A new book reimagines the costume archives of (La)Horde Ballet national de Marseille with startling images by Harley Weir and others. “The only guideline was to make the ballet shine,” says the book’s creative director Alice Gavin
Invited as an artist associate by (La)Horde Ballet national de Marseille to document the legacy of the ballet, Alice Gavin’s task soon became a full-scale archaeological excavation of a dormant treasure, which later birthed a book. Published with the support of the Isabel Marant Foundation, Danser l’image is a restitution of the 50-year-old dance institution’s archives – a collection of pictures, ephemera, relics, mementos, mixing happily with fashion editorials and flashbacks references, though stage costume remains the main thread.
Roland Petit, an enfant terrible of the dance world, who founded the Ballet National de Marseille in 1972, was notorious for his avant-gardist artistic approach and unusual collaborations with artists from all disciplines, notably Pink Floyd. Some of the most iconic designers (Versace, Hervé Léger, Saint Laurent, Mugler, Courrèges) created clothes for the ballet costumes, in turn connecting the dots between fashion and performing arts.
“The first day I showed up to work, there was nothing! No trace of the past. It seemed all forms of previous activities within the ballet totally vanished,” says the Paris-based creative director. It did not help that all stage designs (some of them created by Max Ernst and David Hockney) have been destroyed in a fire in 2011. “Then by chance, we found a treasure in the basement.” she continues. Tonnes of archives, relics, sketches – an endless collection kept in wonder-boxes – had been meticulously organised by a former costume designer. A goldmine.
The then-impossible mission unfolded organically and took another dimension. Surrounded by a team of creatives and students from the Duperré School, Gavin compiled the newly found vestiges of the institution, and “archived the archives”. “I designed the visual identity of the BNM under my studio Alice Gavin Services, developing a library of photographic images, typography and vidéos,” she says. While also creating new collaborations with artists to honour the avant-gardist tradition of this singular ballet, Gavin always kept in mind the importance of preservation and memory. In her eyes, the history of an old institution should be accessible and interesting to different generations.
Then Harley Weir became involved in the project. “I was always fond of Harley Weir’s work, so I asked myself and my team, ‘Who would be the ultimate dream of a photographer to work with?’” She started a correspondence with the British photographer, which eventually led to the Foresta series of photographs. Weir later expressed her enthusiasm about working with the French dance company. “To build and create with the body is so important to my work. Dance is one of the most exciting art forms for me,” she says. “To capture it is almost a necessity due to its ephemeral nature. Dance is such a huge force within art, the way it moves you in real-time. I jump at any chance to work with dancers.”
“I had a lot of freedom,” says Gavin of the project. “The (La)Horde gave me carte blanche and trusted me. From the start there was no specific order – the only guideline was to make the ballet shine.”
Danser l’image is out now. Danser l’image the exhibition is on show at the National Center of Stage Costume in Moulins, France until 30 April 2023.