On a Monday afternoon in May, Balmain creative director Olivier Rousteing, choreographer Sébastien Bertaud, the staff of the Opéra de Paris atelier, and a group of willowy ballet dancers gather at the Palais Garnier. We are in a mirrored studio named for Rudolf Nureyev – the Eiffel Tower is visible from its windows. It is a critical moment: the first costumes for Bertaud’s new ballet have just arrived from Balmain.
Rousteing and Bertaud are dressed almost identically, all in black: skinny jeans, T-shirts and ankle boots accented in gold. They look like a team, and indeed they have a lot in common. Both are in their thirties and hail from Bordeaux. They are wunderkinds of their industries, and in recent years they have admired each other’s work from afar. There is a feeling from both that the stars aligned when Bertaud asked Rousteing to design the costumes for his new work, Renaissance – a 27-minute ballet with 22 dancers, all of whom will be wearing Balmain.
Bertaud, who also performs as a soloist at the company, approached Balmain because he admired how Rousteing had brought modernity to a respected fashion house, and he hoped to do the same for the Opéra. "I wanted to propose a ballet of today," he says. "As a choreographer I feel the responsibility to make choices that push our own identity into the future. I was wondering which designer could be the next one for this amazing institution – and for me, Olivier was the only one." In Renaissance, the ballerinas take a more dominant role than they would conventionally. Bertaud feels an affinity with Rousteing’s Balmain Army – the fierce women, including Jourdan Dunn and Kendall Jenner, who represent the brand. “This wonderful company is, in a way, like a classical army. It’s all about this new generation, new energy."
The costumes are highly intricate and instantly recognisable as Balmain. There are jackets in a beige-nude – one of Rousteing’s favourite hues – heaped with extravagant pearls, beading and sequins. The male dancers wear tights, their muscular legs highlighted with the sparkle of crystals, and the ballerinas wear glittering leotards. The artwork, in fact, is a return to Balmain’s autumn 2012 collection, which was inspired by Fabergé eggs. "I wanted as much glamour as possible," says Rousteing. "It’s what I love."
Many of France’s greatest designers have lent their talents to the Opéra over the years, including Coco Chanel, Yves Saint Laurent, Christian Lacroix and Pierre Balmain himself. This is Rousteing’s opportunity to follow in their footsteps, and he is visibly happy. "I think what you feel in these clothes is that it’s really couture, which for me was important," says Rousteing. "When you have the chance to sketch for the Opéra de Paris, you know that there may be a young designer in 30 or 40 years who will be like, 'Oh, that was Balmain!’ It’s what I feel today when I see the Christian Lacroix costumes."
A male dancer, lean and graceful, tries on a jacket. It falls to mid-hip, which is causing some discussion; jackets worn in ballet are usually cropped so as not to interrupt the long, fluid line of the dancer’s leg. Xavier Ronze, head of the in-house atelier, carefully pins up the fabric so that it now appears to end at the top of the hip. "C’est mieux court," observes Rousteing, and it is agreed: the jacket will be shortened.
This collaboration has involved compromise on both sides. Though Rousteing has worked with some of the world’s most famous performers, ballet was a new experience. "Obviously when you dress Beyoncé or Rihanna, it’s not the same movement," he says. Initially he wanted the costumes to be as ornate as his show pieces, but the weight and texture had to be adjusted so that the dancers could move freely. "The dancers made a lot of compromises as well. When we tried the jacket on a dancer, he was like, ‘No, it’s fine – when I wear it, I fly with it.' I just love that kind of attitude."
Some of the pieces are heavy, agrees Bertaud, but it’s nothing his cast can’t handle. "I want to preserve Olivier's artistic intention, so I’m going to train all my dancers in order to make it possible," he says with a smile. It’s essential to him that Rousteing’s creativity isn’t hampered.
There’s both a palpable pride and a trademark defiance to the way Rousteing reflects on the project. "What is funny with me and Balmain is that there are so many people who just think, ‘Oh, they’re party clothes for party girls,’" he says. "And I think you can love the craftsmanship, you can love the couture, you can love the sexiness, but it’s not only that… This glamour that I’ve built during these last seven years at Balmain is being embraced by one of the most incredible ballets in France."
Renaissance, an original creation by Sébastien Bertaud, runs as part of Bertaud/Bouché/Paul/Valastro at the Opéra Garnier from June 13-18 2017. Operadeparis.fr