Two dangerous looking brigands stand at attention, ready to spring into action; their brightly colored cloaks flap in the wind. The energetic tension of these figures, their exotic appeal and wildly patterned textiles are all signature traits of work by the great costume and stage set designer Léon Bakst. The Jewish Russian artist began designing for the legendary Ballets Russes in 1909, at the age of 43. The dance company amazed audiences with its radical choreography, inventive music and extraordinary sets and costumes. In order to achieve artistic harmony, Bakst designed costumes to help express the sentiments of each ballet’s story. He rejected the stifling tradition of dressing dancers in pink tights and satin ballet shoes or heavily ornamented costumes. Instead, his designs used flowing textiles that were intended to accentuate the movements of the performers and extending their gestures into space. Dancers reported that they enjoyed wearing his costumes, which became a functional and essential part of the dance. Bakst’s drawings nearly always depict the models in sensuous motion rather than in static poses; vigorous lines are rendered in rich, bold hues.

Regarded as a brilliant colorist, Bakst orchestrated the set and costume colors to suit the music. He astounded audiences with his lavish use of color, pattern and texture. Before long, Americans were bemoaning not being able to see a real ‘Bakst production’ in Russia or Paris. Drawings after his costumes circulated, and became tremendously influential on fashion and textile design.

His design for two pirate costumes was made for the classical themed ballet Daphnis et Chloé, a love story between a shepherd and shepherdess. The Ballets Russes first performed Daphnis et Chloé at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris on June 8, 1912. One reviewer praised the show, saying, “Thanks to Daphnis et Chloé, the Russian season has ended in apotheosis.” Many reviewers commented on the brilliance of the costumes. Bakst had several of his designs for the ballet copyrighted in 1913. Extant examples of these costumes are in the collections of the National Gallery of Australia and the Victoria and Albert Museum.

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