Fashioning dance into art

Since the days of Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes, fashion designers and choreographers have worked together to create extraordinary costumes and memorable theatrical events. I spoke to Roger Leong, curator of the latest NGV Ballet & Fashion exhibition to get his take on value of collaborative design.

When Serge Diaghilev produced Le Train Bleu (The Blue Train) in 1924 he went in search of a costume designer who would push the boundaries. Renowned for his avant-garde productions which brought together some of the greatest artistic talents of the day, Diaghilev wanted someone who would be ‘truer than true’.

Coco Chanel was the perfect choice. A maverick designer who revolutionised women’s fashion in the early 20th century, she chose comfort over corsets and in the process completely redefined modern style. Unsurprisingly, her response to Diaghilev’s rather broad brief was characteristically elegant and practical.

Le Train Bleu was a light-hearted one-act ballet set on the French Riviera in the mid 1920s. It satirised the Paris elite who travelled south each summer on the blue train to bask in the Cote d’Azur sun. Rather than design special costumes, Chanel chose to dress the dancers in quintessentially modern-day sports clothes from her own collection – black tank bathing tops, striped wool jerseys, tight-fitting knitted culottes and loose tunic dresses. This decision (and the backdrop by Pablo Picasso) firmly set the ballet in the contemporary world. It also resolutely took fashion out of the couturier’s salon and onto the stage.

While Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes carved out a new path for creative collaboration, the relationship between ballet and fashion have had a much longer association.

In the 17th century Louis XIV set new standards of dress and culture in the French court that were soon emulated by nobles across Europe. An accomplished dancer himself, Louis instinctively knew how to harness the power of theatre, dance and design. When he was still a young man he performed a series of dances for the court in Le Ballet de la Nuit (Night Ballet). For his final piece he appeared in a dramatic costume of golden rays that earned him the moniker, Sun King.

Two centuries on, costume designers were now taking their cue from the popular dress fashions of the day. Delicate puffed sleeves, v-pointed waistlines and bouffant skirts became the signature look for Romantic-era ballets such as Les Sylphides and Giselle. The long bell-shaped tutu, and its later incarnation the ‘powder-puff’, is still used for ballets around the world today.

By the turn of the 20th century, modern dance proponents in America, such as Isadora Duncan and Ruth St Denis, were taking charge of the wardrobe department. Corsets, tutus, tights and ballet shoes were abandoned in favour of bare feet, light tunics and the freedom to move as desired. A revolutionary idea at the time, it continued to inspire designers and choreographers for decades to come, including those associated with Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes,

It is those later decades that are the focus of the NGV’s exhibition Ballet & Fashion. A joint project between the NGV and the Australian Ballet, this exhibition showcases some of the most successful collaborations between Australian and international fashion designers and dance companies over the past 30 years.

From Christian Lacroix’s Moulin Rouge-inspired Can Can costumes which were created for American Ballet Theatre’s production of Gaîté Parisienne (Paris Gaiety) to the surrealist fantasies of Victor & Rolf’s creations for the Nederland Dans Theatre ballet 2 Lips and Dancers and Space, the exhibition shines a light on the connection between fashion and art.

The creative process, which culminates in a ballet production, is an endless source of fascination for the exhibition’s curator of international fashion and textiles, Roger Leong.

“Every creative partnership is unique,” says Leong. “Some designers and choreographers collaborate very closely, almost symbiotically, while others work in complete isolation bringing their creations together at the end. Whatever the case, these partnerships can produce utterly surprising, inventive and beautiful works.”

Merce Cunningham is a case in point. Known for his love of leaving things to chance, Cunningham often separates out the production elements of a ballet – music, choreography, set design, costumes and lighting. So when they are all united in the performance at the end of the process, there is always a degree of uncertainty about how it will work.

Cunningham’s collaboration in 1997 with Rei Kawakubo of the French-Japanese fashion label Commes des Garcons illustrates this perfectly. He knew exactly what he was going to get when he asked Kawakubo to produce costumes for his ballet Scenario. Her brief was to create garments just like those in her 1996 ‘Dress Meets Body, Body Meets Dress’ collection.

The costumes were made from fine stretch fabric with padded protuberances inserted in seemingly arbitrary places on the garment. This not only distorted the dancers’ bodies, but also changed the way they responded to the choreography.

“Cunningham choreographed the dance separately before Kawakubo’s costumes arrived,” Leong says. “He left the dancers to cope with the unexpected consequences of the lumps and bumps in odd places on the costumes.”

The way that costume design can impact on the development of the choreography is a common theme in fashion and ballet partnerships. In Trace, a new work commissioned by the Australian Ballet for their 2010 Bodytorque series, the individual creative processes became completely intertwined.

Alice Topp, dancer and choreographer, worked closely with RMIT fashion graduates, Georgia Lazzaro and Crystal Dunn to create a contemporary ballet that focussed on the interplay of costume and movement. From the outset Todd and the designers used the fabric itself to determine the choreography for Trace.

