When the Costume Comes First

September 30, 2009




Costumes create a mood, set a scene, and transform performers into anything from a regal swan to a clumsy donkey. Some costumes do even more and take a leading role in the actual creation of the choreography. The most famous example may be the enveloping tube of stretch fabric designed and first worn by Martha Graham in Lamentation in 1930. The vast red cape originally designed by painter Georges Rouault for the Siren in Prodigal Son, which Balanchine choreographed in 1929, is equally central to that ballet. Clothes may no longer make the woman, as the old saying goes, but they can still make the dance.


Katherine Crockett, who has performed Lamentation with the Graham Company since 1995, thinks of the tube as a second skin. “You begin to feel that the tube is your flesh,” she says, “and that you’re trying to get out of it as relief from your pain. That effort creates internal tension. It’s almost as if you are in a womb. From the very first rocking movement, you have to keep the fabric taut to create sculptural lines. Martha’s concept was revolutionary, taking the personal and making it universal. Each dancer brings to it a piece of her own soul.”


The women’s costumes designed by Joke Visser in the beautiful Petite Mort, choreographed by Jirí Kylián for the Nederlands Dans Theater in 1991, are anything but a second skin. Rather the six female dancers, clothed in sheer leotards and corsets, hold the stiff bodices and full skirts representing formal, black, 18th-century dresses in front of their bodies. They are hung on a framework with rollers so they can be moved around the stage. As the dance deals humorously and seriously with sexuality, aggression, and tenderness, they serve as potent metaphors for repression.


Tiffany Hedman performed the work with the Boston Ballet as part of the company’s tribute to Kylián last winter. With one section completely choreographed around the costume, she had to be conscious every minute where her body was in relation to it. “For the most part,” she says, “we do port de bras behind them, occasionally pushing them aside. It’s as if we are ambivalent about covering ourselves up. Then finally, we push them aside for good and break free—almost as if they’re partners we want to get rid of.”


The two dancers in choreographer David Parker’s hilarious Slapstuck, which won the 2002 Bessie Award for design, literally can’t get rid of one another because of their costumes. Performed by Parker and Jeffrey Kazin, wearing neck-to-toe Velcro suits, the dance dramatizes the consequences of being stuck on one another. With a percussive score consisting of the sound of Velcro ripping apart and rhythms created by slapping their own bodies, they connect in a multitude of ways, becoming variously stuck and unstuck.


At one point, Kazin runs and jumps onto Parker and sticks there, while another time he hangs across Parker’s back until Parker unzips his jacket and dumps him on the floor. Though funny, the dance suggests the vicissitudes of relationships, particularly the need for both intimacy and independence.


Parker arrived at Velcro in his search for unusual ways to generate sound. In the process, he considered bare feet, percussive pointe work, and bubble wrap. Velcro proved efficient because it’s stiff, flexible, and noisy. He wanted the suits to look somewhat like the one worn by the robot in TV’s Lost in Space. Occasionally, things haven’t worked out as planned, with a zipper breaking more than once. “Eventually,” Parker says, “we’ll have to stop doing it because the Velcro is wearing out, and it’s getting dangerous. But that certainly doesn’t mean the end of Velcro in my work.”


Velcro isn’t the only offbeat material choreographers have used to create illusions. With her longtime collaborator, visual artist Barbara Kilpatrick, Vicky Shick designed a costume made of parachute nylon for their Bessie-winning Undoing, which premiered at Dance Theater Workshop in 2003. Worn over everyday clothes, it consists of a skirt and a long, blousy jacket.


“At first it appeared as a wacky and large solo costume on my dancer Juliette Mapp,” says Shick. “It formed and reformed into different bulbous-type shapes as she moved, squatted, and separated her legs. Then it reappeared later in the piece worn by two women simultaneously. The costume did very different things worn by one person as opposed to two, but in both cases it imposes limitations—which gave me structure and focus. I’m also interested in creating visual landscapes, and this costume was a great help in creating a certain mood and world.”


Mapp recalls that the costume seemed as though it had its own identity onstage. “You could crumple it up and it would stay a little bit crumpled,” she says. “It made a sound, so it had its own particular kind of rhythm. Even if you were just gathering it and not moving your whole body, it would be an event, because it had this audible texture.”


After opening night, Shick felt things were moving too slowly. “Vicky wanted to speed it up,” says Mapp. “But I found that if I did certain things, like a turn, too fast, the coat would whip around more. It was almost too responsive to my movement. I had to be hyper-aware.”


Mapp continues: “Vicky was trying to figure out what to do and I said, What if Meg [Wolfe] just kept walking so that the coat stretched out, and I sat down, so there would be this big billowing? Two women, one of them walking off and the other sitting down, isn’t that interesting. But with this coat, it was this moment of [Mapp gasps]. It exaggerated that contrast.”


The cape in Prodigal Son must be among the most daunting costumes ever devised. Worn by the predatory Siren, who tempts the Prodigal Son with her sexuality, it stymied even the great ballerina Maria Tallchief. “During rehearsals I had difficulty handling the long red cape, which is attached to the siren like a train,” she wrote in her autobiography. “The cape was made of heavy red velvet and it slid around me out of control whenever I moved. No matter how often I practiced I could not grow comfortable manipulating it.”


Dancers today seem to be having more luck with the cape, though it takes a lot of practice. “I not only have to worry about the technical aspects of dancing with it,” says New York City Ballet soloist Teresa Reichlen, “such as making sure it is untwisted, and trailing beautifully behind me, but I also must continue to have an air of grace and superiority while handling it.”


American Ballet Theatre principal Irina Dvorovenko found her own way of dealing with the cape. “You have to make love to it,” she says, “as you wrap it around your body, put it through your legs and coil it like a snake. The Siren is a fascinating spirit—strong, erotic, and mysterious. She is alone, except for the cape. It’s her partner.”


Valerie Gladstone writes about the arts for The New York Times, Boston Globe and other publications. She co-authored
A Young Dancer: The Life of an Ailey Student.


The dresses for Kylián’s
Petite Mort are “potent metaphors for repression.” Boston Ballet dancers, from L to R: Sarah Wroth, Tiffany Hedman, Erica Cornejo, Kimberly Uphoff. Photo by Gene Schiavone, courtesy BB