Yugen and headdresses

Gail Ferguson as a woman of the village in Yugen, 1965 or later. Photo by Walter Stringer. Reproduced with permission of the National Library of Australia

While pursuing research into the career of designer Kristian Fredrikson I was surprised to find Fredrikson’s name mentioned in production credits for Yugen, Robert Helpmann’s 1965 one-act work for the Australian Ballet. Fredrikson, whose home base was Melbourne at the time Yugen was being created, is listed, along with William Miles, as having made the headdresses.

Yugen was designed by Desmond Heeley who tells me that he worked on the designs in London and sent the drawings to Australia by mail with copious instructions to the wardrobe department at the Australian Ballet. Helpmann requested, however, that the costume for the leading role of the Goddess, danced in the original production by Kathleen Gorham, be made by costume makers who had worked with him on previous occasions at Sadler’s Wells and Covent Garden, including Hugh Skillen who made the very delicate headdress worn by Gorham and those who followed in the role.

Fredrikson’s interest in headdresses and wigs—millinery in general—can be traced back to his very first works made in New Zealand. For what is reputed to be his first theatrical commission, the Strauss operetta A Night in Venice, one reviewer wrote:

An intriguing effect has been created for the doxies in the opera by giving them flowing wigs in vivid purple, green, blue and orange. Making these wigs occupied two days—they had to be dyed, teased, shaped, curled, brushed and, where necessary, lacquered.

His interest in framing the face in some way can also be followed throughout his career and many of his designs on paper contain detailed instructions to the millinery department of the companies for which he worked.

In 1965 Fredrikson had just a few design commissions behind him, perhaps the most prestigious being designs for Aurora’s Wedding for the Australian Ballet in 1964. Making the Yugen headdresses to Heeley’s designs was no doubt an important and prestigious step for him and he often mentioned Heeley as an influence on his own work.

Scene from the Australian Ballet production of Yugen, 1965 or later. Photo by Walter Stringer. Reproduced with permission of the National Library of Australia.

For more images of Yugen follow the link.

Michelle Potter, 21 October 2011

5 thoughts on “Yugen and headdresses

  1. I was a seventeen-year old theatre fanatic in Sydney in the mid-sxities of the last century and among many memories, I recall seeing YUGEN on a night when the Moon goddess who was to catch a fan thrown by a fisherman, dropped it. After fifty years, it is the dropped fan that preserves the magic of that evening of dance and why I remember it suddenly and vividly and even snatches of the music, in a delta town close to San Francisco.

  2. A fascinating memory, and who knows why these things come back at unexpected times. But Yugen continues to fascinate me and I have just sent off an article for peer review for the EUP journal Dance Research on the early days of the Australian Ballet. It focuses on Helpmann’s very interesting input in the first few years of the company’s existence. In the course of research for that article I discovered that Helpmann had, apparently, bought the fans in Japan. They were weighted so that they could be tossed around and caught without drifting off in unexpected ways. On the evening you were there the fan’s weight must have been a little too much perhaps? Thank you for sharing your thoughts from the environs of San Francisco!

  3. Since I wrote my involuntary memory to you, I have put into verse– my vocation. I have recently finished a novel ART OF MEMORY which is about the magic of memory that connects my life from Australia to Europe to America.


    Cutting vegetables in the kitchen,
    suddenly, memory restores
    the stage-struck teenager that I was
    in Australia in the mid-sixties
    of the last century, I am seeing
    the ballet ‘Yugen’ based on a folktale
    from Japan. On that long-gone night,
    the Moon Goddess was to catch a fan
    thrown by a fisherman, but she dropped it.

    After fifty years, it is the fallen fan
    that preserves the magic of that night
    of dance and why now I remember it.
    The fallen fan describes an arc
    connecting time and space of many years
    and great distance and somehow,
    thanks to the mystery of memory,
    the fan does not fall, but passes from
    hand to hand, from mortal to Immortal.

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