Fashion and the ballet have danced an elegant pas de deux for decades. In 1924, Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel costumed Le Train Bleu for choreographer Bronislava Nijinska (sister of Nijinsky) for Diaghilev’s company, reflecting Darius Milhaud’s frisky score and Pablo Picasso’s modernist sets with her thoroughly up-to-the-minute swimming costumes and tennis dresses.
In Powell and Pressburger’s hallucinogenic 1948 movie adaptation of The Red Shoes, meanwhile, the magnificent Moira Shearer was magnificently costumed by Jacques Fath for her offstage scenes (they even filmed at an alfresco fashion show in the garden of Fath’s Paris couture house), whilst fellow ballerina Ludmilla Tchérina’s wasp waist was emphasized by the designs of the up-and-coming house of Marie-Louise Carven. Margot Fonteyn, Britain’s Primack prima ballerina assoluta, was a fashion plate for decades, dressing with Christian Dior from his debut New Look collection, and subsequently with his protégé, Yves Saint Laurent. In 1988, Christian Lacroix produced the giddily playful costumes for an American Ballet Theater revival of Massine’s 1938 Ga?té Parisienne, set to music by Offenbach, and designed Balanchine’s Jewels for the Paris Opera Ballet in 2000. In 2016, Karl Lagerfeld designed a graphic black-and-white Viennese Secessionist take on Balanchine’s Brahms-Sch?nberg Quartet, and Lacroix’s bewitching Pre-Raphaelite costume and set designs for Balanchine’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream for the Paris Opera Ballet last year were the sensation of the season.
It was the initiative of New York City Ballet’s Sarah Jessica Parker, the vice chair of NYCB’s board, to link fashion and dance in the mixed choreographic programs for the company’s annual Fall Gala. These collaborations began in 2011 when Stella McCartney designed Oceanic “tattoo” costumes for Peter Martins’s ballet Ocean’s Kingdom, with music composed by her father. The following year, Valentino designed the frothy tulle ball gowns and stiff, ruff-like tutus for Peter Martins’s aptly named 2012 Bal de Couture. Since then designers including Sarah Burton, Thom Browne, Dries Van Noten, Iris van Herpen, Peter Copping, Tsumori Chisato, Jason Wu, Prabal Gurung, Rosie Assoulin, Marta Marques and Paulo Almeida (of Marques’Almeida), Mary Katrantzou, and Narciso Rodriguez have all worked with NYCB dancers and choreographers on various pieces. Some collaborations, it must be said, have been more successful than others: Dancers require much from the clothes they wear, not least the ability to move with unhampered fluidity.
An excitingly varied evening at New York City Ballet this week revealed more of these fashion and dance marriages in movement. Jonathan Saunders’s kinetic costumes for Troy Schumacher’s The Wind Still Brings, for instance, enhanced the drama of the choreographic formations, and Virgil Abloh’s more traditional costumes reflected 18-year-old (that’s right) Gianna Reisen’s more conventional Composer’s Holiday.
Justin Peck, however, chose to design his own costumes for his dynamic and wondrous Year of the Rabbit, which premiered in 2012. Surprisingly, they do nothing for either the dancers or the dance. I’m afraid I spent much of the performance imagining Peck’s thrilling dance formations (beautifully performed by Ashley Bouder, Jared Angle, Teresa Reichen, Anthony Huxley, Indiana Woodward, and Taylor Stanley) in equally thrilling designs.
The strange Gothic malevolence of Angelin Preljocaj’s Spectral Evidence (premiered in 2013), inspired by the witches of Salem and set to John Cage’s unsettling word-and-music experiments, however, found its perfect match in the disquieting costumes of Olivier Theyskens. The ballet rivetingly showcased Tiler Peck, and the expressive Amar Ramasar—along with Theysken’s puritanical men’s ensembles and the pale chiffon dresses of the ballerinas, slashed with glistening, bloodred vinyl—united dance and design in happy harmony.