Ryerson Fashion Research Collection

Opening the closet door to a Canadian fashion archive

Elite Syncopations Leotards: Part 3, Contextualizing the Ballet

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Part Three will explore the context of Elite Syncopations and its role as part of the National Ballet’s repertoire.  I also analyse footage of a performance by the Royal Ballet in order to see the costumes as they were used onstage.

Elite Syncopations was first premiered by the Royal Ballet at Covent Garden, October 7, 1974 and was choreographed by Sir Kenneth MacMillan.  The ballet has come to be known for its jaunty rag-time music and demanding virtuosic performances, but it had an uncertain debut.  As Crisp states though “widely thought, at its premiere, to be a lightweight novelty, the ballet has, in fact, been often revived at Covent Garden and mounted for Sadlers Wells Royal Ballet, the National Ballet of Canada, the Bavarian State Ballet and the Houston Ballet” (Note 1).

The National Ballet premiered Elite Syncopations on November 10th, 1978.  It is usually performed grouped with other short ballet pieces such as Song of a Wayfarer and Chroma such as in the 2012 season (Note 2).  The ballet is non-narrative and focuses on a series of characters showing off their dancing to each other as a live band performs the rag-time tunes.  The National Ballet describes it in their 2012 Ballet Note as “free-form fantasy on situations and social dances of the dance-halls in the early years of the 20th century; the dance contest, the cakewalk, the slow drag and the stop time” (Note 3).  By including this ballet in its repertoire, the National Ballet can show off the athleticism of their dancers with a crowd-pleasing ballet.  The bright colourful costumes and shorter run time along with cheerful subject matter may seem less intimidating to those unfamiliar with dance, and encourages new viewers to attend.

Elite Syncopations Dress

As mentioned in Part One, I watched recordings from the Royal Ballet as a visual aid to better understand the costumes within the context of the ballet.  Since they were made in order to replicate Ian Sperling’s designs, the video could give me a close approximation to how they would look in the National Ballet’s productions. I am choosing to focus on the Shy Girl costume for this analysis because I am most familiar with the design.  It is important to remember that each company would inherently have slightly different interpretations of the choreography and costuming.  It should also be noted that the recording was at a fair to low quality, so some details may have been missed.  While a good resource, a recording is not a perfect substitute for a live performance of the National Ballet performing Elite Syncopations.  

As seen in the video, the female dancers wear either leotards with long sleeves and full tights, or a variation on the Shy Girl costume silhouette.  Many of them are outfitted with various hats.  Like the Shy Girl, many of the corps dancers are wearing tights of different colours. One thing that all the female dancers have in common is that their pointe shoes have been dyed to match their tights. Having dyed-to-match pointe shoes makes the dancer’s legs even longer and lengthens their lines so that they are more visually appealing.  One new detail I noticed in the recording were the dark purple gloves that the Shy Girl was wearing.  They had been dyed to match the dark purple of the sleeves, and caused her hands to seemingly disappear into the black backdrop. (Note 4)

The Shy Girl can be seen in various dances with the corps and features in a pas de deux with her partner the Shy Boy.  As this part of the recording was focused on these two dancers, it was much easier to pick out small details on her costume.  The “shy girl” and “shy boy” enter stage right, swinging hands and gazing at each other.  Their dance features some comedic awkward partnering and eventually the culminates in a series of lifts.  In this version she is wearing a four pointed tiara-like hat, as well as dangling chandelier earrings.  By seeing the dancer dressed in her costume, we are now able to see how the personality of the dancer is enhanced and shown through her clothing. The two dancers seem quite smitten with each other, therefore hearts are an appropriate adornment for her tights.  She has a shy but flirtatious and fun personality, so the short circle skirt suits her perfectly.  To emphasize this warm personality even further, Spurling used circles and other curvilinear forms to decorate her costume.  Spurling’s costume design ultimately gives the audience an idea of who the Shy Girl is, even before she starts to dance.

Spurling’s designs for Elite Syncopations were not always favoured by critics, as they were deemed overly decorated and colourful, even likened to licorice allsorts candy (Note 5).  However, I argue that these costumes demonstrate a combination of function and pleasing aesthetics.  The costumes do not impede the dancer’s movements, and also convey personalities of each character immediately. A leotard is a paradoxical garment, as it conceals the dancer’s skin, but reveals the dancer’s body.  By choosing to paint the leotards as if they were clothing, Spurling subverts expectations and delivers quirky, playful costumes.    

Notes

Note 1: Clement Crisp, “Into the Labyrinth: Kenneth MacMillan and his Ballets,” The Journal of the Society for Dance Research 25, no. 2 (2017): 188, accessed August 2, 2017,http://www.jstor.org.ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/stable/40004138?pq-origsite=summon&seq=2#page_scan_tab_contents

Note 2: “Elite Syncopations & Song of a Wayfarer & Chroma Ballet Note” (2012) The National Ballet of Canada. Accessed July 17 2017,https://national.ballet.ca/Tickets/Archives/Ballet-Notes/elite-syncopations-ballet-notes-(2012).aspx

Note 3: Ilbd.

Note 4: Elite Syncopations ; the Judas Tree ; Concerto. Film, Directed by Acosta, Carlos, Leanne Benjamin, Yuhui Choe, et al. Opus Arte, 2010.

Note 5: “Ian Spurling; Obituary.” Times (London, England), Apr. 15, 1996, p. 21. AcademicOneFile,go.galegroup.com/ps/i.do?p=AONE&sw=w&u=rpu_main&v=2.1&id=GALE%7CA115106285&it=r&asid=5d8bbb8ec92dea1882c9c96030f75b2b. Accessed 17 July 2017.

Bibliography

Bell, K. (1993). “The Art of the Costumes (for the National Ballet’s Elite Syncopations)”. Performing Arts & Entertainment in Canada 28, no.1 (1993): 19. Accessed July 17, 2017.http://ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/docview/224893640?accountid=13631.

Crisp, Clement. “Into the Labyrinth: Kenneth MacMillan and his Ballets.” The Journal of the Society for Dance Research 25, no. 2 (2007): 188-198. Accessed August 2, 2017.

“Alumni Where are They Now?,” The National Ballet of Canada. Accessed July 17 2017, https://national.ballet.ca/Meet/Alumni/WATN

“Ian Spurling; Obituary.” Times (London, England), Apr. 15, 1996, p. 21. Academic OneFile,go.galegroup.com/ps/i.dop=AONE&sw=w&u=rpu_main&v=2.1&id=GALE%7CA115106285&it=r&asid=5d8bbb8ec92dea1882c9c96030f75b2b. Accessed 17 July 2017.

“Elite Syncopations & Song of a Wayfarer & Chroma Ballet Note” (2012) The National Ballet of Canada. Accessed July 17 2017, https://national.ballet.ca/Tickets/Archives

/Ballet-Notes/elite-syncopations-ballet-notes-(2012).aspx

Elite Syncopations ; the Judas Tree ; Concerto. Film. Opus Arte.

Mida, Ingrid and Alexandra Kim. (2015) The Dress Detective: A Practical Guide to Object-Based Research in Fashion. New York: Bloomsbury.

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