More than just beautiful clothes
“Costumes need to tell a story.” That is Emma Ryott’s firm belief. It is what made her go into costume design at the first place: The chance of creating a character and at the same time to dramaturgically fill out a person and a character. And Leo Tolstoy’s novel Anna Karenina, on which choreographer Christian Spuck based his ballet, offers a great diversity in characters.
Emma Ryott started working with Christian Spuck in 2003 and they have collaborated on numerous projects ever since. In 2013 they started working on the adaptation of the famous Russian love story for the ballet stage. Together they decided that the costume design for the Anna Karenina-characters should closely resonate with Russian aristocratic circles of the 1870s, i.e. the time in which Tolstoy wrote and set his novel. So the overall appearance, the silhouettes of the characters had to conjure the right image in order to tell the right story. So we see high necks with lace, long arms with fine pleating sometimes waterfall backs for dresses, full length voluminous skirts and underskirts, slim waist lines contrasting with padded hips: this effect is achieved by the support of an under constructions of stiff tulle and padding. The hairstyles, too, had to be realistic. “But”, Emma Ryott stresses, “the costumes are not a literal, realistic translation of the period designs to the 21st-century-stage. The art is in the details.” She really enjoys playing around with these details, mixing them together with what she finds in the other half of her inspiration: present-day fashion magazines. “The original silhouettes of costumes of the time would have been too narrow and restrictive to allow the necessary movement for a contemporary ballet” she continues to explain. So Emma Ryott came up with her own version of the period. For example Betsy’s dress comes with drapes that are classic 19th-century style, but the rest of her costume “has a hint of Dior”. Together with the strong pink colour of her dress, Ryott made her the focal point of the society as she is in the novel.
In creating the perfect costume for the character to tell a story, Emma Ryott chooses special colours and fabrics for each character. In the scene of Kitty’s birthday party, Kitty is wearing a princess-like dress in a very light blue, made from organza and silk. It is evocative of a “princess”-style-dress, with the bare arms, small light organza shoulder drapes, moving gently as light-heartedly as Kitty’s character. In the course of the story Kitty transitions from a young girl, a little bit the spoiled princess, to being a married woman living in the countryside. Similarly her dresses change from the childlike very light blue to a more simple style with long arms, no laces, and very basic embroidery, but with a stronger, slightly more mature blue hue.
The biggest journey in the story however is that of its title character Anna Karenina. The ballerina dancing Anna changes into seven different dresses in the course of the evening. From a ball dress, to various salon dresses including the siren red dress, from a formal Russian travel dress to a light Italian holiday dress, to a nightgown in her depressive moments and to a heavy velvet dress in her dying scene – in every step of Anna’s journey the costume and hairstyle play an important role in portraying her feelings and her psychological state alongside with the choreography. It is the first time at Kitty’s birthday ball that Anna is going to stand out: All the ball guests are considerably younger than Anna, and the corp de ballet ladies are dressed in bright pastel colours. The dresses are made of light fabrics like organza and silks, which helps to create the image of their young, hopeful world. Anna Karenina, however, in her sophisticated, voluminous black dress is portrayed as an intriguing outsider. The dress shows her as the more mature, more confident lady of society. And we can’t help but agree: Yes, she is a beauty! No wonder that Wronsky immediately falls in love with her.
In contrast to the ball scene, the salon world of Betsy Tverskaya and the Karenins is portrayed as a darker, more sophisticated and also more aggressive world. Therefore Ryott chose heavier fabrics like taffeta, dark nets and dark embroidery. The ladies’ dresses come with high necks and long arms creating more sculpted shapes. Dolly, Lady Wronskaja and Lady Lydia are good examples of this. But when Anna enters the salon world, she has to make an impact. The scene is in contrast to the ball. Anna, here, is no intruder but the lifeblood of the scene, also signified by her red dress. “In going from black to red, Anna signifies that she is open, open for love,” Ryott tells us. The red dress, which for many is the emblematic costume of the ballet, comes with seven layers of underskirts. Ryott says that she wanted to give the underskirts as much importance as the top skirts as the audience will see much of the principals’ underskirts in the lifts and jumps of the choreography. The underskirts therefore come with two or three different shades of the main colour. In Anna’s red dress we encounter flashes of pink and different reds. Similarly Dolly’s dress is not just brown but comes with a variety of greys and browns and teal, colours that for Ryott support Dolly’s character of a surrendered wife, having a “more quiet, mousy look”. Dolly is less glamorous than other society ladies, but nonetheless she is very elegant as it befits her aristocratic standing. Kitty’s underskirt, however, is pure white and pale blue, giving her the look of a “lovely floating cloud of tulle”, as Ryott describes it.
The voluminous skirts also made it necessary to include the costumes very early in the rehearsal process. A realistic rehearsal skirt is made out of simpler, less expensive fabrics, but comes with the same characteristics. It allows the dancers to get the feeling for the dresses, and cope with the weight and volume. And this is not only a task for the female dancers. Also the men need the training to know how to lift or support the lady in a pas-de-deux. A dancer’s legs can be hard to find in these many layers of tulle. “These are not the easiest costumes to wear,” Ryott admits. “It takes a while to get used to dancing in them, but luckily with practise everyone managed,” she says smiling gladly.
Besides splendid period dresses, Anna Karenina had another treat in store for the costume designer: the hats. “Oh, I love hats! But you rarely have hats in ballets,” Emma Ryott explains. Lady Wronskaja’s lavish hat, here, stands out from the rest. It is the biggest hat, as she is the most senior lady on stage, so the hat befits her position and underlines the impact she makes when she is in a scene, and – for a more practical reason – she is able to wear it as there are no fast movements in her choreography. “But,” Ryott concedes, “this hat is more of a fashion reference than a period replica.” All the other hats in Anna Karenina are small, sometimes one-sided, because Ryott did not want anything to distract the eye from the silhouette of the person. Especially in the horse race scene the corp de ballet ladies have a huge variety of hats, from ones with a big rim to smaller fascinators with feathers. And where would a British woman like Emma Ryott look for inspiration when it comes to hats worn at a horserace? Of course: Ascot! Yet she laughingly explains that she restrained herself since today’s Ascot hat fashion is a little bit too much for a 19th-century Russia setting. But she wanted the audience to identify the horserace scene quickly, so hats naturally came into the play. At the same time she wanted the dancers to look stylish.
“Still”, she comes back to stress, “the hat also needs to be part of the character. When a character is wearing a hat, there has to be a reason for it.” For Emma Ryott, this is the most important aspect of her work: making a costume that is not just a pretty costume, but that interprets the character.
Written by: Martina Zimmermann
Photo credits: Wilfried Hösl, Susanne Schramke, Kathrin Ziegler, Sinead Bunn