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Legendary Collaboration:
Merce Cunningham & Rei Kawakubo

06 March 2015 | 1 Comment | LASTLOOK Team
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In the contemporary fashion vocabulary, “collaboration” is a term typically used as a marketing catch phrase by retail giants such as Target and H & M. However there are countless other collaborations that are far less commercial, and entail cross-disciplinary projects between designers and artists of other mediums that result in films, art books, objet d’art, and performances. One of the best examples of such a collaboration is an extraordinary project entitled Scenario that renowned choreographer Merce Cunningham created with fashion designer Rei Kawakubo in 1997.

Both Cunningham and Kawakubo created groundbreaking work and were leaders of their respective fields. Kawakubo, founder of Comme des Garcons, began designing in Tokyo in the late 1960s, and was immediately touted as one of the most important members of the sartorial avant-garde. Her perpetually evolving designs were based on pushing boundaries and questioning aesthetic standards. Cunningham was, similarly, at the forefront of his metier, choreographing works for over 50 years that changed the face of contemporary dance and performance.

Fashion was very boring, and I was very angry. I wanted to do something extremely strong. It was a reaction. – Rei Kawakubo

Collaborations were elemental to Cunningham’s practice, and he invited Kawakubo to design the costumes, set and lighting for Scenario. 1997 saw the debut of Comme des Garcons’ notorious spring/summer collection entitled “Body Meets Dress, Dress Meets Body” (later referred to as the “lumps and bumps” show), and it was this body of work that inspired her designs for the collaboration. The now-iconic collection featured bulging, almost grotesque shapes that protruded from the body around the hips, chest, and stomach, made of down padding. Kawakubo has explained that her inspiration for the collection was a reaction to the fashion system: “Fashion was very boring, and I was very angry. I wanted to do something extremely strong. It was a reaction. The feeling was to design the body.”

Comme des Garcons Spring/Summer 1997.

Comme des Garcons Spring/Summer 1997.

Cunningham was known for his chance-driven choreography that focused on the juxtaposition and movement of dancers’ body parts, interacting in a seemingly autonomous way, free of expectations or typical patterns and rules of dance. His aim was to reimagine the shapes a dancer’s body could adopt. As a result, his choreography took on an aesthetic many described as “deformed,” with shapes and movements that twisted the body into unnatural, or at least unprecedented, formations. What better designer to collaborate with, then, than the boundary-pushing fashion maven whose work had drawn very similar interpretations?

The collaboration was especially remarkable because Cunningham and Kawakubo worked independently of one another up until the actual performance, when at last the choreography and designs interacted with each other. The emphasis was, once again, on the idea of leaving things up to chance, and not relying on previously conceived instructions for how things would turn out. The costumes were correspondingly not customized to fit the movements of the dancers, which radically altered their movements by upsetting their sense of proportion and balance. One dancer stated that her costume was like a “hot and bulky parka” and that it interrupted her view of the other dancers, while another noted that she had to adapt her dancing to fit the garment. This was the essence of the collaboration, to create a situation in which the action of the dancers was ultimately left up to chance, depending on how the costumes would effect the dancers ability to carry out the choreography.

Merce Cunningham rehearses with his dance group in 1957.

Merce Cunningham rehearses with his dance group in 1957.

The performance was a stunning mixture of the two iconoclasts’ visions. The performance placed fashion within a context that it normally doesn’t inhabit, and future collaborators would do well to remember the mutually beneficial space offered to fashion by dance. The most effective collaborations are those in which each participant brings their unique approach to the piece, and Scenario fulfilled this better than most.