7pm on a Thursday evening, the foyer of dance’s preeminent venue in Clerkenwell looks and feels like a “cheaper version of Chelsea”, according to one show-goer. I can only assume she was referring to the chocolate box variety of the audience gathered in lips-smacking anticipation for Hussein Chalayan’s directorial debut ‘Gravity Fatigue’ at Sadler’s Wells Theatre: you’ve got the moneyed and matured upper echelons of the Islington borough mingling by the bar, wine-in-hand dance critics huddled in the corner, broke art students from Central Saint Martins smoking fags by the neon-lit entrance and a solid smattering of fashion professionals looking stylish yet out of place. I managed to talk to a few of them before show time, and here, choice bits of the conversations have been summarised and edited for their anonymity.
“If Chalayan wants to be taken seriously by the dance world, this is definitely the stage to do it.”
Professional working in fashion PR: “I think the dance world has not been welcoming. They feel the need to alienate fashion because they don’t think it’s as serious as dance. But it’s a great opportunity for him and I’m sure other designers would love the time and opportunity to do something like this. It would be interesting to see someone like Gareth Pugh take his fashion films to the stage.”
Freelance dance critic: “His fashion shows in the past looked interesting, but the clothes seemed uncomfortable and weren’t easy to move in. His coffee table skirt reminded me of the stiffness of Oskar Schlemmer’s Triadisches Ballett, but if he wants to be taken seriously by the dance world, this is definitely the stage to do it. All four dates are nearly sold-out and maybe that’s what matters.”
MA Fashion Media Practice and Criticism student at London College of Fashion: “I was extremely interested to see the show because my field of study looks at the collaboration between fashion and art. His past shows challenged stereotypes of class, gender and body in fashion. I have high expectations for the show, at least in terms of originality of his creations.”
“Cultural identity, religion and gender – Chalayan promised these themes and here, it was hauntingly palpable.”
Rehearsed in Central Saint Martins’ Platform Theatre for three weeks, the production comprised 18 dance sketches performed in rapid succession over 90 minutes. Some were short and unripe in their duration and concept. Case in point: ‘Delayed Presence’ saw three dancers retrieve three-dimensional life-sized paper dresses from a two-dimensional pattern draft. The dresses were marked like an airmail envelope; the leftover stencil of the set resembled windows of a commercial jet; and the act’s soundtrack was the loud blast of a plane taking off. Once the dresses were worn and taken off, the drama of it all came to a disappointing end. The insinuation here might have been about migration or the disposability of clothing in a globalised economy, but its static nature left the audience unfulfilled and hungry for more. In ‘Nude Catwalk’, Chalayan explored language and identity when he parodied the fashion show format adopted in Paris couture salons in the 19th Century. While a robotic voiceover sumptuously described abstract clothing in different tongues (“1950s seen through the eyes of the artist”), dancers ironically strutted in circles in black stilettoes and white sheets over their faces and bodies to substandard effect.
Judging by the “oohs-and-ahhs” from the audience, two sketches were more than successful. ‘Secret Gliders’ began with dancers clad in casual hoodies and sportswear skidding and throwing themselves merrily onto a black ball pit. Things got dark quickly when two burka-clad women joined in on the fun, evoking Chalayan’s famous Spring/Summer 1998 ‘Between’ show. The women seemed to be calling out to the men, wanting to be flung, and they were, across the lengths of the stage. Cultural identity, religion and gender – Chalayan promised these themes and here, it was hauntingly palpable. ‘Gravity Fatigue’ opened with all 13 dancers jumping in synchrony on the stage to create the loud rhythmic thumping of a tribal drum. When one fell backward in a shocking headfirst manner and rebounded back into position, some parts of stage’s surface was revealed to be made of a trampoline-like material that cushioned the crashes while others remained rock solid. The piece ended with a rapturous applause when a dancer dove and broke the surface to reveal a pool of water underneath. Here, Chalayan’s clothing took a backseat to choreography of Damien Jalet, who previously co-directed Bolero with performance artist Marina Abramovic for the Paris Opera Ballet with costumes by Riccardo Tisci of Givenchy in 2013.
“Did they use magnets, robots or puppet strings?”
When the lights illuminated and the red velvet curtains descended, I caught up with a couple of BA students at Central Saint Martins, who had plenty to say:
BA Criticism, Communication and Curation student: “I felt the clothes became limits to the movements. The dancers’ bodies were confined and the whole production seemed more like a development of his research for fashion rather than a mature dance performance.”
BA Fashion Design and Marketing graduate: “I really enjoyed Hussein Chalayan’s Gravity Fatigue. I thought the short dance pieces worked well and spent a lot of time afterwards trying to figure out how the dancers and their clothing preformed in particular ways. Did they use magnets, robots or puppet strings? I don’t think the dancing or clothing would have been so interesting without the other. It made an ideal partnership that combined movement, colour, shape and sound. At one point, as the dancers were stamping, spinning and bouncing their bodies off the floor, I was so mesmerised in a trance that I practically fell asleep!”
“Frustratingly episodic” in the Financial Times, “daft but visually arresting” in the Telegraph and “too skittish to really work” in the Evening Standard – there were similar scathing reviews by dance critics across most newspapers in the days following the show. They were right to a certain extent. The stop-start sequences teased with titillating ideas, but when they were not fleshed out, they were merely appetisers that left the audience in the lurch and hungry for more. While the production could have been a meatier offering with fewer but fully formed pieces, it was inevitable that it would come under scrutiny. After all, fashion has transcended the esoteric bubble and seeped into mainstream culture and entertainment in recent years so it would be understandable that dance, one could argue sits higher in the hierarchy of the arts, would deem undeserving an endeavour by a fashion designer, even one as concept and performance driven as Chalayan.
On the other hand, there were positive appraisals from perspectives within fashion. Students and professionals I spoke to felt that the performance demonstrated the creative possibilities of collaborative projects within the arts. With an unforgiving industry that demands six collections a year at a rate of one every six weeks, it was a triumphant feat of time management for Chalayan to even consider such a project outside of his relentless workload this year – he opened a new store in London’s Mayfair district in September and presented a well-received collection of dissolving dresses in October in Paris.
All issues considered, everyone I spoke to agreed on one thing; Chalayan’s cross-pollination across fashion and dance was a win-win all around, a new money and audience for dance and Sadler’s Wells Theatre as well as a novel appreciation of fashion and the possibilities of clothing for an ailing industry.
Words by Aravin Sandran
Images courtesy of Sadler’s Wells