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Where the Body Can Dance with the Soul

The latest exhibition at the Fashion Institute of Technology, “Dance & Fashion,” really shouldn’t work. As an organizing principle, that title is as broad as it can be. Two paragraphs of wall text at the show’s entrance narrow the scope, but not much. “This exhibition explores the synergy between dance and fashion by tracing the vectors of inspiration and collaboration,” writes curator Valerie Steele. “The focus is on performance dance, such as ballet and modern dance, not social dance, such as the waltz.” There are enough themes in this show to suggest any number of more concentrated shows that might go deeper. (Tulle, for instance: From tutus to ball gowns this ethereal netting is the stuff that dreams are made on—it could be a show in itself.) In terms of structure, let’s just say that “Dance & Fashion” is loosely choreographed: It bounces back and forth between centuries, jumping from one “vector” to another. Never mind. “Dance & Fashion” has energy. Push through the gallery’s double doors and it’s like walking into Ali Baba’s cave, except that the gems here are storied costumes from ballets now lost, beloved classics still in repertory, and inventive experiments as recent as last year.

The show is divided into four sections, each arranged along a wall of the gallery. The first grouping, just inside the entrance, is certainly the most glamorous. Here resides the mid-19th-century silhouette—tight bodice like a V, full skirt like a bell—that was the template for the Romantic tutus of “La Sylphide” and “Giselle.” Pride of place belongs to a costume from 1836, pale pink satin with bands of black lace, that was worn by the ballerina Fanny Elssler. But for its shorter length, which both frees and reveals the dancer’s feet and ankles, how similar it is to the pink period gown of 1845 that stands nearby. A century later, Romantic tutus would deploy this same silhouette but in a postwar palette of smoky jewel tones. Intimations of destiny and doom play in Christian Berard’s costume for Fate, a role in George Balanchine’s “Cotillon” (1932), and in Barbara Karinska’s tutu for the Balanchine/Ravel “La Valse” (1951). Berard’s surrealism influenced the peerless Karinska, as did the cut and construction of Christian Dior’s “New Look” of 1947. Karinska’s hauntingly lambent sense of color, however, was all her own. One wishes that the mannequin costumed for “La Valse” could have been positioned (as happens in the ballet) with tulle skirts tossed upward, flashing the under-layers of red, orange, purple and pink. “We are dancing on the edge of a volcano,” Ravel wrote of his music. Karinska put that volcano in the skirts.

Ballet in the 20th century fills most of the gallery’s long east wall, which then transitions to costumes from that other classical form, redolent of polka-dots and flounces, flamenco. The expected—Orientalist costumes for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes placed with homages by Yves Saint Laurent and Christian Lacroix—mixes with the unexpected: the simple practice-clothes of Balanchine’s “The Four Temperaments” (1946). It was a signal moment, in 1951, when the wonky surrealist costumes of that dance were junked and it became a “leotard ballet”—black leotards and pink tights on the women, white T-shirts and black tights on the men. Not surprisingly, given Balanchine’s perfect pitch, this was the year that saw Marlon Brando and his white T-shirt sear the screen in “A Streetcar Named Desire.”

Dress: formal dresses online

At the far end of the gallery, ballet costumes by fashion names well known (Jean Paul Gaultier, Stella McCartney, Valentino) and rarefied (Rodarte, Ralph Rucci, Riccardo Tisci) present an array of designs that tweak, tease and taunt the traditional paradigms of tutu, leotard and unitard. There’s cheek: a flying-saucer tutu by Isaac Mizrahi for the ballet “Gong” (2001). And science fiction: Iris van Herpen’s black PVC plastic, Brutalist-Medievalist anti-tutu for the 2013 ballet “Neverwhere.” And deconstruction: Tara Subkoff’s bra and underpants-tutu for 2011’s “Underland.” And, inevitably, fetish: bondage footwear by Christian Louboutin and Noritaka Tatehana look like pointe shoes on steroids. The most fascinating shoe in the show is actually not a pointe but a slipper, and it was worn by Serge Lifar in Balanchine’s first masterpiece, “Apollon Musagete” (1928). Today, Apollo wears slippers of white leather, but this shoe, cracked and brackish, with flecks of gold and ribbons of tarnished bullion, evokes a young god with glittering feet.

The long west wall begins barefoot, with dresses recalling the veils of Isadora Duncan and the dawn of modern dance. Then comes Martha Graham, who was a genius not only in her choreography but in her costuming, which she cut and sewed herself. In fact, both she and Coco Chanel, at about the same time but with different inflections, wrought statements of liberation out of lowly, stretchy, knit jersey. The tube of plum-colored jersey that encases Graham’s masterful 1930 solo of mourning, “Lamentation,” speaks to the concrete poetry of her vision and accents the earthy torque and gravity of her style—it’s second skin and sarcophagus. Next to “Lamentation,” in a bold stroke, the curator has placed more recent pieces of stretch and distortion: Rei Kawakubo’s controversial “bump” costumes for “Scenario,” Merce Cunningham’s dance of 1997. Bulbous padded inserts in strange places deform the dancers’ bodies, but as Cunningham said, the silhouettes reminded him of “a man in a raincoat and a backpack [and] a woman in shorts with a baby on her side . . . shapes we see everyday.”

The show doesn’t include examples of Giselle’s traditional long white tutu or Odette’s short one. A white ballgown of 1860, positioned near the entrance and swathed in white tulle as in mist, seems to stand in for the bridal, soulful and spectral aspects of ballet’s wilis, swans and sylphs. And then there is the white costume that Graham made for her role in 1931’s “Primitive Mysteries”—the Virgin—which made her look like an infanta in a moonbeam and may be the most surprising piece in the show. Onstage this long dress of white organza floats and hovers, as if fashioned from origami folds. Up close one sees that the dress actually has a number of seams and deep godets, all radially converging at the heart. These days the virgin has become a Judd Apatow joke—at best pitied, at worst mocked—but she used to be no joke. Self-possession is power. The best costumes, like the best clothes, are places where the body can dance with the soul.

Also read: http://www.kissydressinau.com/formal-dresses-sydney

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