Dance is a visual artform and the design of the stage and of the dancers' costumes naturally plays a major role in establishing the style and tone of any work. Narrative works may depend heavily on scenery and costumes to identify the characters and the action, a plotless ballet may take its mood from an abstract set, lighting, backdrop, or costumes. In any work, what the dancers wear will influence greatly how we look at their movement.
In the court ballets of the 15th–17th centuries artists, architects, and artisans were employed as stage designers. These ballets were often elaborate spectacles, intended to display the status of the nobility or monarchs who had commissioned them. Scenery often involved complex stage machinery designed to create magical effects while the dancers' costumes, often fantastical versions of court dress, were extremely opulent, involving highly ornamented clothes and huge wigs. When dance moved onto the stage, specialist theatre designers began to emerge and by the early 19th century some regarded themselves as poets of the theatre. As the highly formalized classical settings of the 18th century gave way to Romanticism, designers created mysterious moonlit forests for sylphs and wilis to inhabit or colourful exotic settings for gypsies and adventuresses. The invention of gas lighting made it possible to create evocative shadows, to suggest woodland glades or starry nights through which dancers flew using flying wires and harnesses. At the same time the dancers' costumes became much simpler. Ornamental wigs were out of fashion, the women's dresses featured shorter, more lightweight skirts. The men no longer wore the stiff skirt or tonnelet of the 18th century but simple tights, trunks, and tunics which gave them more freedom to move. Costumes aimed to reflect the ballet's dramatic setting, for example drifting white skirts for sylphs or versions of national or peasant costume for exotic ballets.
Towards the middle and end of the 19th century taste shifted back towards more ornamental design. Extravagantly detailed scenery reflected the period's love of spectacle, with ballets taking place in rajahs' palaces, temples, or even on storm-tossed seas. The dancers retained freedom of movement in their costumes, with the women's skirts gradually shortened to form the first version of the now familiar tutu, but authenticity was not considered essential. Ballerinas wore tutus whatever the historical or geographical setting of their role, and frequently adorned themselves with their personal jewellery. When Fokine started crusading for artistic reform in ballet (from 1904) one of his concerns was that design should more faithfully reflect subject-matter. In his own ancient Greek ballet Eunice (1907) he fought, unsuccessfully, for his dancers to perform bare-legged and with bare feet. (The Imperial Theatre's management forced him to put his dancers in flesh-coloured tights with knees and toes painted on.) But once Fokine had joined Diaghilev (who shared his belief in ballet as fully integrated theatre) he was allowed to pursue his vision of a new realism, and easel painters like Benois, Bakst, and Golovine were commissioned to create carefully researched but poetic settings for ballets like Petrushka, Scheherazade, and The Firebird. Some of these painters also began to experiment with colour and pattern as a means of defining a mood or style, such as Bakst's dappled stage canvas for Nijinsky's L'Après-midi d'un faune (1912). When the Ballets Russes entered its more radically modernist phase Diaghilev began to commission avant-garde painters whose designs brought new aesthetics from the art world onto the stage—Cubism, Fauvism, and Surrealism—sometimes even dominating the ballet, as in Picasso's Cubist ballet Parade (1917). Design by modernist painters also determined the look of many works performed by Les Ballets Suédois (1920–5) and influenced the aesthetic of choreographer Oskar Schlemmer who, aiming for a purely abstract form of dance, clothed his dancers in sculpted costumes that virtually concealed their human form. By contrast as Balanchine pursued his own version of neo-classical purity he often stripped his stages down to a bare minimum, in ballets like The Four Temperaments (revised version, 1951) and Agon (1957) putting his dancers in practice costumes on an empty stage so that the choreography would be free of visual distraction. In modern dance Graham began by working on bare stages and with her dancers wearing simple jersey dresses which revealed the uncompromising bluntness of the choreography's lines. When she began to use sets she frequently worked with the sculptor Noguchi whose free-standing sets amplified the symbolism and setting of the piece as well as providing a physical architecture on and around which the dancers could move. Cunningham, by contrast, frequently collaborated with artists whose designs were created separately from the choreography and thus had a more contingent relationship with the dance, for example Andy Warhol's helium-filled balloons which bobbed unpredictably through RainForest (1968), or Jasper Johns's free-standing set for Walkaround Time (1968) which squeezed the dancers into sometimes confined spaces. Such designs did not aim to define meanings within the choreography but to create an independent visual place within which the dance moved. Many of Cunningham's works have also been shown on bare stages and he tended to clothe his dancers in unitards so that their movement can be plainly seen.