c.2013 New York Times News Service

c.2013 New York Times News Service

NEW YORK — The New York City Ballet soloist Georgina Pazcoguin hooked her leg around Olivier Theyskens’ arm as he sliced off a piece of her flesh-colored unitard.

“Just another Friday,” she announced coolly while balancing on one foot as Theyskens, the Belgian fashion designer, snipped fabric away from her thigh. “All in the name of fashion.”

At least the second part was true: Next Thursday, City Ballet will host an opening-night gala of premieres at the David H. Koch Theater in which choreography isn’t the only star. In conjunction with Fashion Week at Lincoln Center, the company — driven by actress and board member Sarah Jessica Parker — has paired three designers with three choreographers. Along with Theyskens, who is working with Angelin Preljocaj, the collaborators include Prabal Gurung with Justin Peck and Iris van Herpen with Benjamin Millepied.

For Parker, the goal behind combining both worlds is obvious yet necessary: finding a new ballet audience.

“If it’s the candy — and I don’t mean to be diminishing to fashion in any way — but if it’s the thing that they can recognize the taste of in their mouth first, that’s OK,” she said in a telephone interview. “That is our hope: that the nights of the gala bring in a future audience.”

Parker is also aware of how such an opportunity could transform the creativity of a designer.

“When I think about Prabal taking this on, I think about what it means for him as an artist,” she said. “What ballet gives him is an important developmental moment.”

The merging of Fashion Week and City Ballet’s fall season is more than mere coincidence; it underscores a long and mutually beneficial relationship.

Ever since Coco Chanel created sportswear for “Le Train Bleu” in 1924 for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, renowned designers — including Yves Saint Laurent, Oscar de la Renta, Halston, Isaac Mizrahi, Norma Kamali, Christian Lacroix and Rodarte — have been drawn to dance.

Movement adds another dimension to their garments. Last fall, Valentino was the featured designer at City Ballet, creating costumes for a work choreographed by Peter Martins; it was seen as offering little in artistic achievement on either end, but the gala did raise $3 million. This year, the designers for the works, still untitled, are well regarded but on the younger side. (Millepied chose van Herpen; Parker selected the other two.)

“I thought a lot about designers that are influential and at a very exciting time in their careers and are in the midst of really making it clear to us who they are,” Parker said.

Gurung was energized by Peck’s choice of music by Lukas Foss.

“It has a tremendous amount of surprises,” Gurung said after a fitting at City Ballet’s costume shop. “I wanted to make sure the clothes had that, too: the highs and the lows. How do I transform that, keeping in mind that these have to be in action?”

For the women, he has created sleek, short dresses in white, black and red.

“I wanted to create something really beautiful that moves and flows, but is all captured in a harness,” he explained. “There is a juxtaposition of tough and soft.”

He is still toying with the idea of adding feathers to a section of the skirt, though Peck isn’t sold on their practicality. The demanding choreography, which he described as an “eight-minute sprint for five dancers,” could send plumes flying. But Gurung’s dress did alter Peck’s vision for his ballet.

“I was like, we’ve got to have one more female in the cast,” Peck explained, “because I loved his designs.”

Yet designing for dance can be fraught. For Marc Happel, City Ballet’s director of costumes, the two worlds mesh best when designers are willing to collaborate and to use fabrics that allow a costume to endure.

“They want it to look fabulous at the gala,” he said. “I need it to look fabulous a year from now. It’s on a dancer, and they’re moving like athletes, and it’s going to be soaking with sweat.”

Partnering can wreak even more havoc.

“They’ve got a model walking down a runway,” Happel said. “Who runs up to her and grabs her waist and throws her in the air?”

If Gurung’s design is the most street-friendly — the dresses could travel from the stage to a bar without a hitch — Theyskens’ are the most theatrical. His collaborator, Preljocaj, is basing his ballet loosely on the Salem witch trials to explore notions of justice. In it, the women will wear unitards embellished with red silicone shapes. To Theyskens, the shapes are like omens.

“It’s on their back, so they don’t really see it,” he said in an interview at the costume shop. “It’s something that people pointed at when they turned their back. I was very into that. I made them complementary birthmarks. Altogether, they form a body.”

Yet the most otherworldly designs will appear in Millepied’s ballet, courtesy of van Herpen, an avant-garde Dutch designer. (Björk is a fan.) The costumes feature a black unitard for the men and a strapless dress for the women with a skirt that protrudes about four inches on either hip. Both have hundreds of pieces of plastic that are sewn together to resemble the scaled armor of an armadillo.


Van Herpen has also created a boot that will be sewn over the point shoe; when a dancer stands on full point, the shape accentuates the roundedness of the front ankle and the curve of the calf in the back.

“It creates an incredibly beautiful S shape that comes down to a point,” Happel said. In an email, Millepied concurred: “Only onstage will we know whether it really works, like all costumes. But so far, in the studio, it’s pretty stunning.”

For van Herpen, ballet is about controlling a body in the most extreme way.

“The designs are all built up from little overlapping layers, and because they’re small, they all catch the light differently,” she said in a telephone interview from Amsterdam.


She is grateful that Happel, an unflappable presence amid the whir of sewing machines, took on the project; she knows that bringing her designs to life isn’t easy.

“Another person could have said, ‘Well, do it yourself,’” she said with a laugh.

But Happel is happy to do what it takes to keep the marriage of fashion and dance going at City Ballet.

“It’s good for us,” he said. “The designers love it. And it’s just very cool to work with people that come in and don’t automatically think: romantic tutu, or leotard and skirt. No — we’re going to cover a boy in little pieces of plastic and let the light play off of it and, hopefully, create magic.”