Inside the Fantastical Costume World of Marc Chagall

New York City Ballet in Marc Chagall's costume designs for Balanchine's "Firebird."

I am a self-confessed costume nerd who really needs little persuasion to travel nearly 3,000 miles to see a costume exhibition—which is what I did when I set off for California for the new exhibition at Los Angeles County Museum of Art: Chagall: Fantasies for the Stage. I knew Marc Chagall primarily for his sumptuous blue swirling paintings featuring violin-playing goats, his incredible ceiling at the Paris Opéra's Palais Garnier, and murals at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City, so I was intrigued to see his work with ballet.

Marc Chagall (1887–1985), was born Moishe Zakharovich Shagal in Belarus. He later moved to St. Petersburg, Russia, to study art, apprenticing under famed Ballets Russes designer Leon Bakst. Chagall's work in ballet and opera, however, did not begin until he and his wife Bella arrived in the U.S. as World War II refugees in 1941.

Chagall: Fantasies for the Stage, adapted from an earlier exhibition at the Montreal Music of Art and curated by Yuval Sharon and Jason H. Thompson, is an exciting opportunity to see 41 costumes and nearly 100 designs. But it is the costumes that really steal the show. You won't see any tutus here, but instead amazing, almost cartoon-like realizations of Chagall's artwork. LACMA's exhibition runs through January 7, 2018. For those of you who can't make the trip like I did, here's a rundown of highlights.


The original costumes from Leonid Massine's 1942 ballet "Aleko." Photo by Fredrik Nilsen, Courtesy LACMA.

Aleko

This first ballet was created in 1942 for Ballet Theatre (now American Ballet Theatre). Based on the poem The Gypsies by Alexander Pushkin, Aleko was choreographed by Leonide Massine, with music by Tchaikovsky. The ballet told the story of Aleko, a young man who falls in love with the gypsy girl Zymphira, yet eventually kills her. Production was moved to Mexico City as New York City union regulations wouldn't allow Chagall to paint his own sets. In Mexico, Chagall tackled the backdrops while his wife worked on the costumes, which he finished with hand-painting. Of the four productions displayed, the costumes for Aleko are the only originals. The costume for the Fish is my favorite!


This 1945 watercolor costume design for the yellow monster in "Firebird" is a work of art in itself. Photo © 2017 Archives Marc et Ida Chagall, Paris, Courtesy LACMA.

Firebird

The 1945 production of Stravinsky's Firebird was also created for Ballet Theatre. This was the first work Chagall undertook after the sudden death of his wife and marked his re-engagement with the art world. The ballet was sold to NYCB in 1949 where Balanchine recreated the choreography. It was revived in 1970 with costumes remade by the incomparable Barbara Karinska. NYCB still performs this production.


The monster with donkey's head from Balanchine's "Firebird." Photo © 2017 Museum Associates/LACMA

The costumes for the sorcerer Koschei and a selection of his monsters are displayed – these are truly incredible, spectacular and grotesque – and must be a huge challenge to dance in!


Teresa Reichlen and dancers of NYCB in "Firebird." Photo by Paul Kolnik, Courtesy NYCB.

Chagall's Shepherdesses costumes for George Skibine's "Daphnis and Chloe." Photo © 2017 Museum Associates/LACMA

Daphnis and Chloe

Created in 1948 for the Paris Opéra Ballet, Daphnis and Chloe, set to the music of Ravel and choreographed by George Skibine, was Chagall's third and final ballet. The costumes are softer and lighter showing Chagall's evolving style. He must have had fun—Pan (in foreground below) is particularly imposing!


Pan and other costumes from "Daphnis and Chloe." Photo by Fredrik Nilsen, Courtesy LACMA.


Costumes from "The Magic Flute." Photo by Fredrik Nilsen, Courtesy LACMA.

The Magic Flute

The last work is Chagall's only opera. These designs took Chagall three years to create. The production premiered at the Metropolitan Opera House in 1967 as part of the Lincoln Center's inaugural season. The costumes are created collage-style with layer upon layer of fabric and no hand-painting. My favorite piece is the Lion costume - viewed from one side it appears to be giving a slightly befuddled smile, but on the other a menacing grimace!


