Moulins is a sleepy little town few have ever heard of, much less visited, in the sparsely populated rural Auvergne region of central France. It took its name a millennium ago from the watermills that lined banks of the unruly Allier river.
While the watermills have long since vanished, the town, doubtless due to its remote location, has hung on to its medieval heydays. Remarkably well preserved half-timbered houses (circa 15th and 16th centuries) still line the narrow cobbled lanes of its compact historic center. A gothic cathedral of the same era has retained its original stained glass windows and a bell tower, all that remains of the ancient fortifications, is topped with automated characters that still ring the bell every hour. The town is well worth a stroll, if you happen to be in the area.
The Enduring Magic of the Stage
Because right across the river, an imposing 18th century limestone building is now home to the National Center for Stage Costume, the first institution in France, or arguably anywhere, to be entirely dedicated to the preservation, study and display of a unique collection of stage costumes and scenography spanning the past two centuries.
The building itself was originally constructed in 1767 as barracks to house a cavalry regiment and intended to reflect the magnificence of the monarchy and its army. Today, behind its stern military façade, it has been completely restored and repurposed to house the collection of some 10,000 theatre, opera and ballet costumes from productions staged since the second half of the 19th century, provided by its three founding institutions of the Center: the National Opera of Paris, the Comédie Française and the National Library of France.
Since its inauguration in 2006, the Center has also received donations from costume designers, theatres and acting companies, as well as prominent artists and their heirs. It has most notably been entrusted by the Nureyev Foundation with over three hundred costumes and personal objects from the legendary dancer’s estate, which are now the basis of a permanent exhibition.
Remembering Rudolf Nureyev
Considered one of the greatest male ballet dancer of his generation, Rudolf Nureyev (1938-1993) changed the perception of the role of male dancers from merely supporting the ballerinas to taking center stage. An uncompromising perfectionist not only in his artistic performance but also in his costumes, he is credited with single-handedly changing the esthetics of the male dancer’s attire.
From his earliest years at Russia’s elite Kirov Ballet, he managed to impose changes and improvements for his own costumes, improvements which then became shared by the other dancers. He insisted on replacing the traditional breaches and “skirts” with tights that accentuated the musculature of his legs, and wearing a short doublet as the basis for all his costumes irrespective of the style of the production. Gradually the characteristics of his doublets evolved: low-cut necklines to show the neck, arm holes raised very high to free the arms. The waist appeared more tapered with the use of oblique darts at the front and the doublet often ended in a point.
Staged in a dedicated wing, the exhibition pays homage to a life entirely devoted to dance. In addition to Nureyev’s own sumptuous doublets, it includes costumes from the ballets he choreographed and produced for the great companies of the world. A projection room features a documentary that follows him from his birth near Irkutsk, on a trans-Siberian train as his mother and three sisters were traveling to meet his Cossack father at Vladivostock, to his high profile defection to the West at the Le Bourget-Paris airport at the age of 23, through his legendary international career and his later years as the Director and Chief Choreographer of the Paris Opera Ballet.
Dressing the Opera
While the bulk of the Center’s collection of over 10,000 costumes and another 10,000 accessories and decor items remain mainly in the on-site reserves, choice pieces are brought out for thematic temporary exhibitions produced twice yearly. To mark the 350th anniversary of the Paris Opera, the current one “Dressing the Opera” traces the history of costume creation from the inauguration of the Palais Garnier opera house in 1875 to the present.
Revolving around the major aesthetic trends from the late 19th, 20th and 21st centuries, it creates a grand theatrical fresco of over 150 costumes, along with stage backdrops from the Opera Garnier and the more recently opened Opera Bastille (1989). It draws from the great opera and ballet successes of the repertoire to pays tribute to the creativity of the costume designers, the expertise of the sewing workshops and the various directors who selected the artistic themes, to embody the ever-involving story of the legendary “House” as its denizen reverently call it.
The scenography of the exhibition is worthy of its topic, recreating with wall-size photographic panels and mirrors a trompe l’oeil version of the elegant grand foyer, formal staircase and gilded atmosphere of the Palais Garnier throughout the first galleries. It then transitions to the pared down décor of the Opera Bastille, before merging the spirit of both Houses in the final gallery to showcase ballet costumes by some of the great couture designers, most notably Christian Lacroix and Karl Lagerfeld.
Good to Know
- Getting there – By train: there are several direct train connections between Moulins-sur-Allier and Paris (2 ½ hours) and Lyon (2 hours). From the Moulins train station, it is a pleasant 20-minute walk across town to the National Center for Stage Costume. By car: Moulins is connected to the French highway system via the A6. There is ample free parking at the museum.
The National Center for Stage Costume, Quartier Villard, Route de Montilly, 03000 Moulins, is open daily. Closed December 25, January 1 and May 1. Summer opening hours are 10:00 am to 6:00 pm. Hours vary with the seasons, and are posted on the official website. Contact: tel. +33 (0) 4 70 20 76 20.
The exhibition “Dressing the Opera” is on display until November 3rd, 2019.