When the Costume Comes First: Dancers and Choreographers on Working with Wearable Art

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Costumes create a mood, set a scene, and transform performers into anything from a regal swan to a clumsy donkey. Some costumes do even more and take a leading role in the actual creation of the choreography. The most famous example may be the enveloping tube of stretch fabric designed and first worn by Martha Graham in Lamentation in 1930. The vast red cape originally designed by painter Georges Rouault for the Siren in Prodigal Son, which Balanchine choreographed in 1929, is equally central to that ballet. Clothes may no longer make the woman, as the old saying goes, but they can still make the dance.

Katherine Crockett, who has performed Lamentation with the Graham Company since 1995, thinks of the tube as a second skin. "You begin to feel that the tube is your flesh," she says, "and that you're trying to get out of it as relief from your pain. That effort creates internal tension. It's almost as if you are in a womb. From the very first rocking movement, you have to keep the fabric taut to create sculptural lines. Martha's concept was revolutionary, taking the personal and making it universal. Each dancer brings to it a piece of her own soul."

The women's costumes designed by Joke Visser in the beautiful Petite Mort, choreographed by Jiri Kylian for the Nederlands Dans Theater in 1991, are anything but a second skin. Rather the six female dancers, clothed in sheer leotards and corsets, hold the stiff bodices and full skirts representing formal, black, 18th-century dresses in front of their bodies. They are hung on a framework with rollers so they can be moved around the stage. As the dance deals humorously and seriously with sexuality, aggression, and tenderness, they serve as potent metaphors for repression.


Tiffany Hedman performed the work with the Boston Ballet as part of the company's tribute to Kylian last winter. With one section completely choreographed around the costume, she had to be conscious every minute where her body was in relation to it. "For the most part," she says, "we do port de bras behind them, occasionally pushing them aside. It's as if we are ambivalent about covering ourselves up. Then finally, we push them aside for good and break free--almost as if they're partners we want to get rid of."

The two dancers in choreographer David Parker's hilarious Slapstuck, which won the 2002 Bessie Award for design, literally can't get rid of one another because of their costumes. Performed by Parker and Jeffrey Kazin, wearing neck-to-toe Velcro suits, the dance dramatizes the consequences of being stuck on one another. With a percussive score consisting of the sound of Velcro ripping apart and rhythms created by slapping their own bodies, they connect in a multitude of ways, becoming variously stuck and unstuck.

At one point, Kazin runs and jumps onto Parker and sticks there, while another time he hangs across Parker's back until Parker unzips his jacket and dumps him on the floor. Though funny, the dance suggests the vicissitudes of relationships, particularly the need for both intimacy and independence.

Parker arrived at Velcro in his search for unusual ways to generate sound. In the process, he considered bare feet, percussive pointe work, and bubble wrap. Velcro proved efficient because it's stiff, flexible, and noisy. He wanted the suits to look somewhat like the one worn by the robot in TV's Lost in Space. Occasionally, things haven't worked out as planned, with a zipper breaking more than once. "Eventually," Parker says, "we'll have to stop doing it because the Velcro is wearing out, and it's getting dangerous. …