Martha Graham's "Lamentation" must have come to mind to quite a few of the dance connoisseurs who went to see "Gravity Fatigue" last week at London's Sadler's Wells Theatre (it was on until 31st October).
In "Lamentation" Graham's body was encased in a basic lavender jersey tube that, leaving her face, hands and feet exposed, allowed her to sinuously bend and twist, while sitting on a bench. As she stretched her body, Graham used her costume to create architectural figures, at times angular, at others more fluid, altering and morphing her body.
The spectators perceived therefore the body movements - based on contractions and relaxations - through the fabric and through gestures that visually attracted the attention of the spectators towards the interior and the outer body.
In the same way in "Gravity Fatigue" fashion designer Hussein Chalayan and choreographer Damien Jalet tried to analyse and explore the body by altering it through fabrics and movements. The performance opened with two dancers encased within a tube of fabric reminiscent of Graham's and creating like her a series of shapes and silhouettes.
Several different sections followed, involving 13 dancers and a wardrobe of more than 100 costumes. Dancers twirled over spiralling light patterns, sat at surrealist soft and melting desks or energetically walked on a floor that, integrating some trampoline-like areas, projected the performers into the air.
Costumes in the meantime transformed as if manipulated by invisible threads and overcoats mutated into sparkling evening gowns. The theme of transformation that Chalayan loves so much surely helped the narration, even though the shortness of the intertwined vignettes linked the performances to the fast rhythms of catwalk shows and didn't always guarantee the audience a great cohesiveness.
Yet there were interesting ideas in "Gravity Fatigue": while Damien Jalet choreographed the pieces, Chalayan played a big part in initiating the concept and coming up with the narrative and the imagery, the themes of identity, migration, displacement and freedom.
The Turkish-Cypriot designer actually explored these topics (that derive from his own background and his early childhood experiences between Cyprus and the UK) quite often in his collections, but in this case they were employed to give a new dynamism to the body and the narration.
Quite a few fashion designers displayed throughout the decades a great and profound interest in the performing arts, perfectly understanding that the human body and costumes finally meet and complement each other in dance performances.
Some designers (remember Versace and Maurice Béjart?), even established solid relationships with choreographers that inspired them throughout their careers. Yet, rather than simply following this "tradition" of fashion designers collaborating with prominent choreographers, Chalayan turned in this case also into the author of the production.
In this way Sadler's Wells also elevated the fashion designer from advertising magnet to hopefully attract a younger audience to the world of the performing arts, to a role of co-choreographer in a collaborative process that saw Chalayan using sketches, photographs, fabrics and costumes to create the movements. Hence the elastic band-like tubes that could transform into several shapes or the structured geometric garments that defined and highlighted the dancers' bodies.
Chalayan is not new to Sadler's Wells: in 1999, he showed there his collection "Before Minus Now"; he returned to Sadler's Wells the following season with "Afterwords", featuring his iconic circular wood table that could be transformed into a skirt that impressed Alistair Spalding, Wells' artistic director.
Chalayan also designed the costumes for Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui's Faun, part of the Sadler's Wells production In the Spirit of Diaghilev in 2009, and created costumes for Michael Clark's current/SEE and Sasha Waltz & Guests' Passion with Pascal Dusapin. Besides, last May, Chalayan designed costumes for a production of "Così fan tutte" performed at Frank Gehry's Walt Disney Concert Hall in LA.
Working in a cross-disciplinary way has so far allowed Chalayan to focus on such different projects and convinced Spalding and Sadler's Wells to create something previously unseen - a commission in which a fashion designer with no background in dance could still provide an interesting contribution to the choreography.
You could argue that, though not everything was maybe one hundred per cent convincing in the tableaux forming "Gravity Fatigue", Chalayan's role was extremely revolutionary and his attempt at pushing fashion to cross new boundaries and become the subject of a more thoughtful discourse remains remarkable.
Yet if you could consider the costumes behind "Gravity Fatigue" a "hit", current performances also feature examples of "misses". Prada's recent costume (created by Fabio Zambernardi, design director of Prada and Miu Miu) for dancer David Hallberg in the performance "Fortuna Desperata" could be labelled so.
Worn last Sunday night at St. Bart's Church in New York, the costume was the focus of a newly commissioned work by Prada darling Francesco Vezzoli for the three-week biennial of performing arts "Performa 15". According to Vezzoli, the costume was a futuristic version of a painting by Beato Angelico.
The hand-made design was meticulously described in an official press release as made with black natté woolen fabric with pink duchesse lining, it also featured ciré bonded with jersey, though some parts were bonded with crinoline (a material traditionally used for men's coats). The costume was also covered in stones and crystals.
It was actually a shame to use such a long description when one sentence could have summarised it better - the costume was indeed a pastiche of Prada's previous collections (leather socks from Prada's S/S 2013 collection; fabrics and embellishments from the A/W 2015 collection, while the spherical moon-like metal ball perched on the toe was borrowed from Prada's S/S 16 collection).
The main idea was combining Renaissance style with modern materials. Bizarrely, though, the final result looked like a cross-dressing Romeo (out of Romeo and Juliet) with a penchant for Alice in Wonderland being involved in a fatal fashion crash with a Prada model. The result was distractingly horrid to say the least and slightly ridiculous like a Carnival costume made with random leftovers from Prada's collections.
The piece - that the press release claimed to be the result of an accurate philological research (well, if it was so, could somebody explain us the uncanny presence of that frock-like ribbon on the back of the costume?) - was supposed to complement a performance inspired by 15th century Italian court dance, but Hallberg, principal dancer for the Bolshoi Ballet and the American Ballet Theatre, looked like an eyesore (or maybe that was Prada's "ugly chic" style and we didn't get it...), especially when compared to the female dancers clad in dark costumes. "Fortuna Desperata" indeed, or, more simply, pure bad fashion luck.
You could argue that the above mentioned collaborations are extremely different one from the other in terms of aims and objectives, but they do teach us something: a fashion designer creating the costumes for a performance may obviously reuse elements or themes taken from his or her own collections (think about the theme of transformation in Chalayan's case and some of his solutions for "Gravity Fatigue"), but it's hard to consider an assemblage of old collections as a great and futuristic costume. The latter would indeed look like something hastily revomited by a designer lacking the time and sensibility to produce something fit for the stage, and ultimately proves that costume design is an art that shouldn't be attempted by all fashion designers.
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