Lifting the lid on stage illusion

Lavish costumes are an intrinsic part of the magic of ballet, opera and theatre, but they are every bit as much of an illusion as the performance.

What looks like intricate lace may have been sprayed on with a paint gun, rich tapestries are not woven but faked with digital photo printing and appliquéd flowers are more likely to be plastic than silk.

The latest exhibition at the National Centre for Stage Costume in Moulins, a sleepy town in central France, lifts the lid on these tricks of the trade.

It uses about 100 costumes from its archives on the theme of flowers and gardens to illustrate the power of disguise.

It is set out in tableaux—many of them staples in the stage repertoire, like the enchanted forest, the woodland glade, the walled medieval garden, the hot house and the winter landscape—each showcasing and explaining techniques.

“You can see the details that spectators can’t see from their seats,” says Delphine Pinasa, the centre’s deputy director, pointing out the effect of embroidery achieved by layering paint on the sleeve of a jacket. “It gives the perfect illusion of work by hand.”

Traditionally costumes were hand-embroidered but now it is hardly used at all because it would be too expensive, and too time-consuming.

“Costumes have to be made very quickly and to tight budgets as productions also have shorter runs than in the past.
Designers today also like to leave their own stamp, they don’t want to recycle,” Pinasa says.

The last time real embroidery was used in any quantity was in Rudolf Nureyev’s Swan Lake at the Paris Opera 20 years ago.

New sophisticated materials and technology are increasingly replacing older methods of ornamentation—from ink-jet printing and digital photography to the technique of applying acid to eat away fabric for so-called “chemical lace” and paint spray guns to achieve effects of light and shadow.

Stencil and silk-screen printing are essential parts of the armoury.

Decades of detail
The exhibition spans decades, so one can compare costumes from the 1950s and earlier with ones from recent productions, like the black velvet crinoline worn in a 1951 La Traviata and a sprigged white muslin from a 1998 production of the Verdi opera at the new Bastille opera house in Paris.

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