Arts

These origami costumes are sending a message to the ballet: it's time to bend (and fold) the rules

In a world where dancers "have to look" a certain way, these photos celebrate the beauty of diversity.

In a world where dancers 'have to look' a certain way, these photos celebrate the beauty of diversity

Mai Kono of Les Grands Ballets. (Courtesy of the Plié Project)

On paper, it's a partnership that doesn't immediately make sense. Pauline Loctin (a.k.a. Miss Cloudy) is an origami artist and self-described "folding warrior." Melika Dez is a photographer, one who specializes in capturing dancers in action. And around this time last year, the Montreal-based artists began collaborating on something they call the Plié Project: an ongoing series of photographs featuring dancers from internationally famed companies, all wearing original, hand-folded costumes by Loctin.

"Paper is kind of fragile, but at the same time, it's a very strong material," says Dez. Beauty and strength and fragility, all in one: that's how you describe a dancer, right there. But who gets to be those things? What does a dancer look like? Those are the questions the Plié Project seems to be more interested in exploring.

Just look at this image, photographed in Brooklyn. Four ballerinas take formation. Each woman is unique, dressed in custom paper tutus to match the different shades of their skin, and they've assembled as a unified dance corps — holding strong against the wind that's blowing off the river.

Amanda Smith, Daphne M. Lee and Yinet Fernandez Salisbury of Dance Theatre of Harlem and Dandara Amorim Veiga of Ballet Hispanico. (Courtesy of the Plié Project)

In classical ballet, where uniformity is the rule, staging this picture is bit like throwing down a gauntlet. Or maybe a pink satin pointe shoe. Here's how Dez and Loctin captioned the photo when they shared it on Instagram last month:

"Strength in diversity. In a world where the ballerina 'has to look' a certain way, we decided to showcase the beauty of these unconventional but extremely talented dancers and break the boundaries of stereotypes."

Both artists have personal ties to the ballet, which partly explains their interest in the message. Loctin's previous career was in classical music. The ballet, she explains, was always connected to her work. Dez is a dancer herself, and as a photographer, she shoots companies around the world, including the Black Iris Project in New York City.

"In my work, I'm used to working with diverse people," says Dez. "There's a wave of change that is happening in the dance world and it was important to me to push it forward because I myself, I'm a mix."

The beauty of the project is we bring so many different people, different shapes, different skin colours [together].- Pauline Loctin, The Plié Project

Loctin's paper costumes gave The Plié Project a way of latching on to one of the movement's talking points. The things dancers wear — gear like shoes and tights — have arguably become the best-known symbols of ballet's inclusivity problem, especially as star dancers have shared their pre-show routines on Instagram, calling out dancewear companies in the process. The iconic pink ballet slipper is that colour by design — to suggest bare, extended limbs, an uninterrupted line. But of course, the illusion only works if the performers are white. Dancers of colour have been forced to custom-dye their shoes for years, and retailers have rarely offered any other option beyond "flesh tones" like pink and beige. And that's an insidiously subtle message: there's no room for diversity in the ballet.

​Says Dez: "For us, it was very important to showcase that there is a paper colour for every girl."

"It was just an important message for me to put out there. For little girls to know that anything is possible no matter if they're Black, white, Asian, Latina — anything is possible. They can do whatever they want as long as they put their heart into it." But the rules need to bend. Or maybe "fold" is the better word to use, given the subject matter.

Most of the wearable sculptures respond to more than what's skin deep, however. They're reflections of the individual dancers wearing them, and the folded forms often respond to the photo locations, too.

Says Loctin: "You know, there are people I just saw them in some colours or shapes." One of her favourite pieces is this one, a metallic purple tutu for Angelique Laurin of Brooklyn Ballet.

Angelique Laurin of Brooklyn Ballet. (Courtesy of the Plié Project)

"When I saw her I thought, 'I want to do a punk ballerina!' Because she has this attitude and she's got this short hair — she was amazing."

Loctin designed the works to be completely wearable (though some pieces were worn out by the end of a photoshoot). "It was a challenge for the dancers also. They were limited by the paper, but that's the beauty of it."

So far, Loctin and Dez have collaborated with 14 dancers, doing guerrilla photo shoots on the streets of New York, Paris, Rome and Montreal. The models are members of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Ballet Hispanico, Teatro Dell'Opera di Roma, Montreal's Grands Ballets — to name just a few of the international companies they've tapped. (Dez says she scouts many of the dancers over social media.)

And four more cities have been added to the Plié Project's travel itinerary. Loctin and Dez say they plan to hit Havana, London, Rio and Tokyo in the near future. A photo book is also in the works.

Says Loctin: "The beauty of the project is we bring so many different people, different shapes, different skin colours [together]."

"I think it's the thing that brings the project so far everywhere in the world. People related to it very much."

Take a look.

Maude Sabourin of Les Grands Ballets. (Courtesy of the Plié Project)
Inès Joseph in Paris. (Courtesy of the Plié Project)
Candy Tong of Complexions Contemporary Ballet. (Courtesy of the Plié Project)
Amanda Smith and Daphne M. Lee of Dance Theatre of Harlem and Dandara Amorim Veiga of Balet Hispanico. (Courtesy of the Plié Project)
Ingrid Silva of Dance Theatre of Harlem. (Courtesy of the Plié Project)
Candy Tong of Complexions Contemporary Ballet. (Courtesy of the Plié Project)
Annalisa Cianci of Teatro dell'Opera di Roma. (Courtesy of The Plié Project.)
Mai Kono of Les Grands Ballets. (Courtesy of the Plié Project)
Annalisa Cianci of Teatro dell’Opera di Roma. (Courtesy of The Plié Project.)

Follow the Plié Project on Instagram and www.plieproject.com.

About the Author

Leah Collins

Leah Collins is the Senior Writer at CBC Arts.