Among the many influences that shaped the early “Oriental fantasy” and early “belly dance” look are the exotic costume designs done for the “Ballets Russes” by Art Nouveau designer and illustrator Leon Bakst.
His lavish, flamboyant, colorful costumes for “Scheherezade” (Paris, 1910), "Cléopâtre" (1910), “L'Apres-midi d'un Faune” (1912) "Le Dieu Bleu," "Thamar," "Polovets Dances" established the image of the Ballets Russes, caused a sensation in the world of European fashion and interior decoration, and had a direct impact on the “odalisque,” “Salome” and other early 20th-century dance costume themes. Unlike classsical ballet costumes, Bakst’s costumes freed the torso. The costumes were supported only by the bra and hip belts.
Bakst’s Orientalist designs inspired Paul Poiret
who admired his work. Trend-setting fashion designer
of that era, Poiret introduced the “Directoire”
tube-like dresses and encouraged women to switch from
the corset to the bra. In 1913, as a tribute to the
Ballets Russes, Poiret produced bold-color heavily-beaded
and appliqueed fashion designs featuring harem pants,
“lampshade” tunic, "minaret"
skirts, turbans, exotic jewelled slippers and "barbaric"
(what we today call “tribal”) jewelry.
Even the "shocking" introduction of the V-neck for day wear echoed the Orientalist trend. Aigrettes replaced tiaras. Bakst designed Orientalist fabrics for Poiret, dressing the European elite in canary yellow, bright blue, jade, cyclamen, and henna.
Leon Bakst (1866-1924) was born to a Jewish family in Grodno, Belarus, and studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in St.Petersburg, Russia. He started his artistic career as an illustrator for magazines and soon expanded to stage and costume design. In 1909 he began his collaboration with Diaghilev, Russian theater entrepreneur and founder of the Ballets Russes, where Bakst became the artistic director. In 1912, Bakst had to leave St. Petersburg (being Jewish, in an era of state Christianity, he was not allowed to reside in major Russian cities) and settled in Paris.
Bakst was fascinated with both dance and Orientalism. His portrait of Isadora Duncan dating from her Russian tour in 1908 reveals his interest in sensuality expressed in movement.
Bakst traveled to North Africa
and studied in Paris with the French Orientalist painter
Jean-Leon Gerome. Bakst’s costume designs incorporated
motifs from Arabia, Turkey, Central Asia and the Caucasus,
as well as design elements from Persian miniatures,
Greek vase paintings , the art of Byzantium and ancient
Bakst's Oriental/exotic designs developed along the lines of costuming similar to what we see in our modern belly dance world -- the sleek and "nude" "diva/seductress" style ("cabaret”) and the colorful “folkloric,” “character” style (“tribal”).
“Ballets Russes" had
tremendous impact not only on European fashion and
Oriental dance costume, but also on the movement vocabulary
of "belly dance." Along with the original
Michael Fokine’s fantasy choreographies of the
Ballets Russes the Western dance world absorbed many
elements of Caucasian female folk dances - ethereal
gliding walks on releve, powerful lift in the upper
body, expansive arm patterns, streaming, floating
veils. The veil dance from “Cléopâtre”
was one of the first uses of the veil to convey Orientalist
Another interesting digression from classical ballet standards was the determination of Michael Fokine, choreographer of Ballets Russes, to give the lead role in Cléopâtre and other ballets "to a dramatic actress rather than to a ballet dancer." The Orientalist fantasy aesthetics of Ballets Russes shifted the emphasis from dance technique to the impact produced by acting and exotic look.
The star of “Cléopâtre,” Ida Rubinstein, was not a trained ballet dancer; she took private lessons from Fokin in 1907-08 and starred in Cléopâtre in 1910. Michael Fokine wrote about training her to dance in Salome: "I had to teach Rubinstein simultaneously the art of the dance and to create for her the Dance of Salome. Before this, she had studied very little, and showed very little progress in it. Her energy and endurance were of great assistance, as was her appearance...She was tall, thin and beautiful."
The demand for sensual, exotic goddess-like stage persona was so imperative, and the reliance on the the power of design and costuming was so strong in Ballets Russes, that Fokine choreographed Ida Rubinstein's numbers to reveal her beauty without making her actually *dance.* Bakst helped Fokine to convince Diaghilev to let Ida become the star of his productions.
The American tour of Ballets Russes “Cléopâtre,” “Thamar,” and “Scheherazade” resulted in a flurry of the early Hollywood Orientalist films (e.g. "Thief of Bagdad," 1924) imitating Bakst’s costumes, set designs, and the Romantic portrayal of the remote and wild Orient by Ballet Russes -- sealing the iconography of eroticism and exoticism of the Western perception of Oriental dance.