“The dance developed because we worked out what fabrics weren’t strong, what fabrics were going to tear, what provided more resistance, what had more elasticity, what could stretch,” says Todd, “The fabric dictated all the movement. It created it’s own dance vocabulary.”

This integral connection between movement and fabric is also familiar to Graeme Murphy and Akira Isogawa who have worked on five productions together over 14 years. In their most recent collaboration for the Australian Ballet’s 2011 production of Romeo & Juliet, Akira created a skirt with a long train that Murphy loved so much he changed the choreography for Juliet’s dance specifically to show off the design.

Leong believes this is typical of their creative partnership. “Over the years they have developed a way of communicating and sharing ideas where they no longer need to say all that much to each other after an initial discussion,” he says. “It seems Murphy knows what Akira is thinking, and Akira what Murphy is looking for.” There’s no doubt that together they’ve created some of the most memorable dance productions in recent times.

“There’s a wonderful artistic relationship between Graeme Murphy and Akira – they know how each other thinks,” says Leong. “Just by being in each other’s proximity and looking at what each other is doing, they are somehow communicating visually.”

According to Leong this is atypical. “The partnership is one of the most significant ballet and fashion collaborations anywhere in the world. There are very few designers who have worked on that many productions with one choreographer.”

That is, unless of course we go back to Diaghilev and his troop of designers, artists, musicians, dancers and choreographers who worked with him on multiple productions until his death in 1929.

There are probably good reasons why this kind of enduring creative partnership is relatively rare in the world of fashion and ballet. At the very least it’s a huge undertaking for a designer to clothe an entire company for a full-length narrative ballet.

When Akira first started working with Murphy in the late 1990s, he was dressing around 16 dancers at the Sydney Dance Company. With Romeo & Juliet he designed costumes for 70 dancers which translates into more than 300 items of clothing.

All in all, quite a feat – one that doesn’t leave all that much time for the designer’s normal day job. Which is where fashion and ballet really start to merge – the designs of the runway often influence the costumes of the stage, and the inspiration for costumes design ends up in the high-end boutiques of the West.From Chanel and Kawakubo to Akira and Lacroix, the relationship between the fashion and dance is borne out of a special kind of collaboration that, as Vogue Australia Editor-in-Chief Edwina McCann says “(is) art in motion, given life by the human form”.

A sentiment that Diaghilev would surely agree with if he was still around today.

The Ballet & Fashion exhibition was held at the National Gallery of Victoria from 3 November 2012 until 19 May 2013.


Review: Master at work

Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest work, The Master, seduces and confounds much like the cult that is the subject of his film.

On one level, the film could be simply viewed as a tale about the evolution of a cult in post-war modernist America. However that would ignore the richer and more enigmatic, storyline that looks at the complex relationship between cult leader and follower.

Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) is an ex-serviceman and outcast with profound psychological problems. Sex-obsessed and an alcoholic, he makes a lethal form of moonshine from anything to hand, including paint thinner and darkroom chemicals. Quell drifts aimlessly from one disastrous situation to another until he find finds himself on a glamourous yacht moored somewhere in San Francisco bay.

Enter Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the megalomaniacal and charismatic leader of ‘The Cause’ who immediately takes to Quell and his intoxicating concoctions. Known as ‘The Master’ by a small group of fawning sycophants, Todd instinctively recognises that Quell is the perfect subject on which to test his crackpot theories. And so begins the relentless ‘processing’ using Dodd’s cure-all techniques (similar to those of the late L Ron Hubbard) that force the individual to remember past lives not only here on earth but anywhere in the cosmos.

As the film progresses, the relationship between Dodd and his ‘protégé’ shifts and changes. At once master and follower, friend and torturer, conman and victim, inquisitor and supplicant, Dodd and Quell are inextricably bound together by their demons and desires. Both in pursuit of an elusive ideal, they challenge each other’s preconceptions about themselves. Yet, ultimately Dodd remains in control, abandoning and rejecting Quell as his cult goes international.

Phoenix plays his character with a relentless intensity that outwardly manifests Quell’s dark and twisted interior. His face is gaunt, mouth permanently twisted in a crooked grimace, shoulders hunched, body ready for fight or flight. It is a brilliant performance that is the perfect counterpoint to Hoffman’s expansive pomposity.

Hoffman, who has appeared in five of Anderson’s six feature films (Hard Eight, Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Punch Drunk Love), is no less brilliant. His controlled, nuanced performance perfectly portrays the dangerous and contradictory traits of a textbook cult leader. In one moment he is authoritative, relaxed and charming bestowing his grace on all within his orbit. In another he is cruel and dangerous, exploding in red-faced fury at anyone who dares to question his doctrine.

The Master, like PT Anderson’s other films, is beautifully executed: long lingering shots, precise framing, memorable music by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood and extraordinary attention to detail. The latter places this film firmly in the story’s era recalling fine directors like Douglas Sirk (Imitation of Life, 1959) and Nicholas Ray (Rebel Without A Cause, 1955).

