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By Valerie Gladstone
Dance and fashion make a perfect pair. Does anyone have more beautiful bodies than dancers? Who glorifies bodies more than fashion designers? Choreographers figured this out long ago. Martha Graham found compatible partners in Halston, Donna Karan, and Calvin Klein, while Merce Cunningham chose Romeo Gigli and Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons, and Twyla Tharp selected Norma Kamali and Isaac Mizrahi. They team up for the challenge and the aesthetic rewards. “It is the melding of all disciplines,” says choreographer Stephen Petronio, who started working with fashion designers 25 years ago. “I love bringing different worlds into the same room. It makes the party livelier.”
In recent decades, Karole Armitage, Melissa Barak, Jorma Elo, John Neumeier, and Brian Reeder, among others, have discovered the fruits of collaborating with designers, many of them big names like Armani and Christian Lacroix. “The collision of the worlds of fashion and dance creates an alchemy beyond the reach of either one alone,” says Petronio, who has enlisted Benjamin Cho, Manolo, Tara Subkoff/Imitation of Christ, and Jillian Lewis to enhance his vision. “Fashion is made to move in the world, and dance is extreme motion.”
Not that everything always goes smoothly. The first time designers work with choreographers, they often make mistakes. Accustomed to models that only strut down catwalks, they tend to construct costumes without the flexibility and resiliency needed to withstand hours of leaps, turns, and slides across the floor, not to mention sweat and repeated laundering.
“There have been a lot of ripped crotches,” Petronio says. “I’ve had dancers cry because they didn’t feel they looked good in the costumes or felt constricted. Then we change. Usually in good time. But once, before a performance, Tara Subkoff got on her hands and knees, with a pair of scissors, to alter a piece of clothing in the lobby of the Joyce Theater.”
His latest design collaborator is Jillian Lewis, a former contestant on Project Runway. “She was a dancer so she understands inseams and crotches,” Petronio says. “Her costumes are almost not there, but very strong.”
Costumes should be able to move, flatter, and complement the dance. To educate designers, choreographers usually spend some time explaining their dances and their needs. Like Petronio, Neumeier, the artistic director of the Hamburg Ballet, began using fashion designers almost as soon as he started choreographing, over the years calling on Jil Sander, Albert Kriemler of the Swiss fashion house Akris, and Giorgio Armani to collaborate.
He begins by going over the basics, making sure they don’t use slippery or delicate fabrics. He also lets them know that the ballet can’t look like a fashion show, drawing the audience’s attention more to the clothes than to the ballet. He follows up with specifics, as when he instructed Sander on his ballet Mozart 338 (1984). “When you conceive a costume for a contemporary ballet without a period or story,” he says, “you have to make people look like they do today, and the costumes have to move like clothes do today. I wanted to capture the pulse of contemporary life.”
Developing Bernstein Dances (1998) involved Neumeier in many long discussions with Armani about Leonard Bernstein and his life as an illustrious conductor, composer, and teacher. “I wanted to give a sense of his New York,” he says. Armani came up with beautiful suit jackets for the women and sports jackets for the men, all in black and white. For the ballet’s second section, he designed cocktail dresses, selecting the color black for its elegance.
“I doubted black would work and it didn’t,” Neumeier says. “They made everything look very sad. But Giorgio was quick to change. He said, ‘If they can’t be black, then they have to be red,’ and he had the dresses redone very quickly in his studio in Milan. They turned out wonderfully.”
Choreographers come away enriched by the collaborations. “If the designers are good,” says Jorma Elo, choreographer in residence at Boston Ballet, who worked with Ralph Rucci on his ballet C. to C. for American Ballet Theatre (2007), “they introduce you to amazing materials. They’re up to date on everything new and you learn so much from them that you can take to other ballets. Most designers stick to what they’ve done in the past. But fashion designers give you the impetus to go in new directions.”
