Couture creations for dancing bodies

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Couture creations for dancing bodies
One of Walter Van Beirendonck’s playful costumes for Marie-Agnès Gillot’s “Sous Apparence” (2012). An exhibition at the Centre National du Costume de Scène in France considers the dialogue between the stage and the runway. Via Centre National du Costume de Scène via The New York Times.

by Roslyn Sulcas

MOULINS (NYT NEWS SERVICE ).- Soft jersey bathing suits, molded on the body, fitted pink cloche caps framing the face. These were Coco Chanel’s simple yet revolutionary designs for the Ballets Russes’ “Le Train Bleu” (1924), a dance about gilded youth at the seaside, doing calisthenics and playing tennis and golf.

Chanel was just one of a star-studded artistic team: The scenario was by Cocteau, the front curtain by Picasso, the choreography by Bronislava Nijinska and the score by Darius Milhaud. But in choosing Chanel to design the costumes, the ballet’s founder, Sergei Diaghilev, as so often, broke new ground.

“Chanel was the first couturier to create costumes for the stage,” said Philippe Noisette, the curator of “Couturiers de la Danse,” an exhibition that continues through May 3 at the Centre National du Costume de Scène, or National Theatrical Costume Museum, here in the Auvergne region of France. Sportswear, Noisette noted, was a relatively new category of clothing, and Chanel’s practical, stylish designs both surprised and inspired her audiences in this early crossover moment between ballet and fashion.

One of the bathing outfits from “Le Train Bleu” is on prominent display in “Couturiers de la Danse,” which traces couturier-choreographer collaborations from 1924 to the present. The exhibition is organized by theme: “Shapes,” “Second Skin,” “Not So Classical” and “Materials.”

Noisette said the themes were “a skeleton” that allowed him to weave together images from ballet, contemporary dance and fashion shows and to juxtapose different epochs and innovations. Each section groups a breathtaking array of costumes by established designers like Balmain, Dior, Givenchy, Yves Saint Laurent and Karl Lagerfeld alongside pieces by a younger generation, including Iris van Herpen, Rick Owens, Gareth Pugh and Hedi Slimane.

“I’m really interested in the dialogue you often see between stage and runway,” Noisette said. “The stage can be a kind of laboratory, a sketch pad, for the designer. You sometimes see inventions in costumes that show up in the collections the next year. And sometimes pieces are tested in runway shows and then appear onstage.” He quoted Chanel: “Fashion doesn’t only exist through the clothes; it’s in the air.”

But what looks good on a runway doesn’t necessarily translate directly to the stage. Dance costumes have to conform to the specific needs of the performers, choreography and theater, which even the most sophisticated couturier may have to learn.

“After you have designed a piece, you have to ask, can this be danced in?” said Harriet Jung, who together with her design partner Reid Bartelme specializes in costumes for dance. “If there is a lot of partnering, if they slide on the ground a lot, or are lifted in the air a lot, you have to think about how the fabric will handle it, whether it will be comfortable, flexible and not get in the way or between the dancers.”

Sometimes you learn this the hard way, Jung said, describing a boned corset, created for the ballerina Julie Kent, that broke into pieces during a rehearsal. (And other times, the designer overrules mere notions of practicality; in some of Walter Van Beirendonck’s designs for the ballet “Sous Apparence,” the dancer “can hardly see out of the eyeholes,” Noisette said.)

You can learn the fundamentals of clothing construction through study, Bartelme wrote in an email. But understanding “the mechanics of dance costume is learned through trial and error, and from the shops and makers who have done it before.”

Couturiers who sustain creative relationships with choreographers get a chance to learn those mechanics. Beyond its four themes, the exhibition also has sections devoted to specific choreographer-designer collaborations: Jean-Paul Gaultier and Régine Chopinot; Issey Miyake and William Forsythe; Gianni Versace and Maurice Béjart; and the eclectic design choices of the choreographer Daniel Larrieu.

The exhibition has a decidedly European focus, a choice that was made partly for practical reasons, Noisette said, though he regretted among other gaps not having any costumes created for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, especially the remarkable lumpy Rei Kawakubo pieces for “Scenario.”

After a walk through the exhibition, Noisette talked about some of the costumes — what they reveal about fashion and innovation and how they speak of dance in its time. Here are edited excerpts from that conversation.

Charleston effect
The dress by On Aura Tout Vu was created for “L’Enfant et Les Sortilèges” (2016), choreographed by Jeroen Verbruggen for the Monte Carlo Ballet. Jean-Christophe Maillot, the director of that company, has a history of commissioning fashion designers, including lesser-known ones. These designers, who are Bulgarian and Portuguese, “combine a whimsical eccentricity with a real couture finish and detailing,” Noisette said.

