The moment I walked into Chagall: Fantasies for the Stage I knew I was in for a treat. The newly opened LACMA exhibit is a magical and engaging intersection of music, costumes, sets, original design sketches and paintings. It highlights a lesser known part of the artist's oeuvre that many will be surprised by. While he flirted with aspects of modernism, Marc Chagall is primarily known for his fantastical, figurative style. The Russian-born artist was a prolific painter, illustrator, and designer and began collaborating with ballet, theater, and opera productions early in his career. His use of vibrant, saturated color and fairy tale imagery translated brilliantly to the stage.
Modern art curator Stephanie Barron collaborated with LACMA's Costume and Textile department to bring together elements from three ballets ("Aleko," 1942, "The Firebird," 1945, and "Daphnis & Chloe," (1959) and one opera, ("The Magic Flute," 1967) that create a multi-sensory experience for museum visitors. Music from each production and theatrical lighting add to the overall effect.
Personal confession, I am a big ballet fan. The Firebird, which continues to be part of many companies repertoire, is on my bucket list of ballets to see. Visiting the LACMA exhibit with former ballerina Melissa Barak gave me a sense of what it was like to actually wear Chagall's costumes. The choreographer and founder of Los Angeles-based Barak Ballet was a member of the New York City Ballet for nine years (starting in 1998) and performed in "The Firebird" multiple times with the company. For her, seeing the costumes again took her back to her early days as a professional dancer. "This is exactly how I remember them," she says, "and I remember exactly who wore what."
Barak was just 19 when she first learned "Firebird" as a new member of the corps de ballet. Struggling to survive in the notoriously fast-paced company, there wasn't much time to research the iconic creator of its costumes and sets. "I knew it was a big deal that Chagall designed for the ballet, but it was, 'we've got to learn this because it's going on in a few nights,'" she recalls. "There was no time to give lessons in art history. Now that I'm older, I can look back and see how amazing it was."
"The Firebird," set to music by Igor Stravinsky, was first performed in 1910 by Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes. Inspired by Russian folklore, the ballet tells the story of a young prince who strays into the magical kingdom of an evil sorcerer. There he discovers the magnificent "Firebird." There are also princesses and monsters, and enough drama and excitement to have given George Balanchine and his fledgling New York City Ballet its first box office hit in 1949.
Chagall was first commissioned to create the "Firebird" costumes and sets by Ballet Theatre (now American Ballet Theater) in 1945. Balanchine purchased the Chagall designs from Ballet Theatre in 1949 and updated the ballet with a speedier pace. In 1970 he asked his costume designer, Barbara Karinska, to rework the Chagall costumes "in her way," according to the exhibit's catalog. Balanchine invited Chagall to come to New York to supervise the work and there is ample evidence he that was extremely pleased with Karinska's interpretation.
"They're quite different from the 1945 costumes," says LACMA costume and textiles curator Kaye Spilker. "Karinska made big, fat monsterish kinds of things, whereas in 1945 they were much closer to the dancers' bodies." What did remain was Chagall's sense of whimsy and fantasy, which Karinska enhanced with the use of wire, feathers, horsehair, fur and fabric. Chagall's hybrid creatures and monsters took on new life. The company continues to use the 1970 designs today.
Barak was cast as a Winged Character (part of the monsters scene) and as one of the princesses, depending on the season. Unlike some fellow dancers who had to wear bulkier, more elaborately constructed costumes, hers were relatively easy to perform in. The Winged Character costume was a unitard with a mask, eliminating the need for the usual makeup and hair.
"When I first did "Firebird" it hadn't been performed in a long time. My group were all new to the company, so we were the new crop of monsters," said Barak. "I guess there was no time for a dress rehearsal because the first time we put on the costumes was for the actual performance!"
Right: Chagall design for "winged character" costume, 1945.
For classically trained ballet dancers, Chagall's cartoon-like monster costumes are a departure from what they're used to wearing onstage. She remembers everyone laughing in hysterics seeing each other in them for the first time. She especially recalls her amusement at seeing two of her friends, Jared Angle (now a principal dancer at NYCB) and Ellen Bar, acclimate to their slightly unwieldy and eccentric costumes.
"It was one of those pieces where you could totally have fun," Barak said. In contrast to the ballet's leading roles, the monsters choreography is playful and silly. "No one took it that seriously or really complained about it being difficult to dance or move," she said. "We had fun and laughed a lot. There was nothing technically demanding whatsoever, you were just part of a big picture."