Last week, the 8thannual New York City Ballet Fall Gala took place. As a guest, I had neither expectation nor agenda for the evening – except perhaps enjoying myself and bathing in the atmosphere of fashion and movement. 

The annual event invites modern fashion designers to collaborate closely with the head in-house costume director Marc Happel, the dancers, and the choreographer of the season. The guest designers are asked to create unique outfits for the new production that will be worn for the rest of the show’s run.

The Fall Gala is the premier of two new performances and a recap of a classical piece. This year the company invited Zac Posen to make the costumes for the dance performance of Lauren Lovette’s ‘The Shaded Line’ and Anna Sui to customise costumes towards Edward Liang’s ‘Lineage’. 

New York’s golden boy Zac Posen, famous for expertly stitching American glamour with modern couture techniques, seemed to – for that night at least – lose some of his lustre. Likewise, the excellent Anna Sui – a designer known for mixing romantic nostalgia with rock n’ roll glam seemed to have her creative volume turned down a notch. 

If that sounds too much like a solitary boo amidst the applause, allow me to elaborate. The costume by Posen was a new take of the classical tutu and corset, which is no bad thing. However, the costume felt it constricted the dancers’ bodies. While impressive in close-up photos, and well-crafted within arms’ length, as a costume with the purpose of enhancing the performance on stage, it felt like a listless and conservative creative choice.  

While Sui’s skirts were colourful with room for plentiful flowing movement and expression, a part of it appeared dimmed down and out of character. While emphasising the dancers’ abilities, the minimally-embossed tunics were a missed opportunity. The dance piece was a beautiful take of Georgian folkdance – synonymous with over-embellishment and drama, somewhat of a mis-match with Sui’s modern, over-simplified take. 

In the end, I couldn’t help finding myself drawn to the last performance of the night – George Balanchine ‘Symphony in C’ garments designed by NYCB’s director of costume Marc Happel. Fittingly, but unintentionally, the costume was the best of the night and outshine the others. 

When someone wears something they love, they move with more grace and pride. Perhaps, that’s one of the reasons Marc Happel’s design moved me as much as the performance. It makes sense of course, that Happel showed he understands costume as an extension of the performance – giving the choreography and music a depth that’s visible to the audience no matter where they sit in the theatre.

If we look to previous years of NYCB, the costumes were imbued with a joyous flamboyance, with designers going out of their comfort zone but still embracing the technical needs of dancers. This big and beautiful creative brief has provoked some amazing responses, notably from Giles Deacon, Sarah Burton for Alexander McQueen, Dries van Noten, and Gareth Pugh springing to front of mind.

Whilst the union of fashion and performance can’t always garner rave reviews, I hope 2020’s chosen designers take a far bolder step from the wings.