Style Takes the Stage: Zandra Rhodes designs Aida, Michael Kors designs Stanton Welch’s Clear

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Radames (Marco Berti) in HGO’s AIDA
Photo by Andrew Cloud

Call it Project Runway for the culture crowd. Two of the world’s top fashion designers are readying fabulous costumes for highly anticipated shows here next spring. Zandra Rhodes takes on a classic opera, while Michael Kors covers streamlined Clear, Stanton Welch’s neo-classical ballet.

Hold on to your sarcophaguses! Ancient Egypt is getting an extreme makeover. Strong design is a tradition at Houston Grand Opera, so Anthony Freud, the new general director and chief exec, did not want to go the way of quasi-historical re-creations with Verdi’s masterpiece Aïda. Having seen enough wobbly-pyramid versions, Freud was looking for an Aïda of a whole new order.

He turned to Zandra Rhodes, the legendary British fashion icon, who rose to international prominence in the ’70s as a leader of the new wave and punk movements. “We try to find the right combination of artists,” says Freud. “In the case of Zandra Rhoades, we found the perfect match. She is wonderfully eloquent and wise.”

Known for her extravagant, beyond-the-edge sense of style, Rhodes could give Aïda a potent dose of visual brilliance. “Her visual aesthetic, sensitivity to color and sense of drama were perfect for Aïda,” says Freud. “I have been familiar with her work for as long as I can remember.”

Rhodes was thrilled with the project and looks forward to the Zandrification of Aïda in every detail. For inspiration, Rhodes turned to her own eccentric collection of Egyptian-inspired prints and textiles that she had designed years earlier. She also wandered about the ancient tombs and mummies at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. “I had to think, what meaning does this have for me?” says Rhodes. “What can I do to bring Aïda to new heights?”

Rich golds, shimmering oranges and brilliant turquoises gave Rhodes her palette of intensely saturated colors that will play out in a display of design bravura. “Designing an opera is the most uplifting thing in the world,” says Rhodes, whose work with the San Diego Opera garnered raves. “I will be making a grand statement.”

Rhodes draws from her deep appreciation for the ancients’ contribution to culture. “They had such a tremendous sense of fashion, and had fabulous ideas about make-up and hair, as well.” Rhodes crisply pleated tunics emphasize the strong geometric lines of Egyptian art. She calls the costumes a “pleating paradise” with all the layering of fabric that creates a rarified sense of nobility. Expect outrageous headresses, signature painted fabric, and animal prints as well.

After designing for Princess Diana, it’s just a bit of a stretch to switch to Aîda, the Ethiopian princess, who, by the way, will sport black dreadlocks, fabulous jewel-toned tunics and African-inspired print fabric. Rhodes’ nod to ancient fashion will also include a revolutionary bare-breasted look, cleverly achieved by using body paint on fabric. Rhodes’ work doesn’t stop with the costumes; she has a pyramid or two up her sleeve as she is creating the entire set. The deep blue of the Nile, the gold of the sun, and the burnt red of the desert inform Rhodes’ palace courtyard, pyramids, and tomb. Surfaces are highly worked, almost like fabric, with hieroglyphics, or “Zhandraglyphics” radiating life in King Tutankhamun era. Scenes will magically change right in front of the audience’s eyes, using a sliding diagonal (with the exact angle of the pyramids) to reveal the next location. “This will be the Egypt of your dreams,” says Freud with excitement. “It’s going to thrill you.”
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Amy Fote and Connor Walsh
Photo by Drew Donnovan

Fashion of a decidedly more understated nature is hitting the ballet stage. Houston Ballet Artistic Director Stanton Welch goes uber-minimal in his team-up with Michael Kors in his stunning ballet, Clear, set to open in May. Welch, who created Clear in 2001 shortly after Sept. 11 for American Ballet Theater, was interested in stripping the process down to bare essentials in his ballet for seven men and one woman.

“It was a time in all of our lives when we centered on what was truly important,” remembers Welch about those harrowing days after the disaster. “Clear was created with that in mind.” Welch found an artistic soul mate in Kors. “I am a huge fan,” says Welch, a regular viewer of Kors’ hit reality-TV show Project Runway. Welch’s powerful command of movement shows through in Clear, and he needed costumes that were going to highlight the movement and the body without obscuring it. “I was drawn to his sense of basic form,” says Welch. “His lines are so clean. It was just right for this ballet.”

Costumes are hugely important for Welch; they can make or break a dance. “I love fabric and how it moves on my ballets,” he says, “but a poor design can ruin the line of the dance.” (Welch has actually designed costumes for a dozen or so of his own ballets, including the sexy slit skirts of Indigo and the featherweight evening gowns of Nosotros.) Welch was never a stranger to the notion of fashion designers moonlighting in the ballet world. Christian Dior and Christian Lacroix have previously designed for his mother, Marilyn Jones, a famous dancer in her own right, at the Australian Ballet.

Welch remembers a streamlined process in working with Kors in developing the costumes. “I described what I had in mind and suggested the camel tones. His sophisticated but elemental designs were perfect.” Each costume was dyed to be slightly darker than each dancer’s skin tone, making it seem almost invisible. Anna Kisselgoff of The New York Times pronounced Clear a “major hit” and was especially impressed with Kors’ contribution. “For once a fashion designer—Michael Kors—has costumed dancers with sleek simplicity: flesh-toned pants for the bare-chested men with a matching halter for the woman.”

Kors’ neutral tones become an ideal canvas for Lisa Pinkham’s magnificent lighting design. “The lighting worked brilliantly with the costumes and choreography,” says Welch. Just last October, ABT performed Clear to enthusiastic audiences, and the show’s Houston première is greatly anticipated. Welch is excited, in particular, about the synergy between dance and fashion, as they both share a similar concern with human movement. “I think it’s a great thing for dance.”

Reprinted from Houston.

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