London critics panned the 2019 premiere of McGregor + Mugler, the ballet collaboration between powerhouses choreographer Wayne McGregor and fashion designer Manfred Thierry Mugler, but I was not one of them.
Sitting in the London Coliseum, I remember have many questions throughout the 15-minute performance, part of a mixed program put on by the Russian MuzArts, featuring a duet created on the Bolshoi’s Olga Smirnova, partnered by the Royal Ballet’s Edward Watson. The piece started with the two costumed like robot space warriors and then as the piece progressed, they shed their masks and sculpted, hard linear armor, finishing in embellished skin-tight leotards that highlighted their bodies and emphasised their human nature.
I think generally many audiences expect story ballets, where the plot is laid out for them in an easy-to-follow manner in the program, so any time they are expected to have to take part of the meaning-creation process, they lose interest. In McGregor + Mugler it was not only the costumes, but also the process of decostuming that serves as a plot device. McGregor and Mugler integrated the costumes and the decostuming into the piece in a way that they were making both choreographic and fashion statements, relying on the audience to fit the pieces together—but British audiences must not have understood the assignment.
The costumes in any ballet performance are semiotic markers, and thus knowledge of the language of fashion, in addition to the language of ballet, is imperative for one’s understanding of a piece. Semiotician J.M. Lotman writes in the 2009 Culture and Explosion that
Fashion is always semiotic. Included in fashion is a continuous process of the transformation of the insignificant into the significant. The semioticity of fashion is manifested, in particular, in the fact that it always implies an observer. He who speaks the language of fashion is the creator of new information, unanticipated by the audience and incomprehensible to it. The audience must not understand fashion and must be agitated by it. In this lies the victory of fashion.
Mugler is known as a fashion icon, but he trained as a dancer in Strasbourg, France, before becoming a professional designer. Smirnova, quoted in Katerina Bornovitskaya’s 2021 “The Universe by Thierry Mugler,” states that Mugler was very precise in the details and her image, working with her to design a costume that would translate his style in a way that would allow her to move freely for McGregor’s dynamic choreography.
In the same article Bornovitskaya also notes that Mugler’s costume design credits include Demi Moore’s memorable black dress in Indecent Proposal, Comédie-Française’s MacBeth, Cirque du Soleil’s Zumanity, as well as stage costumes for many musicians including Beyonce, David Bowie and Diana Ross.
The Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris is currently exhibiting Thierry Mugler, Couturissime through April, which includes “ready-to-wear and haute couture silhouettes to stage costumes, photographs, films and unpublished archives dating from 1973 to 2014.”
- Bott, Danieèle. Thierry Mugler: Galaxy Glamour . London: Thames & Hudson, 2010.
- Mugler, Thierry, and Francçois, Baudot. Thierry Mugler . London: Thames & Hudson, 1998.
- Mugler, Thierry, Claude, Deloffre, and Marylou, Luther. Thierry Mugler: Fashion, Fetish, Fantasy . London: Thames & Hudson, 1998.
Header image: Olga Smirnova by Alisa Aslanova for La Personne (2021) used with permission.