Preserving the threads to our past

In winter 2015, with the financial helps of the Institute of Museum and Library Services, we worked with a professional conservator to survey our 500-piece stage costume collection.In the process, we re-discovered costumes that had not been seen since their arrival at MP+D. We also learned that 3/4 of the costumes were in need of preservation and conservation treatment(s). On Sept 18, members from the Costume Society of America/Western Chapter donated 90 hours through its Angel Project towards collection care and the re-housing of 50+ costume pieces with archival supplies donated by Hollinger Metal Edge.


The costumes held at the Museum of Performance + Design range from the early 1900s through the early 2000s, with the majority acquired between 1947 - 1982 by MP+D’s founder Russell Hartley, himself a dancer and costume designer. The collection contains costumes worn by distinguished dancers and opera singers such as Alexandra Danilova, Luisa Tetrazzini, Blanche Thebom, Lily Pons, Leonide Massine, and Dorothy Kirsten. The collection also contains costumes from Ballets Russes, the company that revolutionized early 20th c. arts.; Pavley-Oukrainsky Ballet, the first independent ballet company in the U.S.; San Francisco Ballet, the oldest professional ballet company in the U.S. It also holds pieces used in productions by San Francisco Opera, one of the world’s leading opera companies for more than 90 years.


Highlights of the collection include two pieces from The Ballet Russe de Monte-Carlo’s productions of The Polotvsian Dances (cap) and Le Coq D’Or (Cockerel costume). The Polovtsian Dances is a marker of the historic event that shook Paris in 1909, when Serge Diaghilev opened his first “Saison Russe” with a production of Prince Igor, Act II featuring The Polovtsian Dances with designs by Nicholas Roerich, choreographies by Michel Fokine and a full cast of dancers and singers. The ballet remained a signature piece of The Ballets Russes and carried the great legacy of Diaghilev through the various incarnations of the company. Another outstanding success of The Ballets Russes’ last pre-war season was the original 1914 production of Le Coq d’Or with designs by Natalia Goncharova and choreographies by Fokine. In the 1937 Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo revival of the ballet, The Cockerel became a dancing part for Tatiana Riabouchinska and a new Cockerel costume was designed for her by Goncharova and executed by Karinska.


Many of the opera costumes in the collection, including those from Der Rosenkavalier, Tosca, Manon, andL’Elisir d’Amore, came directly from the artists themselves or those closely associated with them. In 1980, acclaimed American mezzo-soprano Blanche Thebom who sang with San Francisco Opera between 1947-63 donated full sets of costumes from her San Francisco appearances. Thebom later became deeply involved in music education at San Francisco State University and with San Francisco Girls Chorus. The costumes worn by Dorothy Kirsten, including one designed by Valentina for a production of Tosca that Kirsten performed with San Francisco Opera in 1957 and 1960, were given to the Museum of Performance + Design by Kirsten’s long-time assistant Vikki Hillebrand.


A series of ballet costumes acquired by MP+D’s founder, Russell Hartley, include pieces from early San Francisco Ballet productions of Jinx and Nutcracker. Jinx, designed by Hartley, entered SFB’s repertory in 1949 and was one of the ballets with choreography by Lew Christensen to also be included in the repertory of New York City Ballet. In 1954, San Francisco Ballet redesigned and re-choreographed its Nutcracker with costumes and scenery by Leonard Weisgard and choreography by Lew Christensen. SFB was the first American ballet company to develop a full-length production of Nutcracker in the U.S. This original 1944 production featured designs by Hartley and choreography by Willam Christensen.


At the core of MP+D’s costume collection is a set of costumes owned by renowned dancer and choreographer Serge Oukrainsky, most of which originated from the Pavley-Oukrainsky Ballet. Oukrainsky and Andreas Pavley were fellow performers in the Anna Pavlova Company’s 1913 and 1915 world tour and subsequently formed the Pavley-Oukrainsky Ballet in Chicago. Years later, Oukrainsky appeared as dancer and ballet master with San Francisco Opera for the 1928, 1929, 1930 and 1937 seasons. His contribution to dance in San Francisco set the foundations for the creation of the San Francisco Opera Ballet, which would become San Francisco Ballet under the guidance of Willam Christensen. After Oukrainsky’s death, his effects were salvaged on their way to the dump by dance writer and fellow dancer and designer Malcolm McCormick. McCormick turned the collection packed in a touring trunk over to MP+D, then called the Archives for the Performing Arts.

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