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Rudolph Nureyev: Fashions from Ballet’s Hottest Male Celebrity on Display at de Young Museum Oct. 6 – Feb. 17

October 8, 2012

Photo: Kate Conger

By Kate Conger

Few of us will ever wear something custom-made to fit our bodies. Not many of us will even visit a tailor to have a dress taken in or pants hemmed. Fast fashion is our comfortable standard. Running to the store to pick up the latest trend on our way home from work feels normal; it’s sometimes even luxurious to have what we want, so easily accessible.

But the de Young’s new exhibition, Rudolf Nureyev: A Life in Dance, redefines luxury. The galleries hold over 70 costumes from the prolific dancer and choreographer’s ballet career, in addition to photographs and videos. The thought of Nureyev — who was nothing if not meticulous in all aspects of his life — commanding the creation of such exquisite, handmade garments is any fashion-lover’s dream come true.

Costume by Nicholas Giorgiadis for Rudolf Nureyev in the role of Prince Florimond in Sleeping Beauty, Teatro alla Scala, Milan, 1966 (left) and costume by Ezio Frigerio and Mauro Pagaono for Rudolf Nureyev in the role of Romeo, Romeo and Juliet, London Ballet Festival, 1977 (right). Collection CNCS/Rudolf Nureyev Foundation. Photographs by Pascal François/CNCS

Nureyev’s 1961 defection from Russia at the age of 23, combined with his captivating personality, made him ballet’s first male celebrity. From this position, he was able to take control of his career as other dancers could not. Nureyev was known for working closely with costume designers and for demanding as much from them as he did from his choreographers, from whom he requested custom solos. The result is a collection of costumes that function seamlessly with their respective ballets.

Photo: Kate Conger

There is clearly nothing fast about the garments in this exhibition. The intense labor that went into each piece — the crystals hand-stitched on tulle, the braided trims — is instantly apparent. So is Nureyev’s body. Although the garments are displayed on mannequins, his unique proportions are repeated again and again throughout the galleries, illustrated through the miniscule waists and sloped shoulders of his jackets. All this intricate, specific design is a testament to Nureyev’s influence on dance — and an exciting window into a world where someone creates all your clothing just for you.

The exhibition, which opens Oct. 6 on the 20th anniversary of Nureyev’s death, also bears the mark of another innovator: Jill D’Alessandro, the museum’s costume and textile curator.

Costume by Nicholas Georgiadis for Rudolf Nureyev in the role of Jean de Brienne in Raymonda, Opéra national de Paris, 1983. Collection CNCS/Opéra national de Paris. Photograph by Pascal François/CNCS

It seems most curators stop working when they’ve collected a group of interesting objects that suit each other nicely and hung them all on a wall. D’Alessandro does not. Her hand is as firmly present in her exhibitions as the artist’s. Since her arrival at the de Young in 2010, there’s been a marked shift in how garments are displayed — they’re more frequently out from behind plexiglass, for starters. D’Alessandro also builds environments for clothes to live in; Nureyev’s costumes are surrounded by sheer fabric printed with stage curtains, so they look like they’re in their natural environment — the theater. In one gallery, costumes are partially concealed behind a screen on which a video projection of ballerinas plays. Her environments are her insistence on bringing clothes to life.

Rudolf Nureyev: A Life in Dance Catalog
$45, $40 for Members

To Purchase Catalog

Revisiting Nureyev’s career and legacy couldn’t happen at a better time. The San Francisco Ballet returns for its 2013 season in January, and is collaborating with the de Young on a series of fall events. Whet your palate for ballet with the museum’s free Friday programs, including a night of performance on October 12 and a fashion show of the S.F. Ballet’s costumes on November 2.

Rudolf Nureyev: A Life in Dance

opens October 6 and runs through Feb. 17, 2013

de Young, 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden (at JFK, in Golden Gate Park)

 Admission is $20. For more information, visit the museum’s website.


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