When his life was cut short on a July day in 1997, Gianni Versace was a couturier globally known for his glamourous, sexy and highly-colourful aesthetic. His pure bling creations, embellished with gold Medusa heads, felt like a nod to Italian opulence and wealth. But throughout his career, the Calabrese couturier had also shone in the ballet world: he designed costumes and stage sets for shows by the biggest choreographers.
Right from the start, Gianni Versace was passionate about dance. After founding his house in 1978, he worked for La Scala, Italy’s great opera house. At this high institution of Italian culture, Gianni Versace created costumes for historical ballets: the dancers wore heavy clothes, pieces in the style of antiquity or inspired by the 18th century. Their creation was a genuine challenge because he was moving away from his usual technique of draping fabrics directly onto the models.
Versace and Béjart, an historic partnership
Gianni Versace was nearly 40 when he collaborated for the first time with Maurice Béjart. In 1984, the Italian designer knocked on the door of the choreographer who had introduced modern dance to France ten years previously. Together they imaged a first ballet: Dionysus. To dress the dancers in this mythological piece, Gianni Versace imagined baggy red trousers leaving them free to express themselves. Simply draped over the legs of the dancers – swelling out over the thighs and fitted on the calves – Versace’s pieces were astounding in their very sobriety. Accustomed to drawing inspiration from the legends of Ancient Greece for his flashy creations, Versace revisited the legend of the god of wine and excess in a most understated and minimalist manner.
Reinforced by this first collaboration, the Béjart-Versace duo came together for several more ballets: from Malraux ou la métamorphose des dieux (1986), to Chéreau-Mishima-Peron (1988) and Pyramide (1990), 12 of choreographer’s works were dressed by the Italian couturier. Their last masterpiece took place a year before Versace was killed: Le Presbytère n’a rien perdu de son charme, ni le jardin de son éclat was first presented in Lausanne in 1996. A truly scenic performance, the piece was taken up again later at the Théâtre de Chaillot where the dancers were accompanied by Elton John and the English rock band Queen.
“Le Presbytère…” © Gianni Versace
“Le Presbytère…” © Gianni Versace
In 1991, AIDS took its toll. That year the illness carried away the young and fabulous frontman of Queen, Freddie Mercury as well as Jorge Donn, the legendary dancer in the Béjart company. Sounding very much like a tribute to these two artists who had passed away at the age of 45, Le Presbytère n’a rien perdu de son charme, ni le jardin de son éclat was according to Maurice Béjart, “a ballet about people who die too young”. This time, Gianni Versace worked almost entirely in white, with hints of black and red, the colour of blood.
The costumes for this “rock ballet” resonate like an echo of Queen’s music: the dancers wear leather biker jackets, capes and coloured tights. For Maurice Béjart, this tribute show is also a ‘gift ‘to those two artists: a pretext to come together, to talk and to share. Le Presbytère n’a rien perdu de son charme, ni le jardin de son éclat was a chance for the show to go on.