A museum may not be the ideal venue to showcase a performative art such as dance, which only exists in the living bodies of its practitioners. So it makes sense that the de Young Museum, in collaboration with France’s Centre National de Costume de Scène, chose to highlight an aspect of the mobile art that can exist in a static installation for Rudolf Nureyev: A Life in Dance. Contrary to its title, this exhibition washes over great swathes of the artist’s life and explores not dance itself but one aspect of it: costuming, specifically seventy costumes codesigned by Nureyev to be worn by himself and other dancers in the many ballets he choreographed, revived, and staged around the world from the early 1960s to his death in 1993.
It is impossible to appreciate the engineering that Nureyev put into these garments in a context wherein none of dance’s physical demands are also on display. Still, costume is a compelling curatorial focus here: Nureyev was not only the ne plus ultra of physical grace and prowess in the last century of dance, but he had a flair for dressing. This extended to his offstage style as well, as evidenced, sometimes stunningly and sometimes hilariously, in several featured portraits. He also possessed a practitioner’s knowledge of the moving body’s needs and the clout to manifest his ideas. While still a young dancer with the Kirov and already its star, Nureyev infamously stalled a performance by refusing to go onstage in the baggy pants that were still the norm in Russia, though they had long been abandoned in the West. Tradition had dictated that men wear bloomers over their tights despite the fact the garment obscured the visibility of the legs, which can communicate story, intention, even emotion to an attentive audience. Instantly, Nureyev had overturned custom and set a new precedent, and for the rest of his career he would display the same consideration of the needs of both the dancer and the audience when he worked with designers to fashion costumes for his productions.
For his own ensembles, Nureyev redesigned the doublets with diagonal seams in front, which visually tightened the waist without constricting movement. He added underarm gussets to facilitate the arms’ movement but kept the sleeves mounted high and the cuffs snug and added beading and embroidery to visually elongate the line. He also had the women’s costumes reworked to his specifications, minimizing embellishments except to distinguish principal characters from the corps and lowering and lengthening the tutus to emphasize the litheness of the waist.1 Although such refinements and additions all bore dramatic and graphic purpose, Nureyev nevertheless acquired a reputation for “the Tartar taste of barbarous sumptuousness.”2 On reviewing the evidence, however, this verdict seems more like sour grapes on the part of the deposed tastemakers of the old guard. Cultural snobbery aside, that “barbarous sumptuousness” is the only aspect of the costumes discernible to the untrained eye and is thus the reason to see this exhibition: from the rouge bordeaux satin tunic from Romeo and Juliet—warm and rich even where it has faded—to the embroidery and beading designs curled over the breasts and the tiered ruffling on the top plains of the tutus in Sleeping Beauty, to the adapted saris of La Bayadère. (continue reading)