Hussein Chalayan has crossed over from fashion to dance with his show Gravity Fatigue at Sadler’s Wells, and his new Cuba-themed collection is out in Spring 2016. Christopher Jackson looks at his work in more detail, and finds an artist fascinated by the way in which cultures interact.
Consider this. You have just been on a date with a man or woman. You would like to feel like you made a connection but can’t be sure. You are back in your room. Tired, you begin to strip, taking your top off. Half naked, you recline on the bed with your phone, which is as much a part of your apparel as your traditional clothes. This plugs you into the world, and who knows? Perhaps your date will get in touch. You place your right foot on your left knee and stare at the device. No one texts or calls. You take off your last clothes and decide to take a shower.
Now imagine that while all this is happening, your date — without your knowing — is also back home and has been exactly copying your every move, every tired stretch of the arm, every accidental contortion of the body, precisely in time. Would that make you feel less alone, or the opposite? On the one hand, it would connect you to that person; on the other, your copycat might have robbed you of your individuality. And are you not yourself a copycat of your copycat?
The scenario is called Omnipresence. These are the sort of questions that recur in a series of 18 wonderful dance vignettes in Hussein Chalayan’s show, Gravity Fatigue, at Sadler’s Wells Theatre in London. The light-hearted nature of the show reveals the title as a pun. The dominant mode in Chalayan’s work, ranging from his world-famous clothes to this latest foray into theatre, is always fun. He is an artist but also a reveler.
Gravity Fatigue is a pivotal work, so much so that I don’t think his new collection of clothes, or indeed his entire output, can be properly understood without it. Chalayan’s designs have much to tell us about the crucial question of the self. He also regularly comments on the nature of disparate cultures and how they interact. Most importantly, he does all this while having the time of his life.
In taking the light-hearted view of life, Chalayan is also making a serious point. The ongoing war against fundamentalism is, of course, precisely about fun and how much we should have. Terrorism, with its typical targets of cafés, nightclubs and music venues, aims to attack precisely the world of color and free expression that Chalayan shows us in his work.
Chalayan was born in Nicosia on the island of Cyprus in 1970. Seven years earlier, the city had been divided into southern Greek Cypriot and northern Turkish Cypriot after spates of intercommunal violence in the 1950s and ’60s. Today, Northern Cyprus remains a self-declared state that is recognized only by Turkey.
When Chalayan was 4, Turkey invaded Cyprus in response to the Cypriot coup. In 1973, Chalayan’s school had changed its name from The English College to Türk Maarif Koleji, or, The Turkish Education College. The naming of a college might seem a small matter, but it was part of a larger drama about the identity of Cyprus and its impact on the people. A grim catalogue ensued with human rights abuses on both sides and the Chalayan family moved to England in 1978.
Throughout Chalayan’s career — in Gravity Fatigue and his 2016 collection — the divisive background of his childhood never really goes away. In fact, his most direct statement about Islam came in one of his earlier collections, Burka (1996). In this collection/show, six models are lined up. The model on the far right wears a full burka. But the length of the burka rises up from model to model until finally, on the far left, a model is entirely naked except for sandals and a mask.
As with Omnipresence, Chalayan shows that you can only be yourself in relation to others. Our world, teeming and contentious, has a tendency to obviate solitude. As Chalayan put it in a recent interview with The Telegraph, “I’m definitely someone who really enjoys dialogue, not monologue.” Burka also implicitly queries the wisdom of veiling female features; but in doing so, he is also out to praise the individuality that arises from every face.
Yet it cannot be said that Chalayan is uncritical of Western civilization. In his 2016 collection, he expresses his ambivalence about the way in which opening up a country to Western influence can dilute that place until it loses its soul. In that collection, the distinctive colors of the Cuban landscape gradually morph into a monochrome glitz of diamonds as the models are showered with globalized money.
