Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Sometimes It's Just Tutu Much

 This week our local PBS station showed a viewing of the Michael Pink's Milwaukee Ballet Company's production of J.M.Barrie's most famous work,"Peter Pan." I didn't know that "Peter Pan" was a ballet. But, I love ballet, Tinkerbell and Peter Pan and Captain Hook, so it sounded like a winner. It was.

It was an incredibly athletic ballet - as it would be, with all those Lost Boys and sword fights and Indian dancers and chases and thrills (as well as a bigger-than-life crocodile! - and I remember how hard the dancers I've watched and admired over the years have worked. And they did it all in an array of horribly heavy and stiff costumes. Especially the women...men kind of have it lucky - they're in tights most of the time! But the women have tight bodices, lots of boning, elaborate (and stiff) decorating, and often (especially in the case of the "pancake" tutu) plywood hard layer upon layer of stiffened fabrics.

So I did a little surfing around the net, and found some information about them. If you're interested, please read on - if not, just scroll through and look at the pretty pictures!

If you said ‘tutu’ in Hawaii, you’d be talking about your Grandmother; in New Zealand it’s a poisonous plant, and Tutu de Feijão is a paste made of beans and manioc flour in Brazil!

A tutu is really a couture dress made for a ballet dancer. Within professional companies the Principal dancers will have bespoke (custom made) tutus, sometimes having input into the shape and fit, while others in the company will be fitted into existing handmade tutus – possible because of the clever way a tutu is made, with several rows of hooks and bars (which have to be chromed to prevent rusting). They are expensive - often costing thousands of dollars.

Most people think of a tutu as the whole dress, but strictly speaking it is just the net layers around the waist – the bodice is separate and both are made by specialists. A tutu begins life as 10 metres of net, in strips of varying stiffness. The softest layers will be placed close to the legs, the very stiff layers will go in the middle and the top layer will be somewhere between the two. It is based on a basque which fits the waist and hips, and knickers are attached in the final stages. The net layers have to be tied down, by hand, with loose stitching to ensure they all move together.

Around the world, the number of layers requested varies between companies. A tutu is usually made with 10-12 net layers; in Italy it is between 7-10 and Paris is always 13. A crinoline (steel) wire is used to make a firm hoop in one of the layers, which helps to retain the plate-like shape. The final layer, the top skirt, is the heaviest, with jewels and feathers, appliqué, and embellishments
You might be surprised to know that tutus are made almost exclusively by men, and that’s because it is hard, physical work. It’s also very repetitive. In this year of biodiversity, it seems appropriate to say that tutu makers are a critically endangered species. You can probably count on the fingers of both hands, how many professional tutu makers are currently working, and you’d have fingers to spare.
Once the tutu has been made, two fittings usually take place. The crucial measurements – the height of a dancer and the length of the back from neck to waist – can vary a great deal even in one ballet company. By this time the bodice, a grosgrain fabric backed onto a cotton drill, will have been fitted to the net layers, and it will be pinned, stitched, undone and re-stitched several times until it fits like a glove.

Some dancers love tutus, and some find them uncomfortable and restrictive. Not being able to see your legs and feet takes some getting used to, and in a ballet such as Swan Lake, where the ballerina is very much “on her legs”, she relies more on her partner for balance.

For her partner too, the tutu presents challenges. Most of the decoration will be placed on the top skirt but avoids the waistline, giving her partner a safe place to hold her so that his hands are not torn to shreds. He still has to watch out for his face though, as the stiff net layers can scratch the skin.

That said, there is nothing like a tutu to make a dancer feel like a ballerina. Along with pointe shoes, a tutu really is the unique tool of her trade.
 The word 'tutu' has its origins in the theatre audience. Those who bought cheaper tickets sat in a section located in the lower part of the theatre. This area gave the patrons sitting there a different view than the rest of the audience; they could often see under the ballerinas' skirts and see their bottoms. This led to a lot of talk and eventually, the French slang word for this part of the ballerina, cucu became 'tutu.'

As this photo of reknowned prima ballerina, Anna Pavlova, shows, the tutu hasn't changed much basically in over a century.
The tutu costume consists of three parts:  
Bodice: The tutu bodice can use from 6 to 15 panels of fabric. Some of these pieces are cut on the bias (the diagonal) which gives fabric some stretch. The bodice is a separate piece of the costume attached at the waistline or high on the hip; sometimes it's put together just with elastic tabs to allow for movement. 
The Basque: This is the piece that sits from the waist to high on the hip. It can be continuous with the bodice or a separate, tight fitting fabric “band.”  
The Skirt: Tutu skirts determine the shape of the tutu and generally define the style: Romantic, Classical or Bell.

