New York City Ballet’s Fall Fashion Gala on September 28 is a big one, celebrating the tenth anniversary of the Company’s annual festival of music, dance, and fashion. Since 2012, when master couturier—and ballet aficionado—Valentino designed costumes for an entire evening of dance, more than 30 internationally renowned designers have collaborated with an equally impressive roster of choreographers to create new ballets with a heightened visual element.
This year’s gala features world premieres by two choreographers who made ballets for the 2018 fall fashion event. Choreographer Kyle Abraham, founder of the acclaimed dance company A.I.M, returns for his fourth NYCB commission with costumes by London-based designer Giles Deacon, creator of the striking black-and-white looks in The Runaway, Abraham’s 2018 ballet. Gianna Reisen, who at age 18 became the youngest choreographer in NYCB history with Composer’s Holiday, her brightly confident ballet for the 2017 fashion gala costumed by the late Virgil Abloh, is back with her third work for the Company. In addition to its costumes being created by Spanish designer Alejandro Gómez Palomo, her new piece will be set to an original score by the Grammy Award-winning singer, songwriter, and visual artist Solange Knowles.
The evening will also include the live performance premiere of Resident Choreographer Justin Peck’s Solo, created for NYCB’s 2021 Virtual Spring Gala, with new costume design by Raf Simons, and excerpts from George Balanchine’s Symphony in C, showcasing Director of Costumes Marc Happel’s glittering white satin tutus.
Much has happened since Abraham and Reisen devised their last fashion gala ballets. What have they been up to? And what can we expect when the curtain goes up?
Home base for Kyle Abraham remains his 17-year-old company, the incubator for his singular, genre-blending choreographic mix that embraces contemporary dance, street dance, modern dance, ballet, and much more— a style on full display in A.I.M’s recent, evening-length works, Requiem: Fire in the Air of the Earth and An Untitled Love. A 2013 MacArthur Fellow, Abraham has also created pieces for Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Paul Taylor American Modern Dance, and Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, among others.
And since The Runaway, which was Abraham’s first-ever piece for a ballet company, ballet commissions have also poured in, including two works for London’s Royal Ballet as well as solos for American Ballet Theatre Principal Dancers Misty Copeland and Calvin Royal III. Abraham also choreographed When We Fell for NYCB’s 2021 Digital Winter Season, which was invited to show at the prestigious Venice Biennale, and Ces noms que nous portons, a Lincoln Center and NYCB-commissioned solo with Principal Dancer Taylor Stanley.
“I love working in ballet,” Abraham says. “I’m drawn to the pointe shoe. I love how it plays with the center of gravity and with speed.”
What does he enjoy about working with NYCB? He references the experience of creating When We Fell during a three-week bubble residency at Kaatsbaan, a rural enclave in Tivoli, New York, in the winter of 2021. “What’s so beautiful is the dancers were so caring and generous. I knew that I had people in the room who wanted me and the piece to succeed. I knew that I could ask questions and that we could problem solve and challenge each other. And that frees up creativity.”
The isolation, intensity, and snowy quiet of Kaatsbaan also provided a superb working environment. The result? Abraham left with copious amounts of material—“more than people will probably see”—including ideas for the fashion gala.
The emphasis on costume makes choreographing for the gala an atypical creative experience, Abraham says. “It’s a shared vision, and it needs that fashion gala-ness to work.” That’s a key reason he teamed up again with Deacon, who has also created costumes for two A.I.M pieces since working on The Runaway. “Giles has such a fabulous imagination. It’s great seeing how our worlds can connect and play together,” he says.
Composer’s Holiday and Judah, the two ballets that Reisen choreographed for the Company in 2017 and 2018, were for fall fashion galas, but this year’s commission posed a different set of challenges—and creative opportunities—for the 23-year-old dance maker. “I’m the kind of choreographer who usually works with existing music and has everything in my head derived from that music choice. This is my first time working with original music,” she says.
Reisen connected several times with Knowles—“we hit it off right away over our love of jazz”—and as the music took shape, she turned her attention to the costume design. Playing off a recent collection for his label Palomo Spain, Palomo devised boxy tutus and angular suits with pointy shoulders, layered top to bottom with Swarovski crystals—half a million of them, thanks to a generous donation from the company.
The imposing costumes mean that partnering must be kept to a minimum. But Reisen was eager to tackle the challenges presented by the opulent outfits and Knowles’ theatrical free jazz score. “The big thing for me is how bold this project is and how out of my comfort zone I am. But I’m at a point in my career where I’m ready to take big risks.”
Four years ago, Reisen was splitting her time between performing with L.A. Dance Project and creating choreography (besides NYCB, she has choreographed pieces for LADP and the School of American Ballet, her alma mater). But when the pandemic hit, she made the decision to double down on dance making, although she still does a ballet warm-up and improvisation to nourish her dancer self. “Dancing never fulfilled me the way choreography does,” she explains. “I love to create things, and I like to have control over the work. And I love working with the dancers, the music, the lighting designers and costume designers, and how all these aspects come together in a fully realized thing.”
Reisen is excited to work again with NYCB dancers. “I’ve gone to the ballet a lot since moving back to New York, and I’ve watched a lot of the dancers I worked with evolve and grow, just as I’ve evolved and grown,” she says.
In the future, she looks forward to exploring different styles of dance in her work, including the modern dance and contemporary ballet she enjoyed performing with LADP. “I’d love to make a work for bare feet,” she says. But ballet is her core. As she concludes, “I’m a Balanchine girl at heart.”
Terry Trucco writes frequently about the arts and travel.