Moving from rubbish to riches

Fashion designer Marianne Fassler recently collaborated with well-known choreographer Robyn Orlin to create a wildly original dance piece titled Beauty Remained for Just a Moment then Returned Gently to her Starting Position …

Orlin initially responded to the call by a French art collector to produce a meditation on beauty, but the concept had to be brought home to the hodgepodge of Johannesburg because Orlin had agreed to work with the young performers of Moving into Dance Mophatong to celebrate the organisation’s two decades of vocational ­training.

The work took as its starting point the random collection of people and objects found on the city’s streets. Further afield, in suburbia, Orlin discovered a wandering old man simply called Solly. Many who drive through Rosebank and Saxonwold will know of the aged trash recycler who pushes a shopping trolley festooned with glittering discarded CDs.

Solly features in large, wall-sized projections that form a backdrop to Orlin’s work. The videography – for that is what moving images in art works are now called – was created by Frenchman Philippe Laine, a regular Orlin collaborator.

But the point of interest here is Fassler’s wacky costume design.

We met at her studio in the annex of her Saxonwold mansion with its abundant collection of local art and priceless items from the art deco period.  

Fassler no doubt encountered Solly, the wandering outsider pushing his laden shopping trolley in her neighbourhood, on an almost daily basis as she embarked on her citywide adventures, combing for inspiration. Her journey, she said, took her from the Faraday African herb market to China City.

And indeed, elements from these hectic places are evident in the costumes she has made for Beauty Remained for Just a Moment.

Moreover, Fassler and Orlin gave plastic scraps, empty bottles, Iwisa bags and sweet packets to cast members. Then the dancers themselves had to invent garments to suit the ­theatrical characters they inhabited.

Last month, Fassler followed the production to the Dance Biennale of Lyon, in France, where she was amazed to find “800 people a night, standing ovations and queues around the block”.

She then returned to Johannesburg to present a couture collection inspired by her work with Orlin at Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week.

Here, Fassler comments on images of her costumes that were captured by specialist dance photographer John Hogg when the production enjoyed an intimate preview at Newtown’s Dance Factory prior to its tour abroad.

Going downtown and looking for inspiring things, I found traders carrying these bags and I started putting them together to see if I could get volume for a ball gown. It is a very complex garment that folds up beautifully. It is probably the heaviest piece in the show. In the end, there is a beautiful image where the dancer falls forward and becomes a peacock with the dress floating behind her. The China bag inspired us in our collection [at Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week] this season.

Robyn works as organically as I do and she really loves the interaction of the dancers with each other and with the audience. She loves the tutu, as we know, so we have many tutus. But we decided to create some tutus literally out of garbage — from ­leftovers, whatever we had left after we had worked the whole thing out.

We presented the dancers with a big bag of sweets and we said: “First of all, guys, eat up all those sweets because we have got to make a dress out of sweetie papers. Second, what can you do with it?” It is a ball-gown and so one must colour co-ordinate. And it makes a delicious sound. All the costumes make a sound, which we adore. The back projection is of a white lion cub. The performer sings a song about sweets and a big lion approaches to try to eat him and it is glorious.

Here we have a piece made up of T-shirt upon T-shirt upon T-shirt that he then turns into things like a baby and a washing line. It was really generated by the dance. It becomes a turban; he becomes a woman in a burka – all done with the T-shirts. It was not a couture dress, but it was beautiful. Robyn remembered that, as a little girl, she would sew her T-shirts together. So we took a whole lot and we pinned them on and then the dancer developed it.

This tutu is made out of bottles and there are plastic and Iwisa bags. But the work wasn’t necessarily about branding South African products. Robyn did initially want to work with Sunlight Soap and the sunset and the sunrise motif. I thought that was not particularly fresh. So we started working with the concept of recycle dumps — what you could find there and what people throw away and pick up.

Many black people that I have seen in Europe are sort of like garbage collectors with big plastic objects that precede them. I have seen people [hawking] on the streets of Europe with Louis Vuitton bags all over them. But it is always so-called Fong Kong [fakes]. So we created a tutu literally out of trashed Louis Vuitton bags. It gave us great pleasure to cut them up,  turn them inside out and do all sorts of things with them. [The dancer with the Vuitton bags can be seen in the background.]

Gender-bending is something that Robyn does. One of the first things she knew was that she wanted a man in a tutu. Robyn is a bit like me. I say  I want to do leopard prints or I want to do tie-dye and then I decide on the shape and where it fits in. So Robyn loves a man in a tutu. I don’t know, should we have her analysed?

Robyn and I sat down and asked: “Okay, what is beautiful?” I said that for me there is nobody quite as ugly as a person trying to be beautiful. I hate people with facelifts and high heels and tight dresses. For me, beauty is an unexpected intrusion. And for me the most beautiful thing that intrudes regularly in my space is Solly with his trolley.

Robyn went to see him. Robyn and Philippe did a lot of footage of him. They really unpacked him. Actually, the dancers did not like him. They thought “What is this man doing? Is he crazy?” They didn’t think he was beautiful at all. And that is how the piece developed.

This tutu does not photograph very well. It has millions of CDs in it. It has lots of little reflector pieces. When he hung himself upside down, all the CDs were hanging out.

The headpiece is something the dancer added to the outfit. It is a cut, two-litre Coca-Cola bottle top. And he made himself earrings out of tea bags; he loved that. He becomes taller and taller [standing on someone’s shoulders] and he starts twirling. They absolutely loved that in France because it is so unexpected. It is just a heap of plastic rubbish and then he comes out of it. When they come back from overseas, I am sure I am going to have to fix it. It has tulle and it has a built in Hula Hoop so that you cannot see the person underneath. But it folds up into a little thing.

I have spent decades in fashion and I always try to see the long term as being a series of short terms. I only look forward; I don’t look back. I go to theatre, I love dance, I go to opera. I am very involved and I understand the logistics of travelling with a dance piece. But I also understand that you cannot deconstruct unless you know how to construct.

This monster head is completely crocheted from black garbage bags. It is three-dimensional with chains. It is a brilliant mask while the costume is all constructed of Tuffy bags. I knew what objects and textures would work together and I wanted this one to be quite scaly. I wanted it ruched on black so that it would be easy to get into and out of — and it can be washed. But we could not have studs, chain mail and safety pins because they started opening and injuring the dancer. So there are some layers that are missing.

This is a crocheted black finale dress. I showed it on the ramp [in October at Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week]. I copied it and I cannot tell you how many people are interested in it. It is this tulip-like skirt with this built-in tutu that makes it stand. It is ­crocheted out of garbage bags. And then we made an Africa crown because people are obsessed with hair extensions. It makes the dancer feel very regal.

The crochet work is done by the women who work with me. The current trend is definitely towards crafting techniques. South Africans are crafted and we loved the idea of applying some kind of crafting technique to the costumes. It is not really so much an old-fashioned concept. It is now called yarn-bombing, which makes it a little bit more on trend. But it is a doily – you cannot get away from it.

Beauty Remained for Just a Moment then Returned Gently to her Starting Position is at the Dance Factory in Newtown from November 21 to 25. For more information, email [email protected]

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Matthew Krouse
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