c.2014 New York Times News Service
c.2014 New York Times News Service
NEW YORK — The most unusual thing about “Dance & Fashion,” an exhibition of almost 100 costumes and dance-influenced designs at the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, is that all of the clothes are standing still. That’s what first struck me, at least, when I entered the museum’s basement gallery on a recent afternoon and scanned the brilliant, motionless display staring me down from all sides of the room.
As someone better versed in the “dance” part of “Dance & Fashion,” I’m used to looking at costumes for how they move through space, how they accent the shape, or react to the motion, of a dancer’s body. How strange, then, to see sartorial creatures that I’d witnessed in action — Martha Graham’s tubular sheath from “Lamentation,” Norma Kamali’s billowing stripes for Twyla Tharp’s “In the Upper Room” — fitted neatly onto blank-faced mannequins, not going anywhere.
That imposing stillness is both a draw and a drawback of “Dance & Fashion.” Organized by the museum’s director, the fashion historian Valerie Steele, the exhibition charts the intersections of “two embodied art forms,” as they’re aptly publicized, over more than 175 years. (Steele limited the scope to “ballet and modern,” with a few exceptions. New York City Ballet is well represented.) The results are revelatory in many respects: historically rich, visually exquisite. But for a show about embodied art, “Dance & Fashion” feels eerily disembodied.
Bordering the gallery on four multitiered platforms designed by the architect Kim Ackert, the items follow a loose chronology, from 19th- through 21st-century ballet, then back in time through the history of modern dance, a term restricted mostly to heavy hitters like Graham, Alvin Ailey and Merce Cunningham. The oldest and the most futuristic costumes stand at opposite poles: At one end, encased in glass, an opulent dress (pink satin, black lace) worn by the Austrian ballerina Fanny Elssler in 1836; at the other, Iris van Herpen’s singular plastic frock, with its jagged protrusions and matching knee-high point shoes, for Benjamin Millepied’s 2013 “Neverwhere.” The Ballets Russes rightly gets its own section, which includes León Bakst’s sumptuous, trendsetting costumes for “Schéhérazade.”
Steele gives us the rare privilege of examining up close what’s generally impossible to see in the theater: the texture, detail and craftsmanship of these designs, the topography of a tutu or arrangement of gems on a bodice.
How often do you get a good, long look at what a dancer is wearing? Costume design stands alone here as an art in itself, as worthy of the runway as the dramatic haute couture that’s also on display, like Dior’s Cygne Noir gown (a 1949-50 nod to “Swan Lake”) or Balenciaga’s flamenco-inspired ruffles. It’s delightfully difficult to tell, in some cases, which pieces originated on the catwalk, which onstage. Is that Christian Lacroix unitard meant to be danced in or just admired? What about that pleated Versace skirt or that Yves Saint Laurent mini-dress?
The layout keeps categories in flux, with juxtapositions revealing how dance and fashion have mirrored, challenged and quoted each other over time. Noritaka Tatehana’s surreal, elongated point shoes for Lady Gaga — 18-inch platforms that she donned in her 2011 “Marry the Night” video — reside alongside a more pragmatic model for dancers, the Duro Toe patented by Salvatore Capezio in 1930. (His innovation was to cover the toe in heavy-duty suede, instead of satin.) A padded, body-distorting costume from Cunningham’s 1997 “Scenario,” by Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons, is showcased with its muse, a bulging ensemble from Kawakubo’s subversive Bump collection (also known as Body Meets Dress, Dress Meets Body). A simple skirt and wrap sweater by Ralph Lauren echo the stripped-down uniform — black belted leotard, tights — for George Balanchine’s “The Four Temperaments.”
Yet, for all these treasures, “Dance & Fashion” somehow lacks the vitality of its subjects. Maybe it’s the spatial configuration — all of those mannequins crowded to the edges of the room, regarding you more frontally than three-dimensionally, as if it were your turn to be watched — or the shortage of moving images. A little bit of video, interspersed among the clothes, could go a long way toward enlivening the space and honoring the most distinctive dimension of fashion for dance, which is how it behaves in motion. Anyone who hasn’t seen “Neverwhere,” for instance, would not know how van Herpen’s costumes glisten and audibly crackle when they move. It’s one thing to read a label about Judith Jamison’s rippling white skirt in Ailey’s “Cry.” It would be another to see, side by side with the actual garment, just how she makes it ripple.
Which is not to overlook the attempts at something similar. Upstairs, in the museum lobby, engaging short films chronicle the sketchbook-to-stage complexity of dance-couture collaborations. In the hallway outside the main gallery, a silent video strings together brief excerpts from the dances whose costumes appear in the exhibition. Portraits of the Paris Opera Ballet dancers Aurélie Dupont and Jérémie Bélingard by the French photographer Anne Deniau (aka Ann Ray) capture the stories that surface when fabric meets flesh.
Wendy Whelan, principal of principals at City Ballet, wafts across one wall in footage from “Slow Dancing,” that divine study in deceleration by the photographer (and her husband) David Michalek. Spiraling around her slender frame, her diaphanous dress dances as fluently as she does.
“Dance & Fashion” runs through Jan. 3 at the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, Manhattan; fitnyc.edu/museum.