Or take another scene from Gravity Fatigue. Thirteen men and women are standing in a row. They rush all at once in a desperate hurry from left to right and form a staggered line, each coming to rest in an unusual shape. Some clutch the air, contorting. Others kneel with a kind of mock solemnity. Once they have held positions a while, an energy is passed back down the row, and the arrangement collapses. And so we start again. There is another invisible starting gun, a collective rushing forward and a new arrangement. Once more, the bodies are staggered along the stage: There are wild gestures, intricate stretches, each figure becomes a sculpture linked to every other. And then the arrangement collapses again into a starting line, until another round of strenuous effort commences.
Some critics have protested the repetition of this, but they’re missing the point. The piece, called Intermission on Alterity, is about the widespread nature of striving in Western cultures. Perhaps even our theater critics are so caught up in the pressures of modern competition that they cannot tell when it is being brilliantly satirized. The figures, rushing so dynamically and with such serious intent into arbitrary shapes, might easily be a metaphor for our reality TV lives wherein prizes and money are sought blindly and with such curious results — the brief painful record deal or the washed-out life of hedonism. We hurry forward toward endings with uncomfortable shapes that surprise us.
Other critics have questioned the stop-start nature of the piece. Very possibly used to Swan Lake (even Matthew Bourne’s marvelous retelling kept in place the fluidity of 19th-century narrative), the dance critics are less likely to accept the idea of an evening of fragments. But Chalayan knows better. The evening proceeds like someone flipping through cable channels, and so has a sensibility perfectly suited to the modern condition it is trying to tell us about.
Besides, very often the fragments do combine perfectly, like serendipitous channel-hoppings. For instance, when Intermission on Alterity finishes, there is a sudden opening of the heavens downstage, and a sea of black balls descends from the rafters. Soon there are people — some in burkas, others in Halayan’s distinctive costumes — gleefully tumbling in the balls, rolling around with sheer physical pleasure. It is as if the people gathered on the stage have received some vast windfall and are suddenly liberated from competition into pure sensuality.
At first, one is tempted to ask, “Why are the burkas there?” No sooner than you’ve asked the question to yourself, the fun of the whole thing takes over and you think, “Why shouldn’t they be?”
The piece is called Millionnaire Dance and is a reminder that money has always been near the center of Chalayan’s concerns. It is a point we can also find in the 2016 show. Here the collection delineates Cuba’s transition from the reign of Fidel Castro (depicted in quasi-military attire) to a contemporary Cuba that is already experiencing the results of President Barack Obama’s policy to normalize relations with that country. To represent the new era, Chalayan shows models in white uniforms who, stepping under falling water, have their attire magically swapped for glittering, diamond-encrusted dresses. It is the transition from communism to capitalism rendered in clothes. It’s a testament to Chalayan’s power as an artist that in the glitzy context of the fashion show, he is still able to be ambivalent like this.
How does he achieve these effects? Chalayan’s work — in his fashion and now his theatre — is fundamentally inclusive because it keeps coming back to things that we hold in common: color and shape, the pleasure and difficulty of being bodily, and of course, gravity.
One of the most memorable routines in Gravity Fatigue is the sixth, Elastic Bodies. In the piece, each time the lights go up, we see two bodies, male and female, contained within a length of stretched elastic. The woman looks as though she is about to fall over, but the man is striding off to the right, and in doing so, unknowingly supporting her. The lights go down, and when they go up again we see a variation upon that theme. Now the man is crouched, his elbow raised; the woman is straining to get away, and we see that the two are engaged in a kind of useless tug-of-war of the elastic that binds them.
Choreographer Damien Jalet explained in a Sadler’s Wells program note, “There’s a sense of a poetic exploration of gravity. Gravity is the force that unites us all the time. We have sections where gravity creates material that is clumsy, painful, ecstatic and joyful, all those things.”
