Review: Hussein Chalayan - Gravity Fatigue - Sadler's Wells

Performance: 28 - 31 October 2015
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Friday 30 October 2015

Hussein Chalayan - 'Gravity Fatigue' at Sadler's Wells, Oct 15. Photo: Bettina Strenske

For the main part Gravity Fatigue is brilliant. There are times when it seems just bonkers but the ripe originality of it all is bound to come at a small cost. The particular reason for such innovative artistry, writ very large, was the bold decision by Sadler’s Wells to invite the designer, Hussein Chalayan, to direct a dance show, working alongside the choreographer, Damien Jalet. Chalayan appears to reject being labelled in any specific way although we can say that he was British Designer of the Year in both 1999 and 2000 and that – although he is a filmmaker, academic, plus installation and visual artist – he is primarily known for designing clothes.

An eclecticism approaching the variety of this polymath’s CV flows through the eighteen episodes of Gravity Fatigue; and, no, I didn’t need to count them because Chalayan helpfully drew a little picture to illustrate each vignette, and named them all. Thus, we began with no.1 – Corporeal – and ended with no.18, Anticipation of Participation. Read in isolation before the show began, these rough sketches made no sense whatsoever but it (mostly) fell into place as the work evolved.

If there is a thematic base to Gravity Fatigue then it must be in the association with fashion. From the opening number, clothes dominate the design ethos and direction of the work; but these are not generally garments in any conventional sense. The corporeal tag is a literal representation of material objects (or rather bodies covered by material) with a group of dancers making shapes within an envelope of fabric, bobbing up and down in indistinct patterns, appearing like energetic embryos, encased in an elastic egg.

Clothing or fabric was the key to many of the sequences that followed. In Spaces of Wilderness, a boy and a girl undressed, before lying down to play on their mobiles, oblivious to the fact that just the other side of the wall, each one’s actions were being replicated by the other. Paper dresses are cut out of the set to be worn by a quartet of women – a unique moment in which set and costume design have become the same; and in another episode, women wearing what appear to be dark overcoats are suddenly wearing white dresses as the material is lowered and reversed. Breasts regularly slip out from their fabric covers and there is a long (too long) sequence of pairs of dancers grappling from far apart while entwined in the same elastic material. At one point, the performers actually fight their clothes.

Sometimes the garments take on a life of their own: a girl in a red evening dress suddenly starts to jerk as some kind of band within the fabric moves up and down her torso; a similar device, much later in the show, has strands of fabric moving by themselves as the models from whose bodies the material hangs, remain perfectly still. In 500 Years of Pleats the dancers seem to replicate a cutting room; and in the Nude catwalk, models of indeterminate gender parade in straight lines with the whole of their upper bodies and heads encased in fabric, as a muffled voice over narrates a fashion show.

It would, however, be wrong to see this show as simply dance meets fashion. To be frank, the dance was not a decisive influence, although there were some stunning individual moments, not least with an early male solo from Mickael Riviere, spinning around the floor like a b-boy, only flatter. It was also a great light show, designed by Natasha Chilvers, with images projected onto screens and in real-time onto moving bodies, such that a dancer could be undressed and dressed in the same second. This fascinating digital input by Nick Hillel for Yeast Culture created several moments of magic and illusion.

The thirteen performers constituted an experienced and versatile group. It was not surprising to learn that their collective backgrounds merged contemporary dance, hip hop, ice skating, circus and modelling; nor that many were themselves choreographers. The final sections of the 90 minute work put this eclecticism into the stage, which became a platform that concealed both a trampoline and a swimming pool with dancers variously bouncing off the springy area, stamping on a solid floor or plunging into the water below. Added to an earlier section where they had dived into – and skidded through – a container full of little balls, this all brought a feeling of childish joy to proceedings.

This succeeded as a work that maintained a strong fascination factor throughout largely through its consistently arresting visual spectacle. But, most of all, it challenged perceptions of the relationship between bodies and their clothes, occasionally putting the garment in charge; and often blurring the boundaries between the animate and the inanimate interface.

Gravity Fatigue also blurs our perception of the theatrical experience itself. Not so long ago, Sadler’s Wells produced a show about shoes; now it’s a dance show about fashion. Or, is it a fashion show with some physical theatre? I can quite see why Chalayan rejects labels. For me, the interoperability of design and performance is this production’s cutting edge and who knew it could be so sharp?

Graham Watts is a freelance dance writer and critic. He is a regular contributor to Dancing Times and also writes for, and other magazines and websites in Europe, Japan and the USA. He is chairman of the dance section of the Critics’ Circle in the UK and of the National Dance Awards. Twitter: @gwdancewriter

Photos: Bettina Strenske

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