Photo by Fredrik Nilson, Courtesy LACMA.

The exhibition has been designed in a very theatrical way – one enters under a swag of crimson and gold fringed curtain. The productions have been laid out chronologically with simulated backdrops behind each tableau, film footage and excerpts of the score playing. The exhibition does, however, feel somewhat disjointed—it would have been great to see production photos alongside the physical costumes, and descriptions do not state who originally wore them. (It was only after some searching that I realized I was looking at Alicia Markova's costume from Aleko!) While elements of the exhibition could have been better designed, it is a wonderful opportunity to see these works of art and dance up close. And definitely worth my trip to the West Coast!

One of the backdrops from "Aleko." Digital image © 2017 The Museum of Modern Art/licensed by SCALA/Art Resource, NY. Courtesy LACMA.

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It's finally the weekend, and we're celebrating the best way we know how—a new ballet video. Juliet Doherty (who trained with San Francisco Ballet and Master Ballet Academy, and is set to star in the dance film, On Pointe), teamed up with Cartoon Network for her latest project.

"Cartoon Network contacted me about their show, Steven Universe, which was coming out with a new vinyl album of the soundtrack of the show," Doherty shared with Pointe. "They told me about one of the show's main characters named, Pearl, who is a strong-willed character but has the grace inspired by a ballerina."

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Rigorous program, check. Well-rounded technical training, check. Purposeful liberal arts curriculum, check. Study your craft abroad, check! If you are looking for all the above, the Joan Phelps Palladino School of Dance at Dean College truly has it all.

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Videos
Mr. Jeremy FIsher, from Sir Frederick Ashton's "The Tales of Beatrix Potter."

Animal roles might not typically be what dancers dream of performing…but they're oh-so-fun to watch. You can't help falling under their spell (and perhaps aspiring to dance one someday). Here's a round-up of some of our favorite furry and feathered roles.

Bunny Hop

Run. Dance in a circle. Pretend to be a rabbit. It might sound like a creative movement combo, but don't let that fool you. The role of Peter Rabbit in Sir Frederick Ashton's The Tales of Beatrix Potter requires fierce technique—not to mention the ability to project personality while wearing an animal head and fur suit.


Four-Legged Interlude

Who do you turn to for halftime entertainment during a quartet of fairy variations? Dancing lizards, mice and a frog of course! This charming quintet of creatures light up the stage in David Bintley's Cinderella.

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Your Career
Photo Courtesy Barry Kerollis.

I was probably about 15 years old when the director of my local dance school, seeing my drive and ambition, asked me to work as a teaching assistant for one of the main ballet instructors. She asked to meet with me to discuss the details of my new job. She explained what my role was in the studio, expectations of me in the position and more. But as we approached the end of my meeting, I wasn't expecting the conversation to take the serious turn that it did.

"Now, Barry, I need you to be very, very careful about how you work with these young girls. Kids are sensitive and, especially considering that you are a man, if you correct them in a way that can be viewed as sexual by either a student or a parent, even if you didn't do anything, you could be jeopardizing your future as a teacher and in this field." The look on my face must have been utter shock; the prospect of losing my job or getting sued over sharing my artform had never crossed my mind. This forever changed my perspective on being a dance educator, and I still find myself overly cautious about the way that I work with my students today.

Unless you've been hiding underneath a holiday blanket, it has become abundantly clear that we are undergoing a massive cultural shift here in the States. It started in the entertainment industry, then shifted to major corporations. Sexual misconduct in the form of harassment and assault that had been swept under the rug for years is bubbling to the surface. Things began to boil quite quickly, and those interested in our performing-arts world were speculating that something was going to be brought up in our tight-knit community, especially considering the hands-on approach that teachers have with students, dancers have with other dancers and artistic staff has while coaching employees. I had to sit on my own hands for over a month, after I was given a heads-up that a major news publication was working on an exposé about Peter Martins and his many alleged abuses (which had been quietly circulating around our dance community for years).

Keep reading at dance-teacher.com.

