You know when you prepare a stew? Even with the best ingredients possible, though the first taste can nice, the flavours need time to melt together. It is often only when you reheated it that it really starts engaging your buds. Similar was my experience of fashion icon Hussein Chalayan’s first dance work Gravity Fatigue. Conceived as a series of sketches, the show was, indeed, a collection of beautiful images, but it missed a fil rouge – be it a story, theme, movement quality or individual style to make sense of it. And in this fragmented puzzle, dance played a minor role.

Gravity Fatigue © Hugo Glendinning
Gravity Fatigue
© Hugo Glendinning

Rarely does a performance gather so much pre-show talk as this one. Of Turkish-Cypriots origins, Chalayan is one of the most experimental UK based designers. His work presents a sense of drama, theatricality and movement – his 1993 graduating collections was buried for several weeks in his garden before being worn and his latest show (Spring Summer 2016) included clothes that dissolved in water. In 2000, Sadler’s Wells hosted his fashion show performance, a wearable living room (Afterwords) with the coffee table becoming a skirt as the most iconic image. It is thus only natural for Chalayan to try a leap into dance.

Excitement and gossip filled the foyer with a clearly recognisable fashion crowd in trepidation, sleek, clad in black garments, wearing and living the latest style. All this expectation was not quite satisfied. The show is well worth seeing but the fusion of the two arts (yes, at Chalayan’s level, let’s consider fashion an art), at least in the way I expected, was not quite there yet. In my view, this is for two reasons: the show was fragmented, leading to no overall grand plan, and it project an ambiguous relationship between the dancers and the clothing.

Gravity Fatigue © Hugo Glendinning
Gravity Fatigue
© Hugo Glendinning
Looking at the first work, Chalayan proposes eighteen separated scenes, which can be clearly seen in the beautiful drawings in the programme notes. This also generally happens in dance. But most of his sequences – actually a better word would be tableaux – remain two-dimensional. They feel more like sketches done on paper. Some might even go as far as resembling a GIF in conveying an atmosphere or an idea. What is missing is the poetry of movement and the poetics of the human as a living being. In most of the tableaux, the dancers are reduced to shallow figures sometimes recalling the glossy images of fashion magazines or caricatures of the fashion world. Even when they are spoofing fashion, they do not seem to be flesh and blood models yet, astonishingly, have no materiality. Ironically, it was the clothes that were the most palpable. They even had a mind of their own. This made me think, coming to my second point, that there is an unbalanced input, between that of the designer and that of choreographer (Damien Jalet) in the single episodes. The musical background or sound illustration by MODE-F was also not unitary. This is per se not a problem but considering the heterogeneity of the scenes, it would have given cohesion to the whole.

In general, throughout the whole show, the importance given to dance is both little and uneven. It was mostly the garments that were at the centre with the dancers as accessories. In some cases, the dresses had their own thoughts and feelings making for an interesting reversion of Martha Graham’s Lamentation (1930). In Chalayan’s piece the dresses expressed some kind of anguish and not the person moving within their restriction. It is only at the beginning and in the last tableaux that the dancers’ bodies are seen in action. Throughout the rest of the evening, Chalayan evoked some beautiful ideas: for example the elastic tables in which the dancers’ prompted elbows disappeared. Ideas were nevertheless not fully explored: due to the frequency of the tableaux the sequences did not allow for any dramatic tension to be built – instead, vignettes were show cased. This resulted in an entertaining show, a bag full of interesting ideas and tricks, but that does not quite yet a dance performance make. I felt it needed more cooking. The dancers were good and proficiently deal with difficult costumes and tricky fabrics.

© Hugo Glendinning
© Hugo Glendinning

The proposed exploration of a new relation to gravity was not quite there, since the dresses and the dancers had not completely merged – they were still tools to their counterparts. The show was full of poetic images, but of these only few were symbols created through movement (where you could phantom a dress being made). Dance and fashion are separate media with different way of communicating and obeying different conventions: this show made for a highly performative catwalk and for a very static dance performance. It is, certainly, the clothes but it is also what you do with them.

***11