The dress, in the “Second Skin” section, “is made of a light and supple synthetic fabric which is easy to wear, and the ‘Charleston’ effect of the fringing reveals the limbs in motion,” Noisette said. “The trompe l’oeil on the dress, which is quilted, and on the hat — there is a little mouth there, which you only see from afar — superimposes body parts on body parts. This is an ensemble costume; you can imagine how fantastical the effect is in a group.”

Apricot puff
Walter Van Beirendonck designed half a dozen pieces, in different shapes and bright colors, in Marie-Agnès Gillot’s “Sous Apparence,” which she created in 2012 for the Paris Opera Ballet. Most of the dancers in the work wear more conventional attire (although, unconventionally, the men were on point); these pieces, Noisette said, were like interventions in the ballet, “blocks of color and geometric form which suddenly appeared.”

Like tutus, the costumes are made from tulle. But here the fabric is folded and pleated “so that it becomes a carapace,” Noisette said.

One is called the bee. Like the others it has a playful quality: one looks like a tree, another like a surfboard. It is “a bit of a challenge to the spectator,” Noisette said. “At first the costumes look like pure shape, but when you look at it close up, you see how detailed the work is.”

Silver fish
When the choreographer William Forsythe asked Issey Miyake to create costumes for “The Loss of Small Detail” (1991), Miyake was already working on a range of pleated clothes. But he hadn’t yet found the right technique to keep the color consistent. For “Loss” he created around 200 garments in shades of white, black and gray, with the intention of testing out their wearability and durability. “A dancer does so much more than a model; he or she is jumping, falling, moving against another body, rolling on the ground,” Noisette said. “It was the perfect laboratory.”

With the “Loss” costumes — some fantastical, like one called “The Fish,” some plain and practical — Miyake tested his idea of making garments that would retain their form, but also create organic shapes as the dancer moved in space. “When Miyake heard how much the dancers loved wearing the costumes, he thought to himself that there would be a good chance the public would feel the same,” Noisette said. In 1994 Miyake introduced his successful line, Pleats Please.

Metal lace
The Dutch designer Iris van Herpen is interested in the relationship between craftsmanship and technology. To create her intricately worked fabrics, she uses 3-D printers, laser cutting and heat bonding. “Although it’s all very technical,” Noisette said, “her clothes have a poetic quality that has a bit of a Japanese aspect. It’s aesthetic but also all about the material.”

With a tutu for Benjamin Millepied’s “Clear, Loud, Bright, Forward,” created for the Paris Opera Ballet in 2015, van Herpen kept the traditional shape of the costume, but took away the many layers of tulle that usually make up the skirt; it’s almost an abstract idea of a tutu. “I think it changes the way you look at this traditional female ballet costume,” Noisette said. “The ballerina is less objectified, in a different space.”

Plastic cowboy
Sylvie Skinazi, a former designer with Christian Lacroix, designed a cowboy outfit for Daniel Larrieu’s “Les Prophètes.” The dance was created for the 1990 Biennale de la Danse in Lyon, which had “America” as its theme, allowing Skinazi to riff on cowboy stereotypes with panache. She “likes a very colorful palette,” Noisette said. “This is obviously a homage to the cowboy tradition, but the trousers are made from PVC and false fur, while the jacket is leather and suede.” He pointed out that couture tends to use pure, expensive fabrics like wool, silk and linen, but Skinazi mixes in cheaper materials that create great visual impact. “It’s a very sophisticated piece, a kind of disguise, but also really fun.”

Flowers beneath the skin
Maria Grazia Chiuri’s dress for Dior is the newest costume in the exhibition, made in 2019 for the ballerina in Sébastien Bertaud’s “Nuit Blanche” for the Rome Opera Ballet. “This dress is a perfect example of couture in dance, due to the perfection and simplicity of its cut, and the detail and subtlety of its embroidery,” Noisette said.

Chiuri has used dance in her runway shows; this dress suggests that costumes are sometimes born from fashion as well as sometimes inspiring it. She uses a traditional style of Romantic-era ballet dress, which also refers to the Dior silhouettes of the late-’40s. Her Paris fashion-week show in September was inspired by Dior’s love of flowers, and here they are layered into the costume. Made out of muslin, they are sewn between layers of mousseline and tulle, both on the bodice and the skirt. “At the beginning, you don’t really see them; they gradually reveal themselves through the movement,” Noisette said. “There is something very romantic and touching about it.”

© 2019 The New York Times Company

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