Wear me out
A choreographer and a textile artist team up to dress a Blackbird.
There are many layers to My Name is a Blackbird, choreographer-performer Molly Shanahan’s much-anticipated new project, appearing onstage for the first time Thursday 12. The dance itself, a solo for Shanahan, is nestled in a multimedia framework that includes contributions from eight other talented artists in lighting design, video, movement coaching and stage direction. High-profile songwriter Andrew Bird is one of the three composers—but costume designer Heidi Dakter plays a significant role in the look and feel of the piece.
While Shanahan has been rehearsing and investigating the themes of Blackbird at the physical, body level in her studio, Dakter has been regularly stopping by with costumes and textile artworks for Shanahan to try on, dance with, or simply look at and think about. “Molly and I talked about all kinds of things, wearable and not wearable,” Dakter says. “Costumes can sort of function as a portal [to worlds of imagination].”
We recently visited Shanahan and Dakter in Shanahan’s sunny workspace in Lakeview’s Berger Park field house. Dakter had arranged a number of pieces in a circle on the studio floor. As a whole, they gave a dusty gothic, ghosty, Victorian impression. Among them were a black 1950s velvet party dress with a sheer panel at the top, artfully distressed with small holes, rips and tears. There also was a sort of big necklace or yoke made of old doll parts; torn lace; a dirty, smushed baseball; and well-worn leather baby shoes. An odd, geometric pillow was identified as a bustle. Portraits of the male icons Tom Cruise and John Wayne appeared embroidered in white thread on black garments that could be either aprons or capes.
The costumes are inspired by the numerous themes of Blackbird, which delves into a semipenetrable, mysterious conglomeration of ideas, symbols and images ranging from transmogrification (shape shifting) to Jungian psychological theory, masculine versus feminine, alchemy and superheroes. Transformative rites—such as birth, marriage and death—are important symbols in the shadowy world of the Blackbird. Shanahan points to a cream-colored vintage gown that was chosen for its impossible fragility: It can’t be handled without tearing or falling apart just a little bit more. “This dress is in a state of decomposition, death and transformation,” she explains.
Dakter and Shanahan are taking the conventional costume designer/choreographer roles to another level. Shanahan refers to Dakter as a textile artist; she values Dakter’s imagination and skills as a collaborator, peer and colleague. Their shared project goes beyond simply dressing the dance once it’s been conceived; their dialogue about costume is a powerful tool for navigating the creative process.
This makes so much sense because costume is such a crucial part of dance performance. When we look at dance, we’re looking at a human body moving around in space. Whether that body is straining against skintight Lycra or is submerged in a billowing cape makes a tremendous difference in how we “read” the dancing.
For a choreographer, the decision of how to dress the dance can be as important as the arrangement of movements in time. “Working with Heidi took off the table a lot of anxiety about what I was going to wear in the piece,” Shanahan says. “I [already] have multiple roles in this project, as the convener and mad scientist of the whole thing,” she says. “Plus, I was curious about what she would do.”
My Name is a Blackbird runs through April 29.