The Costumes of Elite Syncopations

The Royal Ballet’s current revival of MacMillan’s Concerto, The Judas Tree and ragtime ballet Elite Syncopations closes tonight. We send it off with this quick look at Ian Spurling’s stylish lycra costumes which decorate Elite Syncopations with equal doses of psychedelia and 20s dance hall glitz.

Background & Context

1974 had been a particularly challenging year for Kenneth MacMillan. He had seen his Manon heavily criticized by Clive Barnes and Arlene Croce during its American tour; he had undergone surgery for a spur of bone on his foot and was unsure as to whether his contract as Director, a post he had held for 3 years, would be renewed by the ROH Board. He needed something to lift his mood and renew his spirits so for his next project, as he declared to the New Yorker magazine, he wanted to do

Something short and light and funny, which I can toss off and walk away from.

MacMillan had thought of a ragtime ballet for a long time. Now this style of music was fashionable again, thanks to Paul Newman’s and Robert Redford’s 1973 movie The Sting, and had captured the imagination of dance makers and choreographers such as James Waring (Eternity Bounce) and Alfonso Catá (The Frankfurt Ballet’s Ragtime). Barry Moreland had also decided to use ragtime music in his upcoming work for Festival Ballet, The Prodigal Son. While at the time it seemed MacMillan was making a late jump into the bandwagon, Elite Syncopations is the only ragtime ballet to have survived the test of time.

The ballet opens with a 12 piece band headed by a piano conductor at the back of the stage and dancers sitting around the “dance salon”. They join in the ensemble, dance solos and duets or sit around observing. The setting features no stage wings. For the choreography MacMillan took inspiration from social dances of the 20s such as Black Bottom, Cakewalk and Charleston. His stylistic influences ranged from the silent movie comic routines of Chaplin, Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton to John Cranko‘s Dancing at Henley.

Though the ballet has a casual atmosphere it was created to show off the virtuosity of senior dancers like Merle Park, Monica Mason, Jennifer Penney and David Wall. Elite Syncopations was well received at its premiere and likened to a West End show for its sheer entertainment value. Decades later it continues to engage audiences with its brilliant mix of joyous dance,  comedy, characters full of personality and eye-catching costumes.

Artists of the Birmingham Royal Ballet in Kenneth MacMillan's Elite Syncopations. Photo: Bill Cooper / BRB ©

The Costumes

Australian designer Ian Spurling‘s costumes for Elite Syncopations play a prominent role in the ballet. Spurling studied design at the Slade School of Fine Art and besides his work for ballet and opera he is also known for having designed costumes for Queen’s Freddie Mercury. He had previously worked with MacMillan in Seven Deadly Sins.

Spurling dressed the dancers in lycra unitards which look like painted-on clothes. They are decorated with psychedelic patterns, scattered stars, arrows and stripes. The effect is quirky-yet-stylish. There are nods to the disco era of the 70s but also to the roaring 20s in the shapes of the waistcoats and short dresses. Spurling also gave the dancers colorful and bold headgear; the Calliope Rag girl wears a flower pot hat, the men sport decorated top hats, porkpie hats and caps.

Victoria Marr and Steven Monteith and Artists of the Birmingham Royal Ballet in Kenneth MacMillan's Elite Syncopations. Photo: Bill Cooper / BRB ©

Despite their simplicity, Spurling’s costumes undergo an elaborate process. They are tailored to each particular dancer, with patterns handpainted, and they take around 18 hours to manufacture.

First patterns are drawn in white lycra bodysuits/tights while worn by the specific dancer so that the drawings can keep their shape when stretched over the body. They are taken off and placed in a body-shaped cutout where they are painted with pigment mixed with a special glue. At this stage there is no room for error as the paint is permanent. The painted tights are  wrapped in tissue and folded in such a way that each painted design doesn’t come into contact with the rest of the costume. They are put on a special basket and steamed to fix the colour. Once the colour is set, the costumes are washed in cold water. Buttons, bows and trimmings are added last.

Ian Spurling’s costume sketches are currently on display at the Royal Opera House (in the Amphitheatre gallery). Below are some of the Elite Syncopations characters in their costumes. Note how their shoes are dyed to match:

The Calliope Rag Girl: the femme fatale

Ambra Vallo as the Calliope Rag girl in Kenneth MacMillan's Elite Syncopations. Photo: Bill Cooper / BRB ©

Stop Time Rag Girl: the showstopping girl who has the most admirers

Marianela Nuñez as the Stop Time Rag girl in Kenneth MacMillan's Elite Syncopations. Photo: Johan Persson / ROH ©

The Bethena Waltz Suitor. He is the Don Draper of the dance floor and dandy squeeze of the Stop Time Rag Girl

Nao Sakuma and Dominic Antonucci in Kenneth MacMillan's Elite Syncopations. Photo: Bill Cooper / BRB ©

The Orange Beanie Suitor. One of four suitors who are trying to impress the stylish Stop Time Rag girl

Jonathan Watkins and Artists of the Royal Ballet in Kenneth MacMillan's Elite Syncopations. Photo: Johan Persson / ROH ©

Some of the other costumes can be seen online in this wonderful gallery of photos at Ballet.co. In particular:

We would like to give special thanks to Birmingham Royal Ballet for their invaluable assistance with this feature.

Mini-Biography

Original Choreography: Kenneth MacMillan
Costumes: Ian Spurling
Music: Scott Joplin and other Ragtime Composers
Original Cast: Monica Mason (Calliope Rag), Merle Park and David Wall (Stop Time Rag), Michael Coleman, Jennifer Penney, Carl Myers, Vergie Derman, Wayne Sleep, Wayne Eagling, Jennifer Jackson, Judith Hower, David Drew and David Adams
Premiere: 7 October 1974 at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London

Sources and Further Information

  1. Different Drummer: The Life of Kenneth MacMillan by Jann Parry. Faber and Faber, 2009. ISBN-10: 0571243029
  2. Elite Syncopations Notes from Kenneth MacMillan’s official website [link]
  3. Elite Syncopations: A History by John Percival. Programe Notes at BRB’s Website [link]
  4. The Art of the Costumes (Ian Spurling’s costumes for Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s Elite Syncopations). Performing Arts and Entertainment in Canada Magazine. March, 1993
  5. MacMillan and His Designers by Sarah Woodcock. Notes from Kenneth MacMillan’s official website [link]
  6. Wikipedia Entry for Ragtime [link]

Her favourite ballets feel like good books – one can see them 1,000 times and they always feel fresh. Linda loves Giselle, all full-length MacMillan plus Song of the Earth, Robbins’s Dances at a Gathering, Balanchine’s Serenade and Agon, Ashton’s Scènes de Ballet and Symphonic Variations.

4 Comments

  • September 4, 2012

    carolyn harkness

    does anyone know who painted the costumes for Elite Syncopations?

  • [...] iconic tutus that emerged from Imperial Russia to colorful modern designs (we particularly love the funky unitards in MacMillan’s Elite Syncopations) or minimalist looks, they provide dance works with a clear visual [...]

  • [...] that break the lines and you almost lose your sense of equilibrium.  I highly suggest a visit to The Ballet Bag’s post on the costumes of Elite Syncopations, for more detailed [...]

  • April 15, 2010

    Manhattnik

    I always thought the costumes I saw in 1976 were naughtier than what one sees now, a bit, but perhaps it was just my imagination. Not that they’re not quite naughty still.