Yinka Shonibare New Ballerina Sculpture Debuts At Opera House

Last week the Royal Opera House received new adornment in the form of a ballerina in a snow globe.  The work is by renowned artist Yinka Shonibare, known for the Ship in a Bottle sculpture that stood as the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square.

The ballet and the visual arts have a long history of interaction and cooperation.  Many well-known artists and architects, including Pablo Picasso, Santiago Calatrava, and John Pawson, have contributed set and costume designs to ballet companies.  Shonibare’s contribution is not to a specific ballet but to the exterior of the Royal Opera House.  Combining solid stone and weightless glass constructions, the ROH is already a complex and imposing building.  On the side of the building along Russel Street, Shonibare’s life-sized sculpture looms overhead.  It does not necessarily draw attention to itself unless passersby are looking up or know where to find it.

Combining motifs of a spinning jewellery box ballerina and a snow globe, Shonibare encompasses his trademark style and embodies the whimsy and grace that can be found in many ballets.  Other work by Yinka Shonibare, such as ‘Gainsborough’s Mr and Mrs Andrews without Their Heads’ of 1998, recreates well-known images of the art historical canon by using African-influenced fabric and often removing the heads.  In 2004, Shonibare was short-listed for the Turner Prize and was awarded an MBE (Most Excellent Order of the British Empire) that same year.

As a British-Nigerian man, Shonibare grew up both in London and Lagos, and as a result often incorporates the themes of colonialism and post-colonialism in his work.  ‘Globe Head Ballerina’ may not be intentionally political, but replacing the ballerina’s head with a globe references globalisation.  Ballet is a universal art form and while different styles and movements may be developed around the world, it is all a part of the same vocabulary.  A ballerina can take a class anywhere in the world as the terms remain in French and many companies welcome international ballet dancers.

Describing ‘Globe Head Ballerina’ Shonibare has stated: “This piece is about bringing the childhood sense of magic and wonder to the façade of the Royal Opera House in a very grown up piece of public sculpture that can be enjoyed by all.  It’s like a life-size fairytale ballerina jewellery box that will spin.”  Shonibare’s statue in reality remains stationary, firmly attached to the side of the building, but turning the ballerina on her side is an element of fantasy perhaps attempting to represent the movement of a dancer.

This sculpture was based upon a photograph of Margot Fonteyn, the Royal Ballet’s legendary former prima ballerina.  Dame Fonteyn was noted for her effortless grace on stage, yet this sculpture is uncompromisingly rigid.  The rich colourful fabric that makes up the tutu is beautiful and in line with Shonibare’s previous work.  Purple is associated with royalty and such ballet heroines as the Lilac Fairy, Fairy Godmother, and Sugar Plum Fairy are regularly adorned in various shades of purple.  Shonibare’s costume is a rich, deep purple accented with neon coral and lilac shades giving the costume a contemporary twist.

‘Globe Head Ballerina’ will remain in place on the side of the ROH for five years as part of the London 2012 Festival.  Visual art and the ballet come together again next month with a collaboration ballet and exhibition between the Royal Ballet and the National Gallery called Metamorphosis: Titian 2012. 

Words/Photo: Emily Sack © ArtLyst 2012

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