Costume change for the ballet eye

Dance fashion fever: From Jewels bling to Sarah Jessica Parker's tutu, it all starts with us

Dance fashion fever: From Jewels bling to Sarah Jessica Parker's tutu, it all starts with us

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Houston Ballet members in the "Emeralds" section from "Jewels": Karina Gonzalez, from left, Joseph Walsh and Nozomi Iijima. Choreographed by George Balanchine Photo by Amitava Sarkar
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Nozomi Iijima in the Houston Ballet's production of "Divergence" choreographed by Stanton Welch Photo by Amitava Sarkar
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Whim W'him's Kylie Lewallen and Ty Cheng in "Three Seasons" wearing costumes by Michael Cepress
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You know dance fashion is hot when even Sarah Jessica Parker dons a tutu.
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Artists of Houston Ballet performing Mark Morris’s "Sandpaper Ballet" with costumes designed by Isaac Mizrahi. Photo by Amitava Sarkar
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Houston Ballet corps de ballet member Jim Nowakowski in artistic director Stanton Welch’s "Clear" with costumes designed by Michael Kors Photo by Amitava Sarkar
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Houston Ballet Artistic Director Stanton Welch’s "Clear" with costumes designed by Michael Kors. Dancers: Connor Walsh, left, Barbara Bears and artists of Houston Ballet Photo by Amitava Sarkar
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New York City Ballet Principal Jenifer Ringer looking positively smashing in J. Mendel on the cover of the August issue of "Dance Magazine" Courtesy of Dance Magazine
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Fashion and dance have been tightly joined in a pas de couture since Louis XIV first put his feet in fifth position. The subject is on my mind because the Houston Ballet  is performing George Balanchine's masterpiece Jewels this weekend (7:30 p.m. tonight and Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday) with sumptuous costumes by the legendary Russian designer Barbara Karinska.

Balanchine's bejeweled wonder rocked the ballet house in 1967 when it premiered, and does so again at the Wortham.

Karinska's contribution is as distinct as Balanchine's bold lines. Emeralds feature calf-length tulle skirts conjuring the Romantic era. Rubies' flared skirts give off a sassy, fiery energy, while Diamonds' classical tutus evoke Imperial Russia. Each ballet comes adorned with the corresponding gems. Jewels, considered Balanchine's launch of the revolutionary full-length plotless ballet, may be the quintessential match between choreographer and designer.

Who needs a story when you have this much bling?

"Although numerous designers have created costumes for Jewels, Karinska's are classic," Stanton Welch, Houston Ballet's artistic director, says. The Russian designer re-engineered the shorter, fluffier "power puff" tutu, now a standard in ballet companies around the globe.

Before Karinska turned to ballet, she crafted gowns for nightclub performers and even the wives of the Soviet elite during the Lenin era.

After leaving Russia, Karinska collaborated with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo for Balanchine’s Cotillon. While creating numerous designs for the Ballet Russe, she still found time to dress the burlesque star Gypsy Rose Lee. In Hollywood during the 1940s, Karinska costumed such stars as Gary Cooper, Ingrid Bergman, Judy Garland and Ginger Rogers, winning a 1948 Academy Award for Joan of Arc.

Eventually, Karinska settled at New York City Ballet as Balanchine's costume muse, where she reigned for decades. Her designs, needlework and fabric choices were known for being both supremely durable and danceable.

Danceability is key when working with a fashion designer, who may not be familiar with the demands of the trade. Welch has always had a keen eye for good design.

"Working with fashion designers is really important and quite common in ballet; It's also exciting," admits  Welch, who has designed costumes for several of his own ballets, including, Maninyas and Indigo. "There was a time when all the big names wanted to design for ballet. I even have a photo of my mother (Marilyn Jones) wearing a Christian Dior Black Swan tutu on my mantle."

Welch has had his own dream design teams. Vanessa Leyonhjelm made a deconstructionist statement in Welch's heavy metal ballet Divergence, which featured tutus fashioned out of mesh from air-conditioning ducts with Gaultier-like leather bra cones.

"Working with Vanessa was an extraordinary collaboration," Welch says.

To arrive at the somber tone of his post-9/11 ballet Clear, Welch turned to Michael Kors for minimalist flesh-tone body-clinging look, creating a pared-down, vulnerable atmosphere.

Welch hopes the fashion/ballet connection is making a comeback. New York City Ballet's Jenifer Ringer looked ravishing in the J. Mendel gown on the August Dance Magazine cover, while Valerie Gladstone's story chronicled the fashion pairings of such legends as Martha Graham and Halston, Twyla Tharp with Norma Kamali, Jorma Elo with Ralph Rucci, among numerous others.

Fashion action continues locally with Dominic Walsh Dance Theater dancer Rachel Meyer  wearing a silk and chiffon gown from Chloe Dao’s Mini Collection when she hits the red carpet to pick up her Princess Grace Award. The dress features a black and pale pink lattice work bodice, an asymmetrical shoulder, with a low back and open sides. Dao describes the dress as "tough, cool and sexy." 

In step

As dancers are young, mostly tall and gorgeous, is it any wonder that no art form has influenced fashion more than dance?

Check out the fashion-forward crop at the New York City Ballet. Stunning. Who wouldn't want to dress up like these stylish people?

Ballet flats, over-sized bags, wrap-around sweaters and skirts, lace-up shoes are some of the better crossover choices. Flashdance-style torn T-shirts, leg warmers, booty shorts and tutu-shaped skirts should have never left the studio. Drew Jacoby, the leggy ballerina of Jacoby & Pronk, last seen in Houston wowing Dance Salad fans, offered her opinions on the best and worst of dance fashions on her Dance Pulp blog.

She wasn't too thrilled with Bjork's feathered swan dress for the Academy Awards. 

I know it's a scary thing to get fashion advice from a gal who wears sweater sets, but listen up beautiful, young Hollywood things, only ballerinas should wear tutus. OK, maybe Natalie Portman gets away with it in Black Swan, but that's only after logging in some serious hours at the barre. Even Sarah Jessica Parker couldn't pull it off during the opening credits of Sex and The City, and don't get me started on Lara Flynn Boyle's misguided tulle for the 2003 Golden Globe Awards.

If I see one more middle schooler in booty shorts I will call your mother. Those are for your jazz classes dear ones.

Welch agrees that there's a constant flow of fashion ideas from the studio to the street.

"We were just remarking that the men seem to be wearing torn T-shirts again. We used to do that. I notice a strong dance influence at the gym and in the Olympics," Welch says. "But really, I don't know what people are wearing these days on the street because I spend all my time with the dancers who are making the trends."

Listen to dancer Olivier Wevers, artistic director of Seattle-based upstart troupe  Whim W'Him, who I recently wrote about along with Melody Herrera in my dance vacations story.

"Ballet is constantly creating new visuals that are relevant to the period we live in, so is fashion," says Wevers, who is also a principal at Pacific Northwest Ballet and a frequent collaborator with designers. "Both have classics that won't ever go out of style." 

Jewels is just that, a timeless classic.

 

See Karinska's designs and hear Stanton Welch talk about Balanchine's Jewels: