Firebirds, flamingos, goddess wings, plumage-primed Belle-Epoque hats…
25 Jun 2022
Feathers are a staple embellishment in our costume atelier. More than a decadent finishing touch, they are integral in creating character, texture and atmosphere on stage. Join us as we venture back through our archives to explore some of the most striking uses of feathers in our costumes, from Sir Robert Helpmann's The Display back in the 60s, to more recent feathered friends and fancies in Swan Lake and The Merry Widow. We also look at ‘feathered’ costume elements that don’t actually comprise any feathers at all! What’s your favourite feathered moment from over the years?
This post is created with thanks to our Living Heritage Partner CHANEL.
The Lyrebird In 'The Display' (1964 and 2012)
Feathers come by way of a resplendent Lyrebird in former Artistic Director Sir Robert Helpmann’s curious ballet The Display, created in 1964. Danced by Barry Kitcher, the Lyrebird was defined on stage by an enourmous ‘feathered’ tail that fanned out in a breathtaking silhouette, enhancing the intrigue of the character in this ballet about the insularities and idiosyncrasies of Australian society in the 60s. A closer look at archival images of this early ballet reveal that the Lyrebird’s tail apparatus might not have even included feathers at all! It appears to have been created from a wooden frame covered with lengths of fabric with fringed edges, creating the illusion of giant feathers. These were built into a harness that was strapped around the male dancer’s torso.
In the ballet’s plot, the Lyrebird is encountered by a group of young adults on a picnic in the Australian rainforest. It appears on stage surrounded by a mystical aura. Images from 1964 of the Lyrebird with ballerina Kathleen Gorham endure among some of the most iconic in The Australian Ballet’s archives. After almost 30 years, The Display was revived again in 2012 as part of our Icons program; the role of the wild Lyrebird danced by former Principal Artist Kevin Jackson.
The Firebird In 'Firebird' (2018)
From a Lyrebird to the Firebird, a powerful and rebellious character enlivened by Graeme Murphy for The Australian Ballet in 2018. Originally created by choreographer Michel Fokine for Serge Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes, the magical Firebird character brings light and warmth to the stage in this ballet about good and evil, love and enchantment. The character’s scintillating flame-red ‘feathered’ tutu features a combination of real and illusionary feathers, embellished with silk organza pin-tuck pleated forms to create the illusion of feathers wrapping around the ballerina’s torso, with real feathers fanning out from her flaming skirt.
The striking tutu was accompanied by a matching headdress and hand covers with the same embellished ‘feathers', creating the illusion of the bird’s head, neck, and body on stage. Originally designed by acclaimed Russian artist and designer Léon Bakst, the ensemble shows how cleverly tone and texture are created in a costume through intricate embellishment with the use of both physical and figurative 'feathers'.
Eros and Iris in 'Sylvia' (2019)
It’ a bird, it's a plane, no it’s an… ancient Greek god. Contrasted against the steely armour worn by the female powerhouse goddesses in Stanton Welsh’s Sylvia (2018), feathers were used to enhance the airy and ethereal aura of secondary characters including Eros, the winged god of love, and Iris, messenger between the mortal world and the gods’ home on Mount Olympus.
Designed by costumier extraordinaire Jérôme Kaplan, feather-adorned wings added lightness of spirit to the stage, reflecting the characters’ choreography and the elegance of Léo Delibes’ musical score.
Odette and Odile In 'Swan Lake'
We can’t swoon about feathers on stage without exploring two of ballet’s most iconic birds; Odette and Odile from Swan Lake. The Australian Ballet has seen a number of iterations of this timeless ballet over the years, including productions by Anne Woolliams (1977), Graeme Murphy (2002), Stephen Baynes (2016) and, in 2023, another reimagining by our Artistic Director David Hallberg will thrill audiences.
In each of these productions, costume designers including Hugh Colman and Kristian Fredrikson have created unique interpretations of the swans' feathers, whether real or illusionary. Hugh Colman used sharp-edged layers of black tulle in Odile's tutu, the Black Swan, which feather out in jagged layers. This is contrasted against the softness of Odette's tutu, which registers the character's light, fluttering choreography. In Graeme Murphy's Swan Lake, feathers are used minimally on the ensemble of swans, ensuring they cast crisp and simplistic silhouettes on stage.
The Bluebird and Canary Fairy in 'The Sleeping Beauty' (2018)
The fan-favourite Bluebird in former Artistic Director David McAllister's version of The Sleeping Beauty donned a resplendent turquoise ensemble embellished with organza tufts to evoke the bird's feathered body. This costume complemented the glimmering turquoise tutu worn by Princess Florine in the Bluebird pas de deux.
When the male dancer bounds about the stage and flutters his arms like wings, he and his partner's ‘feathered’ costumes move with them, enhancing the energy and vitality of the characters. Another joyous character in this ballet, the Canary Fairy, is a vision of lightness and joy in her yellow tutu, which is embellished with tufts of real plumage that register the pace of her flighty chorography. She wears matching plumes in her hair too.
Hannah Glawari in 'The Merry Widow' (2018)
Glitz, glamour and romance, the sumptuous ballet The Merry Widow has plenty of show-stopping plumage, especially on its leading lady, Hanna Glawari. Like most period ballets and works of film or theatre, the presence of feathers in a character's costume denote their class or high social standing, and plumage is often a sign of wealth and opulence. The costumes in this Belle-Epoque-inspired ballet are no exception. From sprays of plumage on her hats, to feathered floor-sweeping capes, Hanna’s costumes embody the elegance of high society in turn-of-the-century Paris.
More Feathered Fancies...
Feathers are everywhere on stage if you look for them, not just in ballet’s leading roles. Fan-favourites also include those strange flamingos in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland©, Frederick Ashton’s cherished chickens in La Fille mal gardée, as those treacherous stepsisters in Alexei Ratmansky’s Cinderella, whose characters are enhanced by their audacious feathered frocks.