Photo by Hemamset Angaza.

A few weeks after the opening of Bard Graduate Center’s latest exhibition, Sonia Delaunay: Living Art, two costumes—a painted cardboard dress and a men’s morning suit with a cardboard top and striped pants—were installed on the fourth floor. These addendums to the colorful cast of textiles, fashion pieces, illustrations, playing cards, and mosaics that twentieth-century designer Sonia Delaunay produced over the course of her sixty-year career are reconstructions of costumes she designed for a 1923 Dadaist musical, Le cœur à gaz (The Gas Heart), written by Romanian author Tristan Tzara. The surrealist writer André Breton famously incited a riot during the performance, and although it made headlines, the only existing visual documentation of the show are two black and white photographs and Delaunay’s costume sketches.

The reproductions were created by recent MA graduate Sydney Maresca, a Broadway costume designer with more than twenty years of experience on productions such as The Cottage, The Lighting Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical, and Hand to God. Maresca began the master’s program at BGC out of a desire to “dig more deeply into the historical and cultural stories that clothes can tell.” In the course of her studies, she focused on clothing and textiles in the early American Northeast that speak to Indigenous and immigrant encounters, craft, labor, and women’s roles in their communities. Her qualifying paper explores the construction and materiality of turkey feather mantles made and worn by Indigenous tribes of the American Northeast in the seventeenth century. As a part-time student, she also began teaching classes on theater design and fashion history at Williams College while finishing her degree.

The idea to recreate Delaunay’s costumes from The Gas Heart came from Andrew Kircher, BGC’s director of Public Humanities + Research. Maresca took a class he taught on public programming last spring, and while discussing his ideas for events connected to the Sonia Delaunay exhibition, Kircher mentioned that he wanted to hire someone to recreate her costumes from The Gas Heart and perform selections from the play for the public. Maresca proposed that she could do this as part of an independent study. The proposal was accepted by BGC faculty and Kircher acted as her advisor. Maresca put together a syllabus and Kircher, who is a performance scholar and dramaturg, helped her to expand the scope of her readings to include histories of fashion, stagecraft, modernist performance movements, and design. His guidance, along with valuable input from textile and dress history professor Mei Mei Rado, provided the academic foundation for the project.

Photo by Hemamset Angaza.

The construction of the costumes was a collaborative process. With funding provided by Williams College, Maresca was able to engage the New York City costume shop John Kristiansen, which builds costumes for Broadway shows. Maresca and a team including Kristiansen, project manager JoJo Johnson, head of the crafts department Taylor Green, and painter Brookelyn Leblanc spent weeks poring over Delaunay’s sketches and photographs of the original costumes to determine possible color schemes and materials and create faithful reproductions. Maresca described the moment she showed the finished pieces to Kircher and the exhibition curators, Laura Microulis and Waleria Dorogova: “These costumes are iconic, and they’ve been featured in many publications about Dada theatre or design, but they don’t physically exist. So, when the curators came in and we got to see a version of this thing that we had never seen in real life, it was like being in the room with a celebrity or a ghost. I almost cried because it was so incredible to participate in making this dead thing come back to life.”

Maresca revealed these iconic ghosts to the public at a lecture and demonstration she presented at BGC in February. Before the reveal, Maresca shared how she approached this project as a designer, thinker, and maker, walking the audience through her trajectory of research, modeling, and, ultimately, activation. She began with the following questions: What is the relationship between the design sketch and the costumed body? How do the costume materials interact with performers’ bodies and affect their movement? How can an ephemeral performance design be activated with no access to the original performance or objects? The answers she arrived at were informed by a combination of archival materials, historical context, dramaturgical instruction, historical reconstruction, and a healthy amount of speculation. In thinking about Delaunay’s costumes, she considered the flattening effect of abstract, modernist graphics, how Delaunay applied it to the human body through her costume work, and how the choice of cardboard as a material for The Gas Heart costumes contributed to that effect.

Photo by Fresco Arts Team.

Maresca presented her work as a contribution to the relatively new field of critical costume studies, which examines the integral role costumes play in theatrical performances and posits that it may be impossible to fully understand costumes without experiencing the performances they were created for. As such, activating the recreations of Delaunay’s costumes through restaging excerpts of The Gas Heart was a crucial component of this project. When Maresca told the audience that they would be looking at the costumes on performers to see what would happen, a man seated in the front, who turned out to be esteemed performance theorist Richard Schechner, asked if the audience could stage a riot. Sadly, or perhaps fortunately, the reenactment did not reach that level of historical accuracy. However, the presentation did culminate in two actors promenading down the aisle of the lecture hall in the cardboard creations.

Actors Jamie Graham and Kym Bernazky performed text, movements, and a dance inspired by Tzara’s script. Choreographer Jessie Winograd directed the action using a combination of poses seen in historical photographs of the original production, cryptic descriptions of the choreography from the script, and her knowledge of historical movement practices. The limits imposed on the actors by the costumes themselves also informed their movements. Maresca read stage directions like “fall to the floor” aloud and then asked the actors if they could do that. When they said no, she responded, “Ok, what should we do?” and they came up with inventive solutions.

Kircher could not have been more pleased with the event. He said, “I had the germ of an idea—Sydney made magic. She represents the best of what a multivalent approach to scholarship can be—embodied, archival, practice-based, and critical. Her event epitomized what BGC has to offer in the realm of public humanities. She invited a packed room into the craft of object research, and it was at once accessible and rigorous. She didn’t simply deliver conclusions but gave us the tools to synthesize complex understanding with her in real time.”

Being able to present this work was an incredible experience for Maresca. She reflected, “I have spent two and a half years building a new skillset of thinking about, talking about, and researching objects. I came to it with this history of being a maker and a theater artist, which I feel like I sort of put in a box to learn to do this new thing, so it was exciting to … bring my practices together. Sharing this work with the BGC community and the public felt like a moment of self-unification.”

Maresca’s fabulous interpretations of Delaunay’s costumes will be on view in Sonia Delaunay: Living Art at the BGC Gallery through July 7.