Christian Lacroix Puts Opulence into a ‘Midsummer Night’s’ Ballet


“I remember when I was 11 and I first saw Visconti’s ‘The Leopard’,” he said, referring to the 1963 film by the neorealist director Luchino Visconti about Sicily’s decadent 19th-century aristocracy. “That was it,” Mr. Lacroix said. “To reconstruct that epoch was my passion.”

When Mr. Lacroix moved into fashion in the 1970s (because, he said, “costume was dead”) and opened his couture house in 1987, his timing was spot on: “Fashion was very costume-like, with great eccentricity and characters such as socialite Marie-Hélène de Rothschild still hosting masquerade balls.”

Still, even as his brand took off, he continued to work on freelance costume projects on the side, such as “La Gaîté Parisienne” for the American Ballet Theater in 1988 and Mr. Balanchine’s “Jewels” for the Paris Opera Ballet in 2000. “For me, fashion and theater are the same métier,” Mr. Lacroix said. “To put women in the spotlight.”

Two years ago, Benjamin Millepied, then the director of dance at the Paris Opera Ballet, approached Mr. Lacroix about its new version of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Created in 1962 for the New York City Ballet and based on Shakespeare’s charming comedy about the transforming power of love, the two-act work was Mr. Balanchine’s first original full-length ballet, and, with sylvan sets by David Hays and sugarplum-like costumes by Karinska, a stylistic departure from his spare, modernist oeuvre.

Initially, “Benjamin wanted something less 19th century” than what Mr. Balanchine had first mounted, Mr. Lacroix said. As a starting point, Mr. Millepied gave Mr. Lacroix videos of a New York City Ballet performance in the early 2000s, when he danced the role of Oberon, the king of the fairies, and Peter Hall’s 1968 feature film based on Mr. Balanchine’s original production. Mr. Millepied wanted “something more opulent than what’s usually done,” Mr. Lacroix said.

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Lace from Sophie Hallette, the same French company that made the lace for Kate Middleton’s wedding gown, was used in Mr. Lacroix’s costumes.

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Dmitry Kostyukov for The New York Times

There was one obstacle: the George Balanchine Trust in New York, which has stylistic approval of all Balanchine productions. “The trust is quite vigilant,” Mr. Lacroix said. “It requires the use of certain materials, because that’s what Balanchine said was best for movement, and to follow the composer’s music. Balanchine made very precise notes — what sort of skirt should be in organza, things like that. He often designed himself, and he would always be on hand to make sure the choreography and décor and costumes were as they should be.”

“I did not find this confining at all,” Mr. Lacroix said. “In fact, I found it inspiring. It harks back to my youth, when I first learned of Balanchine. I loved taking it all in and adding my own ideas.”

Mr. Lacroix sketched sets inspired by the romantic Pre-Raphaelite movement of late 19th-century England, “with a magic forest with green and blue trees, and a tableau with giant flowers, like in Victorian books,” he said.

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The ballet’s costume atelier at the Palais Garnier in Paris.

Credit
Dmitry Kostyukov for The New York Times

For the wedding scene, he conjured a neoclassical palace, “like in an ancient lithograph, very rococo.” For the costumes, he proposed “big chiffon dresses with lots of draping, in peach and rose,” and “tutus all white and classic” and “lots of gold, like Louis XIV at Versailles. It must be gleaming! It must shine!” A final selection was approved after several back-and-forths with Mr. Millepied; Aurélie Dupont, the former Paris Opera Ballet étoile who is now director of dance; and the trust.

To help execute the costumes, the Paris Opera Ballet received donations from two 19th-century-era suppliers: Sophie Hallette, the lacemaking company in Caudry, France, and Swarovski of Wattens, Austria. Both have worked with the dance company for decades.

Sophie Hallette provided embroidered floral lace in iridescent metallics, snow white and “bonbon pink,” according to Maud Lescroart, the company’s marketing director. Swarovski sent more than 200 different types of stones, including a newly developed “special motif for the organza butterfly wings, which combines crystals in three blue hues,” said Nadja Swarovski, the company’s communications head.

Two weeks before the premiere, the ballet’s costume director, Xavier Ronze showed off the production’s 200 costumes being readied by the atelier. In one large workroom, nearly two dozen seamstresses busily hand-pleated bubblegum-pink chiffon bodices, affixed sparkling crystals onto white tulle tutu appliqués, attached lace cap sleeves to embellished corset tops, and veiled silver lamé panels with ivory tulle “to tone down the sheen,” Mr. Ronze said. “Otherwise when we shine a spotlight on the dancer, the silver blazes from the stage.”

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Swarovski provided crystals for the costumes and props like this crown.

Credit
Dmitry Kostyukov for The New York Times

In the men’s atelier, seamstresses hemmed ample brocade capes and attached rosettes, sashes and epaulets to jacket shoulders. The cape for Theseus, the Duke of Athens, required six yards of fabric. All of it shimmered. “There is gold everywhere,” Mr. Ronze said. “Everything is gilded.”

Upstairs, in the accessories workshop, artisans applied final sequins and feathers to bulging insect-eye hats and butterfly-antenna headbands, and built dozens of fairy tiaras with copper wire, Swarovski crystals and faux gems recycled from disused vintage costumes. “Christian loves when we incorporate old pieces,” Mr. Ronze said. “It brings the ballet’s heritage into new work.”

At the Bastille theater a week later, Mr. Lacroix was thrilled with how it had all turned out. “It has been an enormous amount of work, but I loved every minute,” he said. “You know, I’ve always been a costumer in my heart.”

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