“When they zigzag, I zag,” Tony Bennett wrote in his 2012 memoir. Life is a gift: Bennett’s Zen, offering an important lesson on how to pivot elegantly. Tonight, after nearly 18 months away from Lincoln Center, dancing at kitchen counters and in quarantined ballet bubbles, members of the American Ballet Theater (ABT) will bring the legendary singer’s premonitory lyrics to life with the world premiere by Jessica Lang. Zigzag at the company Fall Gala. The ballet is defined on 11 Bennett standards, including “I Left My Heart in San Francisco”, “Smile” and “What the World Needs Now”, as well as “It’s De-Lovely” by Cole Porter performed by Bennett and Lady Gaga. . It features backdrops showcasing Bennett’s own artwork on the city skyline, designed by red Mill set designer Derek McLane and gorgeous, colorful polka-dot costumes from Carolina Herrera Creative Director Wes Gordon. Before the show, BAZAAR.com talks with Gordon about his process and his inspirations.
How did this collaboration with ABT and choreographer Jessica Lang come about?
We started talking some time ago in the midst of COVID about doing this together, and it kept getting postponed. But now it’s actually happening, and it’s here and it’s real. It’s a remarkable journey the dancers have taken to get to this point – everyone in the dance and theater world has had a particularly tough lockdown. There’s something really beautiful about the resilience of this piece, it’s that it’s happening now. I’m super proud of all of them and so honored and grateful that we are a part of them.
And it’s a New York piece too, isn’t it?
It is Phone a New York piece. It’s really modern and cool. It’s a tribute to Tony Bennett. There is just a great energy in there. It’s funny. It’s fresh.
Tell us a bit more about what your collaboration process looked like.
I think the key to great collaboration is humility. And I’ll be the first to say that I don’t have a lot of costume design experience. The requirements and needs of an item of clothing that a ballet dancer has to wear when performing multiple times on stage are very different from the requirements of the clothing I produced for Herrera. So I really embarked on this adventure with a lot of enthusiasm at the idea of learning, from Jessica and the dancers. And in the same sense, she came to us very excited and open to our aesthetic ideas and suggestions.
So to begin with, have you listened to the music? Did Jessica already understand some of the movements she would use?
When you talk to any artist, the passion is so visible, and Jessica is no exception. She can really see and visualize these parts in a way that was new to me. She saw the set, and it was based on Tony Bennett, some ink drawings he does. She heard the music. She knew the specific dancers she was designing each part for.
This ability to think in choreography and to think like choreographed visual expressions is something that I have no experience in. I can speak of a series of shows. I can speak of a shoot. But when it comes to talking about different sets and then what’s going on here and that transition there, I was like, “Time-out, save, explain to me what you mean. So she made me a picture of “Okay, when I say that, these people are on stage.”
I imagine it was very difficult to learn a new visual language when you couldn’t even be together in the same room.
It was actually only last week that Jessica and I had our first in-person meeting! It really has been such a long journey on Zoom, SMS, and email. She showed me these specific reference sketches or lighting ideas, and I started to get going because these are the same visuals that I use to plan a show or a shoot, just with different actors and a different vocabulary. It’s telling stories through another medium.
What were your inspirations for the costumes?
If I approach a collaboration, it’s always what we bring to the table that speaks to [them] from the world of Herrera. Here, that’s what sets it apart from classic dancewear. And two of our main branding codes, polka dots and color, worked perfectly with this piece and Tony Bennett’s music and whatever aesthetic Jessica was already envisioning. So we were very aligned from the start when I came to see her and said, “Let’s just play with black and white and then a burst of bright colors.
How do you choose your colors? Obviously, yellow is the New York taxi.
I knew I only had three for heads, so I really wanted them to count. The yellow had to be just the right shade of taxi yellow. Beautiful cobalt blue. And then, just to make it something a little cooler, pink. This hot pink, I think, pairs so well with the other two. I think it’s a nice trio. They all have the same saturation and tone.
I removed all of the waist packing tapes. And instead, I just made a simple wide black ribbon cinching the waist, adding that unity throughout. Some people are afraid of the idea of black with yellow, but it’s actually very Herrera; the first boxes of Herrera perfume were black and yellow polka dots. I think there is something fabulous and daring about a yellow and black combination. So, the three looks are now married with this black cinched waist, then a black band in the hair as well.
What were your references for black and white men’s suits?
The references I kept coming back to were almost Fosse-esque. It almost looks like a rehearsal outfit. I found a good old candid photo of Mikhail Baryshnikov rehearsing, and it’s kind of like a great t-shirt with some sort of stretched collar and pleated pants that tap into the bottom. It doesn’t sound fancy. You don’t feel like you’re trying too hard. They just look cool and sexy and sporty and amazing.
What are some of the lessons you’ve learned about what works for a track that doesn’t translate so well for the stage?
If I put a bow on my waist it can actually be problematic, because if one dancer picks up another dancer the hand can get stuck. Another is the length of the hem of the pants. Dancers are very aware of their leg line and want to extend that line for as long as possible. If you cut pants a little short – which might be my instinct in a fitting, to show off a little ankle – you actually break that line. So, there are just a lot of things like that that were such a beautiful exchange of information. I learned a lot from the fittings at ABT’s studio in Union Square, where the dancers tried out the pieces. We pin it, then they dance and move in it.
I bet it’s quite different from a fashion fitting.
I mean, I’m trying to think about how my clothes are going to exist in the world and is she going to a party in that area. But I rarely think is that she jumps, spins and gets picked up! So how do we translate the aesthetics of what we do in the collection to this? And I think the polka dot one, for example, with the exuberant ruffles and asymmetry and the big Herrera polka dots, does it in a way that still allows the dancer to do what she needs to do.
Jessica and I were both convinced that we didn’t want the costumes to have too many layers of tulle, to gain volume and start to be heavy. It’s a modern piece, and it’s based on modern music. It’s not Swan Lake, it’s Tony Bennett. When girls dance, there should be some kind of effortless ease. The fabric should be able to twist and turn and be light.
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