets and necklaces.

"I chose two of the smaller diadems for Gamzatti', soloist Emilie Cozette told me. "They had so many jewels in them and seemed to suit me best", she said, commenting that none of them were heavy and that it had been particularly exciting to try things on. She spoke of her joy in wearing the scintillating costumes, particularly of the delicate purple trousers, bolero, sari and diamond-encrusted veil for the mime scene of act I.

Emilie Cozette  and the Ballet de l'Op√©ra National de Paris
© Photo: Sébastien Mathé

In Act II, the costumes become even more extravagant, with Gamzatti's four hand-maidens wearing blue tutus decorated with large motives of golden flowers painted on by hand by the department's gifted 'atelier de decoration'. Likewise, the men who arrive carrying Gamzatti, and who are not even mentioned in the programme are all wearing  trousers which have been hand-painted, costumes which have to be re-painted before each series of productions as the paint disappears with dry-cleaning.

Among the countless colourful outfits and dresses, the appearance of the Golden Idol is outstanding. The very costume, inspired by the Hindu gods, is a work of art in itself.

"It's made entirely by hand", said Etienne Bretel. "Squarciapino worked from Hindu documents, and the whole affair is excessively complicated, with a great collar, arm bracelets, and gold metallic skirt. It's absolutely magnificent, and Emmanuel Thibault, who came into our department to add some finishing touches to his headdress, is unbelievable in the role, and that's even before he begins to dance. His golden make-up is extraordinary; you think he's made of gold".

Emmanuel Thibault and the Ballet de l'Opéra National de Paris
© Photo: Anne Deniau

Thibault himself told me that he spends three and a half hours to dress and make-up for the part which lasts just two minutes.  He added that all the elaborate jewellery he wears had been created by the department's "atelier de decoration", as have all the diadems, necklaces, bracelets and earrings worn by the women. Stones and other elements from Hindu jewellers, which have directly been imported from India, have been used to create a collection that Cartier, Boucheron, Chaumet and Fred would be proud to possess!

The atelier de decoration is also responsible for the extraordinary headdresses and hats which appear in the production. All are hand-made, and each one is made to measure for each dancer. The golden head-dresses worn by the ten high priests who do not even dance are magnificent, while the Rajah's costume of billowing blue trousers threaded through with gold, a blue and gold tunic trimmed with red and gold, silken cape and a mind-boggling turban shimmering with jewels with such intricately fashioned details is worthy of a place in any costume museum. Everything has been carefully studied with all kinds of fabulous, exquisitely worked details.

Atelier de decoration of the Ballet de l'Opéra National de Paris
Photo: Yves Boccadoro 

It's not only on stage at the Palais Garnier where there is a whole world of enchantment.  Behind, there is another world of magic, more secret, created by a talented and creative group of 35 people who have come from differing backgrounds. Many have studied at the Paris School of Fine Arts, some  have come from the top fashion houses,  while yet others are experienced and gifted seamstresses in their own right. But one thing they share in common is their passion and dedication for the work they are doing. The results onstage, be it in the exotic silken drifts of La Bayadere,  the rich velvets and chiffons of Swan Lake ,  or the delicate black and cream lace gowns ofLa Dame aux camellias , patiently hand-painted, illustrate that  the Palais Garnier more than  merits  its place among the Maisons of haute couture in France!


Patricia Boccadoro writes on dance in Europe and is the dance editor for

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