While the central narrative of The Master is clear, this long film contains much that defies understanding. But perhaps that is just what Anderson intended. He offers us a series of impressions that may or may not give us insight into the phenomenon of cults and the psychology of the people who are drawn to them. We can essentially make of it what we will. Whatever Anderson’s intention, this film is yet another masterpiece from a masterful director.

Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Cast: Amy Adams, Joaquin Phoenix, Laura Dern, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Price Carson MA 15+, 143 mins

Note: This review was first published in November 2012.

Window on the past: recipes books

I do love a good recipe book. That’s probably why I have quite a few – several bookshelves worth in fact.

They’re not all modern tomes with luscious images and effortless recipes designed to impress. Most date from the 80s and 90s. Some are seminal publications from which so many modern recipes emanate (such as Claudia Roden‘s Middle Eastern FoodMarcella Hazan‘s Classic Italian Cook Book or Elizabeth David‘s French Provincial Cooking). A few were published in the early-to-mid 20th century and offer fascinating insights to the culinary practices, social mores and attitudes that have long disappeared. The cover art and illustrations are pretty special too.

Take the Wonderful World of Breakfast written for a European and American audience by Sue Tribus in 1964. Published decades before breakfast became a la mode, this book has hundreds of recipes including a whole chapter dedicated to the ‘Hair of the Dog’ which, as you probably guessed, features lots of alcohol-saturated, hangover-defying dishes. There’s some good advice here too for the ‘homemaker’ who may not always have the time or money for nice tablecloths and flowers. If this is the case, ‘a sparkling clean table dressed up with gay meats will make a lot of difference’.

Cookbook cover

The Party Givers’ Book by Mary Gallati is ‘the most exhaustive aid to party giving ever collected into one volume’. Published in 1959, it covers everything you would possibly need to know about throwing every conceivable type of party. There are invitation templates, tips for making conversation, party games, wardrobe advice, and of course suggested menus and recipes. Particular attention is given to appropriate greetings, especially if you’re sitting down:

‘…men should get to their feet when women enter the room or leave it, and should not remain seated if a woman is standing unless she tells him not to bother to get up. When a man comes into a room, or when a woman-guest is introduced to a man, she does not need to rise to her feet unless he is a good deal older than she. She does need to rise to speak to another woman who is a good deal older…’

And that is only the beginning. You could get yourself into a terrible state by answering ‘very well’ in response to ‘how do you do’, speaking directly to royalty, or failing to address the President as ‘Sir’ in a long personal talk!

Party givers cookbook

One of my favourites is the Australian Cookery of Today which was produced by Murdoch’s Melbourne-based Sun News-Pictorial in the late 1930s or early 40s. Prudence, whoever she may be, dedicates the book to ‘every Australian housewife’ and goes on to say it’s ‘designed to help in a practical way with those home-making problems which are peculiarly hers’.

The book includes all kinds of advice about setting up a modern kitchen, nutrition, cuts of meat, cooking methods, food failures, table settings and the precise art of carving. Almost half of its 512 pages are devoted to sweets, puddings, biscuits and cakes, while a scant 25 are allocated to vegetables. There are several recipes for Mock Duck which can apparently be made from all manner of ingredients including steak or sheep’s heart or mutton, but never of duck.

The book also delicately addresses the merits of a slimming diet (for women) by counting calories, but cautions that ‘many ills result from too drastic measures taken to achieve the desired end’. Perhaps there are some things that really never do change.

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A song for the Vagabond

‘It’s time to move on, time to get going
What lies ahead, I have no way of knowing’ – Tom Petty

“Wherever the vagabond goes, he is a stranger: he can never be ‘the native’, ‘the settled one’, one with ‘roots in the soil’…” –  Zygmunt Bauman

Signs of the times #3

Carlton cemetary poem

This poem is affixed with wire to the rusty old iron fence that encloses the Carlton Cemetery. It is made from Dymo plastic labels which have been carefully stuck to a piece of metal sheeting.

The poignant poem by Mary Elizabeth Frye is, I discovered with a quick Google search, worthy of its own Wikipedia entry. It has been recited at funerals for over 60 years, has been translated into multiple languages, and has been the inspiration for works by numerous musicians.

Who put it on the fence and why can only be surmised. Perhaps it was a tribute to a loved one; a way of acknowledging the inevitable; a general comment on grief and loss; a personal statement about death.

Whatever the reason, the person who created this sign took care in its preparation. They intended for it to last. The materials – plastic and metal – will not easily decay and the wire fixings will not be easily untethered.

If you haven’t read it before, here it is:

Do not stand at my grave and weep,
I am not there; I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow,
I am the diamond glints on snow,
I am the sunlight on ripened grain,
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you awaken in the morning’s hush
I am the swift uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circled flight.
I am the soft stars that shine at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry,
I am not there; I did not die.

Signs of the times #2

Bear grylls

I love it when you come across someone’s quirky sense of humour just by chance. I’ve walked or driven past this street numerous times over the last 13 years, and never once did I make the Man vs Wild connection.

Popular culture, reality TV, global exploration, hardcore survival and grassroots comedy all in one clever gesture on a quiet street in Brunswick. Just for the fun of it.