Caroline is passionate about dance and costume history and is always striving to find ways to engage new audiences whether through exhibitions, articles or performance. Caroline specialises in early twentieth century dance and ballet with a focus on the evolution of costume. Here are some of her favourite research projects and interests.
The Ballets Russes
The costumes of the Ballets Russes has been an interest of mine since I was a teenager and found an old exhibition catalogue in a second-hand bookshop. The catalogue was from the National Gallery of Australia’s 1999 exhibition, From Russia with Love, and contained a picture of this costume for a knight from the 1910 production of Firebird. I became obsessed with this costume, then the ballet and eventually the whole company.
Over the last 10 years I have had the opportunity to research and work with many of the surviving costumes from this incredible company including at The Museum of London, Harry Ransom Center, University of Arts London, and National Gallery of Australia. As well as visiting other collections at The Royal Ontario Museum, Victoria & Albert Museum, McNay Art Museum, and Wadsworth Atheneum.
I was involved in the Museum of London’s Collections Online project where I researched and created descriptions for the majority of the Museum’s Anna Pavlova and Ballets Russes costume collection. You can see this here.
I am very interested in tracing the history of who made these costumes and in examining the costumes themselves as important primary resources. I have undertaken a lot of work in researching and identifying these surviving pieces.
Costumes from this great company are now housed in collections all over the world. In early 2020 I created the following research guide to Ballets Russes costume research as way to bring some of this material back together and assist researchers in finding these resources.
I also created a guide to online Dance History research.
As well as working with existing collections I have also had the opportunity to catalogue and process collections.
In 2018 I undertook a Fellowship at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival to catalogue and rehouse the archive’s collection of costumes from Modern dancers Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn -that at the time were still housed in the original trunks. You can read about this project here.
As well as working with costumes I also work with ephemera and in 2019 was a Researcher in Residence at West Dean College of Arts and Conservation. Whilst there I catalogued the material relating to the company Les Ballets 1933 as part of the Edward James Cultural Papers Cataloguing Project.
Inside Dance Costumes
My current research involves studying historic ballet and dance costumes in close detail as primary sources not merely illustrative ones.
Ballet costumes are unique working objects, central to the performance, inhabited and shaped by the bodies of the dancers, and are often the only physical thing to survive from what is an ephemeral art form. Hand written names, hasty alterations and detailed repairs, sweat stains and the residue of makeup can give the historian a unique insight into the backstage running of the company they came from, individual performances and performers and even choreography. Many of these details are no longer available from any other source, making costumes an extremely important resource and legacy.
Despite their absolute centrality to the visual communication and meaning of the ballet performance, their value in ballet scholarship has, however, been largely overlooked. Preference has often been given to designs – which may be shaped by artistic license – and photographs – which provide partial, subjective and stylistic views. I argue that the physical costumes can give the most direct and powerful indication of what performances actually looked like and functioned.
I look forward to sharing my research with you as this develops.
Please note that as well as being a Travelling Historian I am also a Dyslexic one. I have a wonderful editor and lots of software to help me but sometimes spelling and typing errors do get through.