The costume designs of Leon Bakst:
Schéhérazade – Costume for the Chief Eunuch.
Leon (sometimes written Léon) Bakst, as main set and costume designer for Les Ballets Russes in 1910, designed the sets and all costumes for the wildly extravagant production entitled Schéhérazade produced by Serge Diaghilev. The Chief Eunuch costume was translated from his design work into reality by costumier Marie Muelle and her crew. It is currently owned by the National Gallery of Australia, purchased in 1973 along with many other Ballets Russes costumes, and can be viewed by appointment. I saw it in March 2011 when they showcased an exhibition of costumes from Les Ballets Russes.
One of many sumptuous robes, unleashed at the ballet premiere on 14th June 1910 at the Théâtre national de l’Opera in Paris, it demonstrates a continuation of his fascination with the visual emphasis of the Orient which came to the fore in 1909 with the production Cléopâtre. His spectacular innovations in costume design set a precedent for his future work. His set designs were vivid and intense with vibrant clashing colours and clothing followed the same trend. All heightened the drama, sensuality and sensationalism of the powerful ballet stories and plots.
At a time when Les Ballets Russes was at its peak, Schéhérazade is generally considered one of the most ornate and ostentatious productions of that era.
How would you describe this work and how does it work?
The ballet is set in the harem of an Oriental palace in Persia. The Chief Eunuch is a person of great import and, as such, is dressed accordingly. He is responsible to the Persian ruler, in this case Shah Shahriar, for the safekeeping of his wives. His costume reflects his unique position and the role he plays within the complex palace hierarchy.
His robes are multilayered. The trousers are cotton and silk with silk appliqué. The jacket includes silk, metallic braid, rayon, and cotton, with a cummerband of rayon, silk, cotton and metallic paint. The overskirt is silk appliqué, acetate, metallic braid, paint and cotton and the hat is constructed using rayon, silk, metallic braid and ornaments, along with feathers, imitation jewels, cotton, wadding, cork, cane and newspaper.
The entire outfit exudes an aura of power, of belonging to a person of note, someone in control and authoritative. Bakst has successfully devised exotic and unusual costumes designed to excite and enliven the audience and transport them into an on-stage fantasy world.
In a large theatre setting, where many patrons would be seated far from the stage, he has managed to accomplish a stunning visual element which would reach even the furthest of viewers. The bold colours, along with the richness of metallics, both in braids and painterly effects, shimmer and shine throughout the theatre so uniting the audiences in their appreciation of these thrilling spectacles.
“Scheherazade” by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Leon Bakst – video with original costume designs can be viewed at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xky-7ZEYpz8
Whilst Diaghilev never allowed his ballets to be filmed, as he believed the essence of them could never be captured on reel, some short jerky black-and-white footage has emerged and can be viewed on youtube.
Videos of sections of the ballet recorded in 1999 at the Royal Theatre in Madrid can be watched on youtube by searching under ‘scheherazade 1 Kirov Mariinsky’ with other excerpts at scheherazade 2, 3 and 4. Pretty average quality but a good place to start when wanting to locate other visual sources.
Diaghilev and the golden age of the Ballets Russes 1909-1929, Edited by Jane Pritchard, Published by V & A Publishing, London, 2010. ISBN 978-1-8517-613-9. Pages 104 & 105.