The History of the Tutu

Alexandra Ansanelli in a Pancake Tutu (Royal Ballet 2008)

Since the beginning of ballet history and up to the present day, tutus have been the centre point(e!) of all classical ballet, be it in a little girl’s dream in pretty pink tights and shoes or even in the snazzy modern costumes of George Balanchine’s ‘Rubies’ in Jewels. Tutus have changed in design over the years but have always retained the certain illusive quality that surrounds ballerinas. To many, tutus epitomise the ethereal, magic aura that surrounds ballerinas on stage, and without a tutu, the performance may be quite different.

The term “tutu” derives from the audience members in cheaper seats, which were originally at the front of the auditorium. These viewers were able to see beneath the ballerina’s tutu: the length of these was dictated by the ballet patrons who wished to see the dancers’ spectacular feats whereas those in the cheaper seats had a view of the ballerina’s derriere, or the French “cucu”, which eventually became “tutu”.

It is said that the first tutu was the Romantic tutu worn by Marie Taglioni in the 1832 performance of La Sylphide – the Romantic era – which showed off her footwork. This style of tutu was and still is of three quarter length in a bell shape, also seen in Giselle. The Classical tutu followed, which is a shorter and stiffer skirt of a slight bell shape ending just above the dancers knees and extending outwards from the hips, seen in Balanchine’s Jewels worn by the ‘Emeralds’. Next was the Classical Pancake tutu which is short and extends straight outwards from the hip. It may also contain a wire hoop along with extra stitching to keep the layers stiff and flat together. The Balanchine/Karinska tutu was next, also known as the “powder puff” as a short skirt with no hoops and a fuller appearance. By no means least, and certainly not the last for ballet as it is known today is the Platter tutu, with its flat top which sticks straight out from the ballerina’s waistline, with skirts continuing to define both the shape and style of tutus.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Wayne McGregor and John Travolta

Wayne McGregor

Wayne McGregor CBE, the resident choreographer at The Royal Ballet, has revealed that he first became interested in dance while growing up in the 1970s. It was seeing John Travolta in Grease and Saturday Night Fever at the cinema that made him realise that was the type of dancing he wanted to do, with those moves and dance forms the ones he began to imitate, which many a jazz shoe clad dancer may still emanate today. Shaking his hips and donning his flares and high-heeled boots, Wayne McGregor set out on a dance journey that he probably would never have guessed would lead him to one of the most prestigious, tutu wearing ballet companies in the world: The Royal Ballet.

McGregor’s parents encouraged him to be academic, but also gave him the confidence to try anything. He went on to take part in amateur dramatics, organise tea dances and form his own dance company (Wayne McGregor | Random Dance) but never set out to hold such a key post at The Royal Ballet. One of McGregor’s most recent works, Carbon Life, saw a very different style of ballet: black ‘block’ pointe shoes dominated the stage, accentuating the lines of the leg in a different capacity through abstract, cube-like costumes, a far cry from McGregor’s Travolta inspiration!

McGregor has revealed that he is obsessed with the technology of the body, reflecting the values of Carbon Life and at an extension, creating super-human bodies for his dancers. In addition to his contemporary and classical credits, McGregor is also known for choreographing Radiohead’s Lotus Flower video and for serving as movement director of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire… both of which lacked leotards and ballet shoes! Part of McGregor’s aim is to continually find a way to communicate ideas through the body to audiences in order to help them think differently about the world around them… and dance itself.

Image courtesy of body_pixel on Flickr.

The Olympic Spirit

Darcey Bussell Olympics 2012 Closing Ceremony

As the one of the most anticipated parts of the Closing Ceremony of the London 2012 Olympic Games, dance and ballet in particular proved themselves as a continually powerful and strong art form. Darcey Bussell and her corps de ballet of a 200-strong ensemble formed the final section of the Ceremony, drawing huge support and countering many political arguments that tutus and pointe shoes should not be as important as they are perceived, and proved, to be.

The ensemble of flame-haired Mohicans included dancers from The Royal Ballet and their counterparts from other British dance companies, such as English National Ballet and non-professional dancers who took part through auditioning. The red and orange leotard clad piece, Phoenix of the Flame, was choreographed by Alastair Marriott and Christopher Wheeldon for the climax of the three-hour spectacular, forming the crux of the British and Olympic spirit.

Bussell came out of her retirement in order to feature in the extra special production as a former Royal Ballet Principal. She descended onto the centre of the stage on a flaming phoenix where she joined Royal Ballet principals Gary Avis, Edward Watson, Nehemiah Kish and Jonathan Cope for a performance inspired by the Olympic flame and spirit to encompass the incredible atmosphere and talent of the Games.

Despite retiring in 2007, Bussell has continued to be active in the art of classical ballet, tights and all. Earlier this year she was announced as a judge for the next season of the BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing, and as the fourth President of the 92-year old Royal Academy of Dance.

Image courtesy of the Official site of the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games.