Your Career
Erica Lall and Shaakir Muhammad in class at American Ballet Theatre's 2013 New York Summer Intensive. Photo by Rosalie O'Connor, Courtesy ABT.

This story originally appeared in the December 2013/January 2014 issue of Pointe.

When Pacific Northwest Ballet School student Madison Abeo was accepted into San Francisco Ballet School's summer session on a partial scholarship, she was thrilled. But then she added up the remaining cost for the program and realized she didn't have the funds. “I really wanted to go," she says, “but we just couldn't make the other half of it work."

Ballet training is expensive. For many families, a trip to a dream summer intensive simply isn't in the budget. SFB was $2,500 out of Abeo's reach. But she was determined. At the suggestion of her aunt, Abeo created a Facebook fan page where she asked for opportunities to babysit or perform odd jobs, and included a link to a PayPal account where friends and family could make donations. Two local dancewear businesses, Vala Dancewear and Class Act Tutu, offered to outfit her for fundraising photos, which a photographer took for her Facebook page for free. By June, Abeo had raised enough for tuition—plus plenty of pointe shoes.

Affording your dream intensive isn't as difficult as you might think. There are a surprising number of eager dance supporters out there. Case in point: On Kickstarter, dance projects have the highest success rate of any type of campaign, with dancers receiving over $4 million in donations through the site since it began. You can also apply for need- or merit-based grants and scholarships, either through your summer program or an outside foundation. Most dancers who want it badly enough can make it happen.


Madison Abeo with other Pacific Northwest Ballet School students in the 2013 School Performance of an excerpt from "Serenade," choreography by George Balanchine. Photo by Rex Tranter, Courtesy Abeo.

Take Your Cause to the (Online) Streets

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Your Career
In class at the Bolshoi Ballet Academy summer intensive. Photo by Gene Schiavone, Courtesy Russian American Foundation.

When Complexions Contemporary Ballet's summer intensive program director Meg Paul auditions students for its Detroit intensive, there's one thing that catches her eye for all the wrong reasons. "It's a real pet peeve of mine when a dancer keeps shifting her eyes to me during a phrase," she says. "It tells me that she's not fully invested in the movement, that she's more interested in being watched than in embodying the choreography."

Every summer intensive director has their own list of audition deal-breakers, but there are a handful of universal turnoffs to avoid. "Yes, we want the most talented students, but when talent is paired with a bad attitude or improper etiquette, it gives us pause," Paul says. While certain behaviors may seem minor, they can make all the difference when it comes time for scholarship offers or even acceptance decisions.

DEAL BREAKER #1: Not Presenting Yourself Professionally

An audition is a first impression, and you want to look your best. This begins with researching the specific intensive's audition requirements. "Our audition has a dress code, and we expect dancers to respect that," says Rina Kirshner, director of the Russian American Foundation's Bolshoi Ballet Academy programs. "We want dancers to stand out through hard work and talent, not brightly colored leotards or flowers in their hair."

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Your Best Body
Mikayla Scaife of The Ailey School's Professional Division. All photos by Nathan Sayers for Pointe.

Whether you're being lifted in The Nutcracker's grand pas de deux or doing weight-sharing in contemporary choreography, female ballet dancers can't expect their partner to do all the work. "Strength with stability is a hallmark," says Rebecca Kesting, staff physical therapist at the Harkness Center for Dance Injuries at NYU Langone Health. The other person is usually moving too, she says, so you need to be able to use your upper-body strength to find stability.

Kesting recommends these three exercises, which imitate pressing into a partner. If you're just starting to build upper-body strength, practice them four days a week to develop your shoulder stabilizers and upper-back muscles. Later on, you can scale back to two or three times weekly for maintenance.

You'll need:

  • an inflatable ball you can hold in your hand (like a kickball or smaller)
  • a foam roller


Side Plank with Port de Bras

Regular and side planks strengthen the shoulder stabilizers, like the serratus anterior, along with the abdominals. Once you've mastered these basic forms, Kesting recommends a side plank with moving port de bras. Play with your own pattern, like first to fifth to second, and then reverse. "You get the stability of pressing away from the ground as you would through a partner," she says. "And you're adding that dance-specific movement."


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