The Australian Ballet

How the Four Temperaments Used to Dress

Lorelei Vashti looks at the original 1946 costumes for George Balanchine’s The Four Temperaments

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Kurt Seligmann's Designs for The Four Temperaments

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Marina Tallchief in one the original costumes for The Four Temperaments

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Eise Reiman and Herbert Bliss in the Seligmann costumes

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Kurt Seligmann's Sarabande, 1949

For any ballet-goer, seeing dancers clothed in sleek black-and-white practice outfits on stage means one thing: Balanchine. This stark costume is shorthand for a particular period of Mr B’s professional output, and elegantly allows the logic and precision of his movements – the jutting hips, splayed legs, thrusting pelvises and hieroglyphic arms – to be viewed in their most pure and focused form.

What many people don’t know is that it was a Swiss-American Surrealist artist called Kurt Seligmann who helped create the famous look – but not on purpose.

Seligmann was commissioned to design the costumes for what would become Balanchine’s groundbreaking neo-classical masterpiece The Four Temperaments. Seligmann was a painter who made works bursting with bright colours and exploding imagery. In his pieces, the human form seemed always to be moving – in fact, he based many of his paintings during the 1940s on dance forms (for example, Sarabande, from 1949). He depicted people as amorphous creatures, often weighed down by angular headpieces that swayed across the canvas, with bodies like flowing ribbons.

The Four Temperaments wasn’t the first dance work Seligmann had designed for: in 1941 he worked with Hanya Holm on The Golden Fleece, creating complex headwear for the two principals that looked as cumbersome as those in his paintings (reportedly, they were). For Balanchine’s piece, he used the dancers’ bodies like a canvas, turning them into literal symbols of the four temperaments.

The Four Temperaments refers to the medieval belief that human beings are made up of four different humours (black bile, blood, phlegm and bile). In a healthy body, the humours are in balance, but if one became predominant it determined an individual’s disposition. Thus we have Melancholic (gloomily pensive), Sanguine (headstrong and passionate), Phlegmatic (unemotional and passive) and Choleric (bad-tempered and angry). To depict these, Seligmann created angular headpieces with spikes, veils and flags. He designed the sleeve of one costume with individual feathers jutting straight up out of it like a wall of daggers; another piece resembled plate armour, obscuring the shoulders and morphing up the neck to become a helmet. And there was fabric. A lot of flowing, flapping fabric.

Balanchine had a vision for The Four Temperaments: to discard the idea of a narrative ballet and concentrate on the pure emotion of the dance itself. But with Seligmann’s designs explaining almost literally what, for example, melancholy looked like, the costumes did all the audience’s work for them. However, this wasn’t Balanchine’s main problem: his real issue was that the costumes obscured the choreography.

The dancer Mary Ellen Moylan, who performed at the ballet’s premiere, felt hindered by the flashy design. In an interview years later, she said, “As interesting as they were, [the costumes] were very difficult for the dancers. Balanchine was quite disconcerted and had a conversation with Seligmann, saying, ‘We see nothing! We see nothing! We don’t see Mary Ellen at all!'” However, when Balanchine asked Seligmann to cut off some of the tulle, reducing the swathing around the body, he was adamant that nothing could be cut, for then, “Where is Seligmann?”

When The Four Temperaments debuted in 1946 in the opening program of Ballet Society, Balanchine got his way – sort of. A modified version of Seligmann’s original designs was used, but Balanchine found they were still too wacky and obtrusive.

Five years later, Balanchine staged The Four Ts again for the premiere of his new company, New York City Ballet. This time he discarded Seligmann’s costumes in favour of the practice clothing the dancers wore in rehearsals. What audiences saw that night would soon become the instantly recognisable Balanchine style: black leotards and white tights for women; white t-shirts and black leggings for men. Simple, stark and ahead of its time, Balanchine’s new, pared-back costumes showcased the speed, energy and angularity of his choreography.

It’s hard not to feel a little bit sorry for Seligmann, whose imagination was fired by the idea of using the dancers as he would the figures in a painting. Balanchine, on the other hand, saw the dancers as a canvas for the audience’s emotions, and that is where his genius lies. By stripping back the 'look' of his ballets, Balanchine urged the audience to look, and to discover for themselves, without distraction, the pure movement presented for them on stage.