Reimagining the Classics: Innovative Costuming Approaches

Reimagining the Classics: Innovative Costuming Approaches

Embracing Change in the Ballet World

When I first stepped onto the stage as a young ballet dancer, I was enamored by the grandeur and tradition of the classics. The dramatic tutus, the exquisite headpieces, the fantastical worlds they transported me to – it was all so enchanting. But as I grew in my career, I began to wrestle with the troubling colonial politics and stereotypes embedded in many of these beloved ballets.

Take the quintessential classic, La Bayadère. The “embarrassing portrait of India” with its servile fakirs and orientalist tropes made me squirm. And the continued use of blackface in some international productions? Utterly unacceptable. I found myself torn – how could I honor the artistry and choreographic brilliance of these masterpieces, while also reckoning with their problematic elements?

It’s a conversation that the ballet world has been grappling with, as choreographers and dancers seek to “reimagine the classics” for modern audiences. As Akram Khan powerfully articulated, “If we only ever see Asians in the media as two-dimensional caricatures, our imaginal worlds become impoverished. Surely given rich cultures to draw from, we can find better representations.”

Rethinking Costuming for a New Era

As a costume designer, I’ve had the privilege of collaborating with visionary artists who are tackling this challenge head-on. Take my recent work on the reimagined Roadhouse – director Doug Liman gave me free rein to create a completely fresh, contemporary take on the classic film.

Rather than be beholden to the past, we embraced the vibrant, tropical setting of the Florida Keys and crafted costumes that were “sticky and flowy” – sticking to the skin in the heat, but with a soft, sensual movement. For the lead character Dalton, an ex-UFC fighter, we avoided the typical tightness and rigidity, opting instead for vintage-inspired shirts in soft, breathable fabrics that allowed for maximum mobility.

And when it came to the boisterous supporting characters, we had a blast developing distinct “types” – the spring breakers, the local regulars, the shady businessmen. Each group had its own signature look, with meticulous attention paid to even the background extras. As costume designer Dayna Pink shared, “The background is super important to me…we actually made groups of people like these are the spring breakers, these are the locals, these are the business guys and these are the drug dealers.”

Honoring Tradition, Embracing Innovation

Of course, the ballet world faces its own unique challenges when it comes to reimagining the classics. As Georgina Pazcoguin noted, there are “traditionalists who think tinkering with anything is blasphemy.” The iconic costumes and sets are so deeply woven into the DNA of these masterpieces – how do you preserve the essence while evolving the problematic elements?

One approach, as exemplified by Pazcoguin’s work on a new production of La Bayadère, is to shift the setting entirely. Rather than the original Indian locale, her version transports the story to the Hollywood sets of Busby Berkeley, complete with cowgirls and lassoes. The choreography remains true to Petipa’s original, but the costumes and context have been radically reimagined.

Similarly, for her take on Le Corsaire, Pazcoguin envisions a children’s dance competition, trading the slave bazaar for a more lighthearted, fantastical backdrop. “It takes away the misogyny, the slavery, the orientalism – and you can still put sequins everywhere,” she muses.

Elevating the Everyday

Of course, reimagining the classics isn’t limited to the ballet world. In the world of musical theater, we’ve seen countless innovative approaches to costume design that breathe new life into familiar stories.

Just look at the costumes for The Musical Theater Center’s recent production of Fiddler on the Roof. Rather than relying on the traditional, earthbound peasant aesthetic, the designers elevated the everyday with vibrant colors, sumptuous fabrics, and unexpected silhouettes. The result was a visual feast that captured the enduring spirit of the piece while feeling refreshingly modern.

Or take the work of costume designer Nicky Epstein, who has a knack for transforming the humble medium of knitting into something truly extraordinary. Her creations for the stage elevate the mundane into the magnificent, weaving together traditional techniques with avant-garde flair.

A Living, Breathing Art Form

At the end of the day, the power of performing arts lies in their ability to evolve and adapt to the times. As Pazcoguin so eloquently stated, “Even though I’m on stage, I have a direct connection to the audience. It’s different to visiting a museum – it’s very much a present art, an actual physical exchange between the dancers and the audience. That’s where the magic of ballet is.”

By embracing change and innovation in costume design, we can honor the rich legacy of the classics while ensuring they remain vital and relevant for modern audiences. It’s not about throwing the baby out with the bathwater, but rather finding creative ways to expand our imaginations and challenge our preconceptions.

So let’s continue to push the boundaries, to reimagine the familiar, and to elevate the everyday. Because that’s what great art does – it transforms the world around us, one breathtaking costume at a time.

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