There have been many collaborations between choreographers and fashion designers but Gravity Fatigue must be the first time the dance has been led by the designer rather than the choreographer. Not any designer would even imagine such an undertaking, but Hussein Chalayan – a conceptual supremo who has worked with choreographers before (Michael Clark, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui), and whose own work sashays freely between fashion, art and performance – is just not any designer. His choreographer, Damien Jalet – who has worked both independently and collaboratively (most notably with Cherkaoui) – is no stranger to arty fashion either, and once even made a dance film for Paris Menswear Week.
there’s no telling if a great idea – or indeed great people – will produce a great piece
It’s a great idea, and the brokering of unusual creative partnerships is something that that comissioning theatre Sadler’s Wells has become known for, especially if the non-dance artist comes with big-name recognition (it does wonders for press and publicity). Of course, there’s no telling if a great idea – or indeed great people – will produce a great piece. So how did Gravity Fatigue turn out?
As stimulating, as stylish, as ephemeral and as forgettable as fashion itself. Full of theatrical imagery, curiously lacking in theatre. Take, for example, a scene with the stage bisected by a wall, demarcating two dressing rooms. On one side, a woman in white; on the other, a man in black. They can’t see each other, yet as they disrobe they mirror each other’s moves exactly. The set-up is terrific: they look great, they act oh-so-natural, and the scene is both stylised and spooky, each performer acting as the other’s uncanny double. But nothing is followed through, and it’s over in minutes.
In place of development, the piece scrolls through 18 short, self-contained scenes, like a shuffled playlist. All are visually arresting, many are visually thrilling. Some are paper-thin, such as the one with paper dressmakers’ patterns that unfold into wearable dresses before they float up and away, like the lightest of aerogrammes. There are great optical illusions: the women whose trailing gowns seem to move independently over the floor, as if being tugged by invisible mice; the creepy effect of a wire moving inside a woman’s bodice like some unnameable inner parasite (think Alien reimagined for Vogue).
The women in full black burqas having a ball in a playpit full of bouncy balls are no more explored, either as characters or images, than the anonymous women cloaked in sheets, their needle-sharp stilettos their sole distinguishing feature. My favourites were a scene with pairs of dancers caught within stretchy costumes, so that every lean and tug was rendered directly in the rubber like an exact visualisation of emotional tension; and a set with dervish dancers whirring like propellers as their costumes encased them in drab businesslike coats or unfurled into sequinned petals as they span.
There are great ideas in Gravity Fatigue, but they are all incipient, no sooner presented than discarded. The piece wears its theatricality on its sleeve, and each scene makes the last feel so five-minutes-ago. Even without the overload of musical disco-tech, this is wearing. Fatigue is an apt word, but gravity – as in force, as in gravitas? Not so much.
At the Linbury Theatre, the Royal New Zealand Ballet made a welcome visit with a programme of four works. London-based choreographer Javier de Frutos already has a certain notoriety in the UK for various naughtinesses of varying seriousness – flagrant nudity, blasphemies and suchlike – which blind too many people to the quality of his craftsmanship. Not the RNZB, who have commissioned their third piece from him. Anatomy of a Passing Cloud is set to a collage of Pacific sounds from sweet hula hymns to island drums and indigenous speech, and is clothed in gorgeous floral prints. In the group composition you feel both the ritual elements – the format of circle, partnering, solos – and the personal ones: the jostle and conviviality, the showing-off and the free-wheeling pleasure. The physicality of both feeling and form are a real pleasure.
the blind brutality of mobs, the desperation of force and the force of desperation
Less successful are two first-world-war ballets. Andrew Simmons’ Dear Horizon is moon-eyed with cliché – doomed young men in battle, while mourning women becoming angels of fate, or remembrance, or whatever. We see horrific images of war and death broadcast every day, and the portrayal of war in ballet in theatre enclaves inevitably, I think, trivialises it subject. In taking an abstract approach, Neil Ieremia’s short Passchendaele works much better. Rather than portray war, it invokes warlike qualities: the blind brutality of mobs, the desperation of force and the force of desperation; the disorder, the arbitrariness.
The programme ends with Selon désir by Greek choreographer Andonis Foniadakis, an empurpled outpouring of frenzied energies, swollen with back-arching ecstasies, doubled-over agonies and contorted emotions, accompanied by over-amplified versions of Bach’s St Matthew and St John’s Passions that come across like soundtracks for The Omen. Sometimes you like a piece not because it’s good, but because it’s wrong.