When ballerina Sylvie Guillem steps on to the Sadler’s Wells stage for Russell Maliphant’s Eonnagata this June, she will not be wearing the traditional froufrou tutu but something altogether more progressive: a Japanese-inspired kimono designed by the late fashion designer Alexander McQueen.
Last year’s centenary of the first Ballets Russes opera and ballet performances in Paris seems to have inspired both designers and choreographers, leading to a new fusion of fashion and dance. As well as the McQueen and Maliphant collaboration, Miuccia Prada designed future-gothic costumes for Attila at New York’s Metropolitan Opera in February; British choreographer Christopher Wheeldon collaborated with Narciso Rodriguez and Michelle Obama’s favourite designer Isabel Toledo on his most recent ballets; Valentino even came out of retirement to make ballet costumes for the Vienna Philharmonic’s new year’s day concert; and mezzo-soprano Marianne Cornetti dutifully tottered around on shoe designer Rupert Sanderson’s platform “slave” sandals for Aida at the Royal Opera House earlier this month.
The link between dance and fashion can also be more subtle: luxury brand Hermès finances arts projects with a special nod towards dance via its Fondation d’entreprise Hermès; the foundation recently helped choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui create the new piece titled Babel, along with artist Antony Gormley. “Dance is such a dynamic field today,” says the foundation’s director, Catherine Tsekenis.
Alistair Spalding, artistic director and chief executive of Sadler’s Wells, meanwhile, encourages a dialogue between fashion and the arts, “using money from the Jerwood Foundation to host dinners throughout the year which act a bit like a salon, bringing together artists, musicians and designers from fields beyond dance.” Director Daniel Kramer, choreographer Frauke Requardt, and poet James Fenton met at a Jerwood dinner and then collaborated on the recent Pictures at an Exhibition seen in April at Sadler’s Wells.
But what does a fashion designer bring? “Well, of course there is the name,” says Russell Maliphant, who concedes the costumes in Eonnagata will now become a tribute to McQueen. “You can’t work with someone as talented and famous as Alexander McQueen, without realising that a part of the audience will come to the show just to see what he did.”
A new audience isn’t the only benefit, however. “McQueen’s knowledge of line, shape and form connected all the different elements of the work,” says Maliphant. But what thrilled him even more was the designer’s technical skill: “He had this ability to complement any body shape. I’ll never forget the experience of him cutting and forming costumes on us directly, making something take shape out of a roll of fabric.”
There are, however, challenges for anyone who is not overtly experienced in the field. ‘‘The difference between costumes and designing a fashion collection is the way the work is meant to be seen,” says Jane Pritchard, the curator of dance at the Victoria & Albert museum who is currently putting together a Ballets Russes retrospective that will open in September. “A dance costume needs to be tough because of all the wear and tear of performing,” she says. It also has to move easily and be lightweight, while the fabric has to look good under bright, artificial lights. And, it has to work its magic even from the back of the stalls.
For Stevie Stewart, one half of the team behind the edgy 1980s fashion label Bodymap, who dresses Michael Clark’s shaven-headed dancers in hand-dyed Lycra catsuits for his new piece come, been and gone at the Barbican, the challenge is, rather, the prodigious quantity of dancers’ sweat.
“Costumes have to be lined with under fabrics to absorb all the moisture,” she says. But don’t modern wicking fabrics make sweat a concern of the past? “I use the same nylon satin Lycra in this work as I first used with [performance artist] Leigh Bowery 25 years ago,” says Stewart with a giggle. “There’s no modern fabric to beat how good it looks.”
Perhaps the biggest thrill of such collaborations is felt by the dancers themselves. Next week, during the Bath International Music Festival, English National Ballet’s Elena Glurdjidze will dance her solo from The Dying Swan wearing a feathered tutu made for her by Chanel. “It is like my whole body is wrapped in feathers,” she says, “and its colour is like a continuation of my skin, not white but creamy pink.” After seeing her dance in it for the first time, she says, Karl Lagerfeld leapt from his seat, his cool façade slipping as he cried out “It fits!” and clapped his hands together frantically.
‘Eonnagata’, Sadler’s Wells, London, July 28-31, www.sadlerswells.com; ‘come, been and gone’, Barbican, London, June 312, www.barbican.org.uk; English National Ballet, Bath International Music Festival, June 5, www.bathmusicfest.org.uk; ‘Diaghilev and the Golden Age of the Ballets Russes’, Sept 25-Jan 9, V&A, London, www.vam.ac.uk