LONDON (Reuters) - When acclaimed choreographer Christopher Wheeldon first saw “Portrait of Madame X”, he was captivated by the painting that caused a social uproar in 19th century Paris.
The John Singer Sargent portrait of married socialite Amelie Gautreau showed her in a black dress with one of her jewelled straps slipping off her right shoulder.
Unveiled in 1884, the painting was deemed provocative and shocked Parisian high society. Sargent swiftly repainted the strap in place - but the damage to both their reputations was done.
English-born Wheeldon saw the painting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, where he joined City Ballet in 1993. Years later, he has taken inspiration from it for his latest production, “Strapless”, premiering at London’s Royal Ballet this week.
“I fell in love with the painting ... and really was intrigued by so many of the things I think that made the painting a scandal: her stance, the way her skin tone made her stand out from the darkness of the background, her curves,” he told Reuters.
“When I discovered the story was so rich in intrigue and scandal, she seemed like a wonderful character to build a ballet around.”
The one-act narrative production is also inspired by Deborah Davis’ book of the same name. Leading the cast are Royal Ballet Principal Dancers Natalia Osipova as Gautreau and Edward Watson as Sargent.
“The more I looked at what happened, the more I understood what a real tragedy it was,” Osipova said. “When someone has a strong desire to achieve something but then society ... discards it, this can make the person feel vulnerable ... and so at the end of the ballet she (Gautreau) ends up naked and exposed.”
Gautreau’s reputation was badly damaged after the unveiling, however Sargent managed to eventually rebuild his career.
“I think it’s interesting that ... everybody involved is sort of victims of the piece of work,” Watson said.
“He is painting something which he thought was going to be great, she is posing for something which she thought would be the perfect portrait of her. So the interesting thing is what that work did to everybody.”
“Strapless” is Wheeldon’s eighth work for the Royal Ballet, where he is Artistic Associate and follows his productions of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and “A Winter’s Tale”.
It premieres at London’s Royal Opera House on Feb. 12 as part of a programme of three Wheeldon works, including “After the Rain” and “Within the Golden Hour”.
Reporting by Vera Afdjei; Writing by Marie-Louise Gumuchian; Editing by Tom Heneghan