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By Patricia Boccadoro

PARIS, 7 April 2005— France's star ballerina, Agnès Letestu, once said that one of the reasons she wanted to join the Paris Opéra Ballet when she was small was because she loved the beautiful dresses she saw there. What wasn't mentioned at the time was that since she had begun taking part in international competitions and galas, she had discovered a second passion for designing costumes herself.
 "I used to experiment for hours with pieces of material, pins and sewing needles", she told me in her dressing-room at the Palais Garnier. "In 1989 I made my own tutu entirely from old white sheets I found at home and pieces of lace from a Paris market for the Eurovision contest. As I couldn't sew or draw very well, I simply tacked my dress together, pinned yards of lace to the skirt of the tutu, and carried the lot to a dressmaker  who fitted it on  me and sewed it up properly. "

 Then the following year, to go to Varna to dance Esmeralda, she pulled an old tutu of hers to pieces and remade it in black with lots of cream lace.

 "I've always wanted to design costumes", she said, "and usually I make one to match for my partner. When I'm invited to galas it's the occasion to create something new as it is fun to wear something original, but it's mainly because I enjoy doing it so much, so when José Martinez started to choreograph ballets, he asked me to create the costumes for them. Although he trusts my judgement, he was a bit taken aback when I announced that the costumes for Mi Favorita, the ballet he created in 2002 would be in a sort of violet plum shade. He was worried because such a colour hadn't been used before and then made fun of me saying I'd make one in plastic next. I took him at his word...... and the resulting tutu was most effective!"

Costume by Agnès Letestu

 The beauty as well as the inventiveness of the costumes attracted the attention of several journalists, and as a follow-up to an article in Maison Française, Letestu was invited to present her costumes both for Mi Favorita and a second ballet, Delibes Suite where the tutus were in blue, at a special evening at the Hotel Crillon in Paris. Co-incidentally, the hotel had just been decorated in violet and crushed raspberry.

 The ballerina herself had made suggestions to the Crillon for the decor and lighting which were stunning.

  "I was amazed at the way the tutus had been put on stands and lit up from behind," she said. "Everything I'd asked for was so beautifully done, from the pink satin ballet slippers that decorated the great curved staircase to the incredible slipper chandelier hanging from the ceiling. It looked so much more effective than when the idea first arose; I'd gone to the sports shop, Go Sport, and bought three hula hoops which I'd decorated with mauve satin ribbon".

 "The slow realisation of what had been done far surpassed anything I imagined for they'd even put special heaters on the terraces so we could look across the Place de la Concorde to the Christmas lights shining in the trees on the Champs d'Elysées with  the Eiffel tower scintillating beyond; it looked like fairyland".

 Costumes by Agnès Letestu

 Throughout the evening there was also an intermittent show of two dancers, Dorothée Gilbert and Samuel Murez, wearing the costumes, but they moved imperceptibly so it was hard to tell where the real dancers were and which were the dummies. Guests had to look hard, but they got their own back when the waiters came out with a couple of trays of pointe shoes along with the petit fours. Instead of sharing the joke, people pounced on the slippers and carried them off as trophies!

 Now, the ballerina is putting the finishing touches to a set of forty outfits for Scaramouche, the new work by José Martinez which will be danced by the pupils of the Paris Opéra School in April. She showed me fifteen or so beautifully drawn and painted little sketches which she was still working on, each planned to bring out the personality of the character portrayed in the ballet.

 "The predominant colour here is blue", she pointed out, "and I've combined many different shades of colour in blue-jean material that I found at the market of Saint Pierre in the bodice of this dress, while the skirt is in tulle. Some of my designs are inspired by evening dresses, but in each case, I know exactly what I want and the effect I want to give before I draw. The general ideas have been turning around in my head for quite some time, and I'm extremely fortunate to have the wardrobe department here working on them. I can't praise them enough.

 "They are so quick to understand what I want, and when I've been unable to find the shade of fabric needed, they dye it for me. I bring along samples, and they take it from there."

Costume by Agnès Letestu

 It all seemed so obvious and so logical, that a dancer who knows what it's like to wear costumes and dance in them should now be designing. Not only do her costumes fit and flatter the interpreters who wear them, but they are also designed with movement in mind.

Patricia Boccadoro writes on dance in Europe. She contributes to The Observer and Dancing Times and was dance consultant to the BBC Omnibus documentary on Rudolf Nureyev. Ms. Boccadoro is the dance editor for  

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