ABT welcomes when choreographers for its junior company, ABT II, use fashion designers, and will set them up with talentedpeople in the field. Brian Reeder was given the opportunity to collaborate with Charles Nolan on his ballet Cake (2008), about Marie Antoinette (who supposedly suggested that famine-stricken peasants eat that sweet). “One thing that’s hard for everyone to understand the first time,” he says, “is that the costumes must look as good in the last row as in the first. Certain patterns, fabrics, and colors just can’t bridge that distance.”
Reeder brought in images from museum collections and tear sheets from Vogue to give Nolan an idea of what he had in mind. Though he planned to suggest the 18th century, he did not want to be too literal. His work also required a lot of quick changes, so whatever costumes the dancers wore, they would have to get in and out of them very quickly. At first, Nolan came up with hoop skirts.
“I had to explain that I wanted the dancers’ legs to show,” he says. “But Charles didn’t hesitate or complain. He ended up creating these beautiful short, puffy dresses, cut at mid thigh, and poufy white wigs. His costumes enhanced the piece tenfold, giving it a resonance that wouldn’t have been possible without his exuberant designs.”
With her strong connection to art world figures like Jeff Koons and David Salle, Karole Armitage fell naturally into working with designers, choosing the well-known Christian Lacroix for her piece for the Paris Opéra Ballet, The Tarnished Angels (1987). “I knew he loved theater and dance,” she says, “and that many of his dresses were inspired by ballet. He had a stunning way of using pattern and color. What I wanted from him was a really modern tutu.” Understanding her perfectly, he created short, narrow satin tutus in red and in blue and wider tutus in yellow with pink cutout patterns on the skirts.
For the most part, Armitage has collaborated with designer Peter Speliopoulos of Donna Karan, finding in him a kindred spirit who shares her passion for art. For Itutu, performed by Armitage Gone! Dance at Brooklyn Academy of Music last fall, he created a raucus jumble of nearly clashing prints and styles that, when all together onstage, caught the wild energy of the piece.
Just knowing they are going to collaborate with fashion designers sometimes prompts creativity in choreographers. Last year the department store Bergdorf Goodman suggested that Gilles Mendel of J. Mendel work with one of the choreographers making a new piece for New York City Ballet. Former City Ballet dancer Melissa Barak was offered the chance to work with Mendel on her third ballet for the company.
Now with the Los Angeles Ballet (see page 36), she likes to wander her West Hollywood neighborhood, admiring the art-deco buildings and soaking up the old-Hollywood atmosphere. One day returning from Starbucks, she suddenly thought of the famous gangster Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel, who moved his criminal operation to the West Coast in the 1930s. As a child, unhappy about missing Christmas because she’s Jewish, she recalled her mother trying to boost her spirits by telling her about notable Jewish figures in history, including Siegel and the role he played in the development of Las Vegas. Amazed that one man could have such an impact on a whole city, she began researching him.
“Before I knew it,” Barak says, “I was creating a pas de deux for Bugsy and his hard-to-get girlfriend, Virginia Hill, and had decided to do a ballet about gangsters in Las Vegas. What a weird thing.” At this point, she still hadn’t looked at Mendel’s website. With the time fast approaching when they would meet, she finally took the step. “I couldn’t believe it,” she says. “His outfits looked so old Hollywood. He was totally the guy to do my ballet.”
In the next few weeks, Mendel tried to realize her vision, testing different ideas in his studio. He eventually designed ’40s-style suits and ties for the men, giving those who play gangsters fedoras and trench coats. The women in the corps wear knee-length party dresses in muted blues and taupes, with lots of baubles. Robert Fairchild, as Bugsy, stands out in a quintessential Hollywood-style pinstripe suit, complemented by the glamorous outfit of Jenifer Ringer, who plays the notorious Virginia Hill, decadent in a long, flowing beige gown with black mesh wrapped around the bodice, glittering with rhinestones.
“Gilles wanted to make something happen” Barak says. “His costumes give the ballet a whole other dimension.”
Valerie Gladstone writes about the arts for The New York Times, Boston Globe, A Young Dancer: The Life of an Ailey Student.
Pictured: Jenifer Ringer in the J.Mendel costume for Melissa Barak's Call Me Ben. Photo by Sarah Silver.