It’s midday at the Royal Opera House in London and some 12 ballet dancers are rehearsing. The auditorium is dark, the stage is lit and the renowned choreographer Christopher Wheeldon is in the circle, watching with a critical eye as the troupe performs a scene from "Corybantic Games", a new ballet dedicated to the late American composer Leonard Bernstein. He’s directing over a loudspeaker. “Can we lengthen those extensions?” he says. “And orchestra, we need to speed up the tempo a bit.”
Sitting in the stalls, dressed in his signature head-to-toe grey with round spectacles, is the British-Canadian designer Erdem Moralioglu. He created the production’s costumes — Moralioglu’s friend, the ballerina Lauren Cuthbertson, introduced the designer to Wheeldon — and he’s here to see how the garments move onstage. "We only have a few tutus,” he notes, “the rest of them are still being made.”
It’s been a whirlwind few weeks for Moralioglu, whose namesake label Erdem, founded in 2005, is renowned for its exquisite evening dresses and decadent craftsmanship. He has just returned from presenting his fall/winter 2018 collection to buyers in Paris, and only two weeks ago, he staged his London Fashion Week show at the National Portrait Gallery. This week has been tied up with fittings for the ballet — a five-month project for which he is costuming 24 ballet dancers, including men for the very first time.
Backstage, Moralioglu asks dancers how the costumes feel. The long strands of ribbons need to be sewn down, he decides. “I wanted the ribbons to look like armour — a contrast to this idea of undressing I was exploring,” he says. “It’s about flesh, and youth, and life.” The costumes (translucent tutus with white bra tops and briefs) are intimate and ethereal — a blend of 1950s classicism with ancient Greece: “Serenade,” one of Bernstein’s most famous orchestral works, was inspired by Plato’s “Symposium.” “We also need to fit those body stockings,” the designer says of the men’s costumes. “We need to see the ripples of the muscles. They need to be tight, tight, tight.”
Even before this collaboration, ballet was a well-established part of Moralioglu’s world. He has been fascinated by the dance form since he was young — his twin sister used to take lessons — and he’s a regular at the Opera House and a former patron of Sadler’s Wells. He knows ballerinas by name and performance, and he counts some as friends.
His Royal Ballet costumes are woven with his distinct, romantic handwriting — the ribbon trims on the pleated skirts, for example, are an idea that Moralioglu first explored for spring/summer 2018 — but the tutus are starkly sober in relation to his decadent ready-to-wear collections, which brim with colour and texture.
“It’s such an ensemble piece, you have to really think about the people sitting at the back of the room and the legibility the costumes will have,” he says. “It has to translate graphically. It’s like taking a language and desaturating it, taking all the colour out. It’s almost like a silent film. It has to work collectively, not individually — it was a totally different exercise than designing ready-to-wear.”
“Corybantic Games” is on view through April 9, 2018 at the Royal Opera House, Bow Street, London, roh.org.uk.
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