PAS DE DEUX – A PROJECT WITH CHANEL BY DARREN MCDONALD AND GRACE O’NEILL
EDITOR, SOUND DESIGN & COLOURIST: Christina Tsilioris
WRITTEN BY: Grace O'Neill
Special thanks to Chanel, The Australian Ballet, Alistair Buchanan and his team at Capture Lab
Late last year, Chanel announced a groundbreaking new partnership with the Australian Ballet. In the role of “living heritage partners”, the French fashion house committed to building and sustaining a comprehensive archive of the Ballet’s 59-year history. It was the first partnership of its kind in Australia, but far from the first pas de deux between the house of Chanel and the art of dance.
In 1938, right as Europe was on the cusp of another devastating war, the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, one of Europe’s most respected ballet companies, embarked on a tour of Australia. Among their troupe was the Czech dancer Edouard Borovansky and his wife, Xenia, who had trained under the tutelage of her aunt, the great Russian prima ballerina Anna Pavlova. The Borovanskys, correctly sensing that their beloved industry would be wiped out by the war, resolved to stay in Australia at the end of the tour.
They settled in Melbourne, eventually establishing the nation’s first ballet company, the Borovansky Ballet, which later became the Australian Ballet—now one of our country’s greatest cultural institutions.
War brought the once-thriving world of European ballet to a temporary standstill, and the Boronvskys worked to bring that glittering pre-war heyday to Australia. Inspired by Paris at the turn of the 20th century, the early incarnations of the Australian Ballet were heavily informed by the twilight years of the Belle Époque era, when the French capital became a cultural melting pot in which Pablo Picasso, Marcel Proust, and Gertrude Stein rubbed shoulders with Sergei Diaghilev, the founder of the original Ballet Russes. At the centre of that world was the chic couturier Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel, who’s apartment at 31 rue Cambon because the epicentre of the glittering world of the Parisian cultural elite. Chanel loved the ballet (cue: one of her more enduring designs, the Chanel ballet flat) and had a close working friendship with Sergei Diaghilev. She became a key patron of multiple productions by the Ballet Russes, and even designed costumes for some of his ballets, including Le Train Bleu in 1924.
Chanel’s enduring love affair with ballet is a romance that endures to this day. In 2019, the maison’s creative director Virginie Viard crafted 80 costumes for the Bolshoi ballerinas in London, and Chanel continues to collaborate with the Paris Opera, creating pieces for their opening galas. Late last year Chanel unveiled a remarkable new partnership with the Australian Ballet, which will see the brand serve as the ballet’s “living heritage partners”. This pas de deux began in earnest with a radical commitment to building and preserving the ballet’s 59-year-old archive. The Australian Ballet graciously offered Side-Note access to that archive, with prima ballerina Amber Scott wearing costumes from six decades of productions—photographed by Darren McDonald.
“The public having access to an artform as timeless as ballet is incredibly important,” says Donna Cusack-Muller, the ballet’s Archive and Records Manager. “Ballet is a living art form, where young people today are breathing new life into ballets that were created centuries ago. To be able to consolidate all those assets and make them accessible will reinforce for future generations why Australians fell in love with ballet in the first place.” The archiving process has been painstaking—uncovering original press clippings and filmed performances from the company’s earliest productions, through to the preservation of countless costumes (estimates start at 30,000 pieces), which are managed by Musette Molyneaux, the Australian Ballet’s Head of Costume Workshop.
“We are almost obsessed with capturing how [each costume] was originally done,” says Molyneaux. “Every production has a costume bible, which is basically an archival record of everything that’s gone into that production. We have photographs of the dancer who first wore the original costumes in the original production of the show, and then a photographer backstage at new performances to capture every new dancer in costume. These are all archived and stored, alongside samples from the original fabrics, and any kind of detailed instructions on how things were made, so that in the future someone can go back and reproduce the show as closely as they possibly can to the original brief.”
Archives are, of course, an essential kind of shared cultural storytelling, solidifying what Australia once was, and affirming for future generations who we are now. In that sense, Chanel’s partnership transcends the traditional role of patronage. In a cultural moment where government funding of the arts is at an all time low—the same cultural moment where the catharsis and escapism art offers is so sorely needed—the enshrining of the Australian Ballet’s influence on Australian history could not be timelier.
SIDE-NOTE acknowledges the Eora people as the traditional custodians of the land on which this project was produced. We pay our respects to Elders past and present. We extend that respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples reading this.