In 1943, an audience at the Hollywood Bowl gathered to watch Marc Chagall’s paintings come to life. The Russian artist had designed the costumes and backdrops for a production of the ballet Aleko, based on a poem by Alexander Pushkin and set to Tchaikovsky’s Trio in A Minor. Video of a production of the ballet plays on a flat-screen near the entrance to LACMA's "Chagall: Fantasies for the Stage," but in the black-and-white footage, the actual physical movement of the dancers can’t capture the lyricism of Chagall’s vibrant, handmade costumes, 41 of which are currently on display in the exhibit, representing four productions he worked on over the course of 25 years: ballets Aleko (1942), The Firebird (1945) and Daphnis and Chloe (1959) and Mozart opera The Magic Flute (1967). The show also features hand-painted backdrops, as well as preparatory sketches that illuminate Chagall’s process, from conception to creation.
Even on posed mannequins, the costumes thrum with movement. Some, on rotating platforms, actually do move. The costumes for Aleko, in particular, have the ethereal softness of watercolors rendered in three dimensions but are bold and illustrative enough to be viewed from afar and to wordlessly communicate character cues. Commissioned by Ballet Theatre of New York, Aleko was Chagall's first experiment in costuming and design for the stage. Because union rules prevented him from hand-painting the backdrops in New York, Chagall, who'd just fled Nazi-occupied France with his family, temporarily relocated to Mexico. It's a Russian ballet, but Mexico became woven into the fabric of the production design. The costumes were sewn by Mexican seamstresses and Chagall's wife sourced materials from local markets.
The costumes for Chagall's subsequent ballets grow more elaborate as he experiments with different fabrication techniques. For The Firebird, he stretched fabric over batting to create hulking, animal-like monsters, such as a large green chicken monster with human breasts and a striated wolf creature in what look like thong underpants. Up on the platform, they seem even more imposing, with their padding adding inches of girth and elaborate masks and headpieces adding inches of height.
The costumes for the Maurice Ravel ballet Daphnis and Chloe, based on a poem by 2nd-century Greek Longus, are equally elaborate but mainly in their finer details. Besides his usual hand-painted fabrics, Chagall uses fabric appliques, silk flowers, feathers and mosaics of fur and leather. A Pan-like creature with horns and hooves looms over the viewer with its arms outstretched and manages to look as if he could nimbly negotiate a stage despite the obvious heft of the materials with which the costume was constructed.
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Organized by LACMA curator Stephanie Baron and designed by current L.A. Phil artist-in-residence Yuval Sharon, the exhibit is an awe-inspiring tribute to a well-known artist's perhaps lesser-known contribution to the art world. It's one thing to be surrounded by paintings on a wall but quite another to share space with the figures and forms of paintings that once were brought to life by dancers of a bygone era.
"Chagall: Fantasies for the Stage" is on view through Jan. 7 at LACMA.