And if gravity unites us, then so does joy and pain. Chalayan’s work is full of both. Throughout his oeuvre, the body is full of a life that will not be assuaged and cannot necessarily be contained satisfactorily in clothes. In fact, his figures seem sometimes to yearn for some pre-lapsarian condition. In relation to the 2016 show, Chalayan said: “Everything is about the body. I think that the body is the most important cultural symbol, and I think with the body you can tell a lot.”
This can go either way. On the one hand, dynamism is frequently celebrated. In the wonderful Body Split, for instance, again in Gravity, female dancers wear skirts and tight straitjacket-like tops, but they swish down the stage to upbeat music, oblivious to any constriction. They are having a ball. Then their tops, which had seemed an unnerving restriction on their sashing and shifting, get turned inside out. We see that they are full of lights, and the body achieves a kind of victory.
At other times, clothes don’t always behave precisely as their wearers would wish. In the Spring show, the clothes are helpless against the fall of water, and though they turn to diamonds, there is still a sense in which they are subject to an unexpected outside force. In Corporeal, the opening scene of Gravity, two dancers are stuck within a bag like twins in amniotic fluid, and they shift and contort against the material that contains them. Likewise, in Nude Catwalk, we are shown a parody of a fashion show, with the twist that all the models are covered up like Ku Klux Klan members. They drift around the stage like straying ghosts, and as the typical fashion voiceover drones on, we are faced with the possibility that our big spectacles are somehow null even while they are going on.
For the most part, Chalayan shies away from direct comment. The poetry of shape and the joy of movement are presented to the viewer as facts far bigger than the ins and outs of politics — an important insight in itself. But there is one scene in Gravity Fatigue, called Delayed Presence that seems to make direct reference to contemporary politics without at all surrendering the subtlety that is the hallmark of his satire.
Once again, the tableau is simple. There are three dresses set in raised positions into a white wall. These dresses are laced at their edges, reminiscent of the envelopes that banks send out when they issue a new card. Each dancer plucks a dress down and puts it on. But to do so, each has to walk past a figure with which we are all too familiar from our news bulletins: Each dress is guarded by a black hooded figure similar in form to the fighters of the Islamic State group.
The show refuses to surrender its light-heartedness even here. Each dress is happily taken down, put on and happily taken off again, implying that the West, with all its technology and hedonistic experiences, cannot be slowed down by the occasional appearance of the sinister. Go to any capital city in the world any night of the week and you can see why Chalayan’s satire is in proper proportion. In one sense, terrorism is a large preoccupation. But in another sense, it is limited when set against the great noise and heterogeneity of the modern world.
Chalayan’s genius is that he is no blind apologist for that world. Speaking about Cuba with regard to the 2016 collection, he has repeatedly stated his respect for difference and asserted that the West has no right to look down on cultures that don’t participate in its ways and mores.
Gravity Fatigue’s closing piece, Anticipation of Participation, gives some indication as to why this might be the case. Here a small pool is placed upstage and a woman walks up to its edge in swimwear. She tries to strip off to take a swim but can’t. One by one, all 13 dancers approach the pool’s edge and find the same thing happening. Towel robes cannot be peeled off, throws misbehave, and somehow, despite the evident desire to swim, each is prevented from even entering the pool. And so it goes, that as we try to participate in modern life, we feel we are missing something. Our fast-food culture doesn’t answer to our deeper needs, and Chalayan knows this.
Where else can an artist of such large sympathies end up but in London, the most diverse and teeming of places? Chalayan opened his first store on Bourdon Street in September 2015. Designed by Chalayan, the store is also an artistic space, intended to be a place for shows, talks and performances. It also references moments throughout his career: It is part architectural space, part museum, part theater. If you stand inside, you can look out onto the diverse and strange world that inspired the artist filing past.
If you go in there and buy something, you’ll be buying art of a very high order. You’ll also be wearing the work of a man whose main message is tolerance and harmony, told in the colors, shapes and forces that unite us.
Chalayan is at 2 Bourdon Street, London, W1K 3PA. Gravity Fatigue ran at Sadler’s Wells from October 28-31, 2015.