Quit horsing around: The Royal Ballet in costume
Choreographers and designers have had a field day animalizing their dancers. We share some of our favourite examples.
12 December 2013 at 1.08pm | Comment on this article
Ratty in tweeds, Toad in a hip-level motor-car, Teddy-boy stoats and rabbits with long-eared balaclavas – Nicky Gillibrand’s brilliantly witty Edwardian-with-a-twist costumes for Will Tuckett’s The Wind in the Willows bring the animals of Kenneth Grahame’s beloved novel instantly to life. It’s not the first time dancers have been made to look, well, a little on the beastly side. As the Duchess Theatre’s curtain is raised for the Royal Opera House’s first ever West End transfer, we take a look at a few of the varmints lurking around The Royal Ballet’s repertory.
First in line is the notorious Peter Rabbit and his furry friends. Royal Ballet Founder Choreographer Frederick Ashton created Tales of Beatrix Potter for television in 1970, for a balletic film that was the brainchild of Richard Goodwin and his wife, designer and filmmaker Christine Edzard. They wanted to replicate Ms Potter’s gorgeous watercolours as closely as possible – and the results were astutely padded costumes and an array of magnificent fibreglass heads, created by Rostislav Doboujinsky. Anthony Dowell knew the perfect children’s ballet when he saw it and adapted Ashton’s film for the Royal Opera House stage in 1992. Ever since, audiences have cheered as much as dancers have cursed the notoriously hot and heavy costumes.
There’s a whole menagerie of Ashtonian animals, from the comedic cockerel that opens La Fille mal gardée to the transformed Bottom in The Dream, who combats the dual demands of prancing on point beneath a massive donkey mask. Their furry forbear is Pépé, the Mexican terrier, who nips around Ashton’s early masterpiece A Wedding Bouquet (1937). Pépé had real-life inspiration in the Pépé belonging to writer Gertrude Stein, whose play inspired the ballet. Stein wrote, in her usual idiosyncratic style, ‘Pépé the little Mexican dog is going to be on the stage not in person of course but a little girl to play him but even the littlest little girl is going to be a very large little Mexican’. She eventually allowed that ‘Pépé the dog was charming’.
In one of the more surreal moments of A Wedding Bouquet Pépé dons a blue tutu and dances a pas de trois – it’s one of Ashton’s many allusions in the ballet to classical dance, here the wedding scene of The Sleeping Beauty, in which the wedding of Princess Aurora and Prince Florimund is attended by an alarming host of fairytale characters. Chief among them are White Cat and Puss-in-Boots, who dance an amorous cattish quarrel. The ballet also features an evil clutch of mousey cohorts to the villainess Carabosse – who have another classical counterpart in The Nutcracker‘s Mouse King and his army of mice.
Contemporary choreographers haven’t shied away from the animal world. Christopher Wheeldon’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland has creatures of all colours: the White Rabbit’s tell-tale tail peeking through his coat, the capering tartan-clad critters of the caucus race, the Fish and Frog Footmen, sinuous Caterpillar and of course the flame-pink flamingos and cute chorus of hedgehogs – all brilliantly realized in Bob Crowley’s eye-popping designs.
Animal designs have also been used in a more elegiac, mysterious way. The Royal Ballet’s Resident Choreographer Wayne McGregor’s Raven Girl – created in collaboration with Audrey Niffenegger, author of The Time Traveler’s Wife – imagines a girl who exchanges her arms for wings in her longing to join the world of ravens. And while David Bintley’s sprightly ‘Still Life’ at the Penguin Café, created for the Company in 1988, is a colourful showcase – an ebullient Texan Kangaroo Rat, the Morris dancing Hog-nosed Fleas, the seraphic Southern Cape Zebra – it also carries a sobering message of animals endangered by human activities.
What are your favourite balletic animals?
The Wind in the Willows is on now at the Duchess Theatre and runs to 5 February 2014. Tickets are still available and can be purchased via the Royal Opera House or through the Duchess Theatre.