Romantic Tutu: A three-quarter length, bell-haped skirt made of tulle. The hemline falls between the knee and the ankle. The romantic tutu is free flowing to emphasise lightness, to suit the ethereal quality of the romantic ballets such as Giselle or La Sylphide. It is said to have been invented, or at least popularized, by Marie Taglioni, first in 1832 in La Sylphide. There are two types of romantic tutus-one that starts at the waist and one with a dropped waist and basque called a romantic tutu with basque. 

Classical Tutu (pancake): A very short, stiff skirt made with layers of netting that extends straight outwards (from the hips) in a flat pancake shape, and has a fitted bodice. The pancake style has more layers of net and usually uses a wire hoop and much hand tacking to keep the layers flat and stiff. 

Classic Tutu (bell): A very short, stiff skirt with a slight bell shape, it is usually longer than a classical (pancake) tutu. It is made with layers of netting and has a fitted bodice; it extends outwards from the hips and does not use a wired hoop. These can be seen in the famous ballet paintings by Degas. 

Balanchine/Karinska Tutu: also known as the "powder puff", it is a very short skirt with no hoops, and fewer layers of netting than the pancake or classical styles. The skirt is loosely tacked to give a softer, fuller appearance. This style was designed originally for the ballet version of Georges Bizet's Symphony in C.  

Platter Tutu: A tutu with a flat top that sticks straight out from the ballerina waistline. It is very similar to the pancake tutu, though the top of the tutu is almost completely flat, where the pancake tutu is a bit fuller at the top.

The bell-shaped Romantic dress of the mid-1800s gave way to the tutu at the end of the 19th century. Connoisseurs of ballet, the Russians wanted to see the new technical feats and fancy footwork of their ballerinas. The new long, floppy, 16 layer tutus reached to the knee and allowed the female dancers much greater mobility in such technically demanding ballets as Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty and Paquita. The late George Balanchine's athletic choreography later led to the creation of the shorter "powder-puff" tutu that is worn in Symphony in C. These tutus allow the entire leg to be seen.

The tutu bodices at the turn of the century were elaborate affairs, embellished lavishly.
That hasn't changed. Ballerina costumes - especially the principle roles danced by the prima ballerinas - are still extravagantly and elegantly decorated. Most of the ornamentation is done by hand and is meticulous and difficult skilled work.

We often hear how difficult and athletic ballet dancers must be to perform their jobs well. But we often forget that they do all this ethereal graceful and delicate movement while wearing extremely uncomfortable and often stiff and unforgiving clothing, which can weigh quite a few pounds.
Hope you enjoyed our short little journey through the world of the ballet tutu!

Remember to leave a comment to let me know you visited! And now

...go make something beautiful!

¸.•´¸.•*´¨) ¸.•*´¨)
(¸.•´ (¸.•´♥ Tristan


audrey said...

Gee, Tristan, you did a LOT of research. It was very interesting. I did not realize that tutus could be heavy and stiff ~ just never thought about it. It is difficult enough for ballerinas to be on their toes, but they have to deal with weight of their costumes and not being able to see their feet, too!!!
The tutus you posted are all gorgeous, Tristan.
Thanks for digging up all the info. It is appreciated.

Stacy Hurt said...

Fantastic! It would be cool to see video of the tutu makers at work! Thanks for sharing!

Castles Crowns and Cottages said...


I see you visited my post, and I am super thrilled to know you are here! First of all, I just laughed as I saw your last photo....and I wish you would have seen the paper tutu I made about 3 years ago. I finally sold it, but it was a point of my life where I was trying to sell my paper art. I even quite my full-time job as a teacher to do it. Much has evolved since we last were in contact, but HERE YOU ARE! I had noticed that you were away for a long time, and I did come about 3 months ago, and left a comment.

I HAVE MISSED YOU! I want to make sure I have you on my blog roll, for I do not want to miss out on your creativity and humor. Thank you dear Tristan for coming on by, and I will see you the next time you post! BIG LOVE! Anita

PS..I am well, but have been sick lately, and yes, my life has been a little dérangée...but all things work together for the good. I know it.

Jan said...

I very much enjoyed this post and learned from it too. There are several members in my family that are professional dancers, ballet and modern dance. That helps pique my interest in this subject. That is also why you might see photos of dancers on my facebook page occasionally. Those are my cousins! Mostly my fabulous young male cousin, Yurek Hansen. Thanks for this post, I enjoyed reading it as well as all the gorgeous pictures.

nightingalehoop said...

Beautiful creation - I love how you did the face! I have been enjoying your blog!

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