A fashionista reads a trade magazine. Lights flash and four zombies enter. Their mauve-lace masks, Devo hats and metallic black unitards are as stylish as her cat glasses and form-flattering sweater and sweats. But a red outline is all that remains of the guys’ ties and their girlfriends’ pearls are blood stained. They dance menacingly around their prey and carry the girl off.
No ballerinas were eaten during Zombie Cocktail, one of the playful vignettes choreographer Marilyn Klaus concocted for Cocktail Hour and her company Ballets with a Twist. On February 26th, as part of The Museum at FIT’s lecture series, Klaus and costume designer Catherine Zehr discussed their 20-year collaboration and work on this dance. In between their conversation, Ballets with a Twist dancers performed and modeled their costumes on the Katie Murphy Amphitheater’s semi-stage/semi-catwalk.
Cocktail Hour is an ongoing work-in-progress with an original score by Stephen Gaboury. Artistic Director Klaus creates two new cocktail dances a year for a current drink menu of 20. Selecting the cocktails depends on the performance space, which ranges from theaters to nightclubs. A ballet presented out of context can be jarring (or a blessing if it’s from the Soviet era), but Cocktail Hour allows for a genuinely unique performance opportunity for dancers and audiences alike. For FIT, only sections of each cocktail were presented, but to an advantage, to show off the costumes and choreography without the distraction of scenery or visual effects.
Designing for this ambitious production is a challenge Catherine Zehr relishes. Both she and Gaboury are part of the rehearsal process. Large ballet companies like New York City Ballet have their own costume shop; Zehr and her assistant make, repair, restructure and clean everything. The personal touch is a wildly creative one: tiaras have vintage broaches and tutus are in the shape of stiff Elizabethan collars or fans. The Zombie’s Devo hats also resemble the Guggenheim. Each costume is unique.
However, one essential remains untouched. Pointe shoes are dyed but never embellished. Because of the shoe’s structure to support balance, altering them for performance is hazardous.
Two cocktails were especially gorgeous. An excerpt from Absinthe was a solo danced by Emily Anton. Ms Absinthe’s backstory is that she once danced at the Paris Opera and is now with the Follies Bergère. Her green costume reflects both the drink’s color and the fairies who populated the forests of 19th century ballet. Because she has fallen on hard times, her dress and wings look intentionally shabby. Her textured black tights add to the sharp, sad contrast. Absinthe’s traveling steps and arms, suggesting flight, echo those of Bournoville’s Les Sylphide. She also dances with a candle, something the Sleepwalker in Balanchine’s La Sonnambula also does. These two spectral beings have agendas; Absinthe just wants to dance.
Paris is also the setting for White Russian. The now-penniless nobility residing in Paris recall their lives in pre-revolutionary Russia. The choreography is pure classical ballet with one couple (Erin Gallagher and Aengus Ortiz) and a corps of women. The bodice of the costume is in the shape of white chocolate (an ingredient in some White Russian cocktail recipes) and the cream, taupe colors on the long tutu are the color of the drink. Rhinestones sparkle on long gloves. Aengus Ortiz’s costume is not a jacket, but a vest fastened with Velcro for ease of movement. His medals too are velcroed in place.
As this was a FIT lecture, Catherine Zehr gave aspiring costumers strong advice on how to cut patterns, volunteer with a local dance and/or theatre company and never stop studying. The FIT alum still takes classes and learns from her peers.
Story ballets always feature some kind of feast. Therefore, it is only fitting that the drinks get their own dance and stunning costumes.
Photos: Ballets with a Twist
Ballets with a Twist is planning performances of Cocktail Hour in New York City this summer. For further information on FIT Museum Public Programs visit here, for further information on Ballets with a Twist visit here.