Hussein Chalayan is the fashion-designer who buried the clothes for his 1993 graduate show in his back yard, created a dress that could be folded up and posted, and – most famously, in 2000 – whipped up a coffee-table that doubled as a skirt. Primark have yet, one suspects, to make a bid for his services.
If it seems odd that he has now been put at the helm of his own, début dance show at the world’s leading contemporary dance venue (the site, as it happens, of that skirt’s unveiling), it is worth bearing in mind three mitigating factors. Chalayan’s fashion extravaganzas have always, I’m told, had a decidedly theatrical edge. Experienced dance-maker Damien Jalet is in charge of the actual movement, with Chalayan on design and directorial duty. And, having left his native Nicosia for London with his family in 1978, in the wake of the Turkish invasion of Cyprus, thoughts on cultural identity and displacement (very much the stuff of contemporary dance) have always loomed large in his psyche and his work.
In the event, Gravity Fatigue – a phenomenon that all dancers could be said to suffer from at some point or other – turns out to be a glossy, pacy, impeccably produced and gleefully pretentious piece of work for a comely, 13-strong scratch company, and with a very catwalkish sheen to it. As dance, it is thin stuff. But forget that it’s billed as dance at all, and treat it more as a succession of slickly designed visual ideas-on-Chalayanesque-themes, and there is a degree of fun to be had.
Whizzing through 18 sections in just 75 minutes, to an ear-bruising electro backdrop from “sound-illustrators” (eugh!) MODE-F, it begins with two people trapped in and dehumanised by a single, elasticated kind of cocoon (“Corporeal”). A similar, hyper-stretchy fabric returns in part six (“Elastic Bodies”), in which a succession of performers are at once liberated and restricted by outfits that extend across the entire stage, beautiful and grotesque, like oversized sinews and tendons. In between these two comes “Omnipresence”, in which a man and a woman casually strip down to the buff, as if about to take a shower. Clothes can, whisper it softly, be dispensable after all.
Elsewhere, men in casual Western garb and women in niqabs merrily splash about together in a sea of rubber balls, the latter fully covered by their clothes but not the slightest bit inhibited (“Millionaire Dance”). The entire cast is transformed into a kind of staggered, stop-motion diagram of physical possibilities (“Intermission on Alterity”). And finally, a collective poolside wardrobe malfunction leads to everyone clustering together in an orgiastic, homogeneous gloop of limbs and torsos (“Anticipation of Participation”).
If several vignettes fizzle from the memory almost before they’re even over, the apparently self-propelling, personality-dominating outfits in the very fashion-world “Word Dictators” and “Rise Disembodiment” deserve a mention for vividly suggesting that clothes have a life of their own. Which, come to think of it, might have been one of Chalayan’s main points all along in this daft but visually arresting show.