Reid & Harriet: A Site for New Approaches to Production Design

Reid Bartelme and Harriet Jung
Guggenheim Peter B. Lewis Theater | March 25-26, 2018

Russell Janzen, Burr Johnson, and Maggie Cloud in Tropopause by Burr Johnson. Photo: Robert Altman

The house lights dim to a smolder and dancers dart one-by-one into the Guggenheim’s Peter B. Lewis Theater, following rounded aisles onto the stage. Each performer wears a white calf length trapeze dress in This is White Dresses by Reid Bartelme, one half of Reid & Harriet, a costume design studio founded by Bartelme and Harriet Jung in 2011. Tonight the duo brings together past and present clients to showcase a costume portfolio in the Guggenheim’s “Works & Process” series. 

The cast of This is White Dresses wears simple frocks, each garment constructed from the same pattern in a unique fabric. The performers take moments of solo and catch each other for passing duets and trios. Bartelme’s pared-down choreography inspires us to observe variations in fabric movement, comparing Stuart Singer’s polyester fur, Burr Johnson’s neoprene net, Maggie Cloud’s fringed tulle, Jack Ferver’s feather-plumed tulle, and Jung’s silk chiffon. Bartelme, in silk habutai, rings the audience with arms outstretched while a fabric-whipped trail underscores his forward trajectory. His body moves as a dream-swept vehicle inhabiting the passage of time, while a billowing train points to where he’s been by activating his backspace. Russell Janzen’s white neoprene, by contrast, maintains its trumpet flower shape even in movement; the fabric bucks romantic notions of time’s passage with a firm hand. Contemplating the heavy robes of kings and queens, the purpose (beyond luxury) for their similarly concealing and unmoving velvet cloaks dawns on me. The costumes are dress-shaped canvases, primed for the projection of layered associations. Dancers run, walk, and twirl one another while I watch a parallel dance unfold, comprised of images that appear, layer, fuse, and fade evoked by the activity in the theater. 

The cast dissipates while Singer and Jung come together for Two Duets by Pam Tanowitz, wearing zig-zag, tile, and stripe patterns lifted from the Joyce Theater’s carpet. The dancers communicate quietly, appearing to give each other support and direction. Later they laugh and make eye contact, catching moments of unison and syncopation. Their casual presence is performed and it’s unclear how we are meant to interpret their relationship to each other and the audience. The dancers, at one point, turn toward closed curtains and fumble with an unseen bra clasp. With the gesture, stage curtains release to open, iterating the role of costume as an entity that conceals, reveals, and plays with convention in the space of a performance. Bartelme and Cloud then enter for a duet wearing tank dresses inkjet printed with images from four past works by Tanowitz. Maggie Cloud is effortless and exact in her movements, her pointed sense of location is a needle dropped on the turning grooves of a smooth record. Like Jung and Singer, Bartelme and Cloud exchange laughter and knowing smiles when there’s an occasional misstep or a hiccup in unison. 

The third piece ushers us into a sparkling duet, excerpted from Lar Lubovich’s Something About Night, danced by Bartelme and Janzen. The dancers, both elegant with ballet-wrought self-possession, scintillate in fully paillette-encrusted tank-and-pants sets. Surface decorations snag when the dancers touch, sending sequins flying. When they exit, Jack Ferver crawls across the stage with a microphone in one hand and a bandage wrapped around his calf—he’s torn a muscle and can’t walk. With easy comedic rhythm, he is here to pick up the stray sequins so that nobody else gets hurt.

On hands and knees wearing a leotard with just a sprinkle of amber paillettes on his mesh-exposed rear, Ferver offers himself up as a spectacle of his own helplessness in a janitor-sweeps-the-stage side skit that transitions into his dance, Animal Queendom. In it, the cast undresses and re-dresses the choreographer in six colorful pieced leotards while Ferver takes us through a series of stitched-together anecdotes that feature animal protagonists. Ferver’s anthropomorphic narrative creates a slipping landscape, at once playful, cerebral, and referential. Yet it’s a free-for-all that stands on its own two feet, so to speak, without knowledge of the choreographer’s spoken allusions to Deleuze, Barthes’s Pleasure of the Text, or Goodnight Moon, for example— apparent sources of inspiration for the work.

Stuart Singer anchors the next piece with a groundedness so tectonic that you could hit it with a mallet and it would swallow the sound. The costumes for Gwen Welliver’s trio, Couple Riding, are simple white tanks, shorts, capris. They are papery, evoking pallid hibiscus petals and Tyvek envelopes. With visible seam lines, we are invited to think about construction. The cotton organza fabric is taut and dancers challenge the seams. I think about the tension between effort and release as stitches pop to release a tank sleeve. The garments are copies of original costumes Reid & Harriet made for Welliver’s 2015, What a Horse. Like the dance—a restaging set on two original dancers, Singer and Bartelme, and one new dancer, Jung—the costumes are cut from patterns used in the 2015 performance and shifted by nature of replica.

The final piece of the evening, Tropopause by Burr Johnson, slingshots dancers to the stage through the audience. We recall the beginning of This is White Dresses, and reflect on gained ground—from simple trapeze dresses to tulle cocoons that hover mere centimeters over the dancers’ forms. Birds buzz and insects croak in the sound score as dancers inhabit the space of heavenly beekeepers, encased in melon colored netting. Crisp fabric gathers around their necks and rests erect, partially obscuring the dancers’ faces. Jung appears in a fringe-dotted silk chiffon black and white body bag, elasticized around ankles and wrists. The rest of the cast, Johnson, Janzen, Cloud, and Bartelme, change into similar billowing silk habutai bags, vibrant two-tone pieces in raspberry, indigo, kelly green, lavender, pale tangerine, yellow. A final costume subtraction reveals the dancers licked in full-body stretch vinyl—Johnson and Janzen in taffy pink and Cloud and Bartelme in dusty rose. To close, Jung, wearing an ochre sweat suit that alludes to her skin tone, offers Bartelme a matching ensemble. At ease in crewneck cotton ponte joggers, the two gaze over the audience as the lights dim.

After the performance, Reid & Harriet join American Ballet Theater soloist Adrian Danchig-Waring for a discussion with the evening’s choreographers. The conversation illuminates the duo’s varied approaches to costuming: an initial conversation with Lubovich in which the choreographer offered minimal direction aside from a few poetic prompts, a process of shifted carbon copy with Welliver, a collaborative evolution with Johnson. Reid & Harriet’s approach to costuming is dynamic, working with choreographers in different ways and at varying stages of the choreographic process. With Johnson, for example, they begin with a request from the choreographer: a gradual shift in silhouette throughout the piece, from form-fitting to voluminous— and a color: oxblood. Garment samples are introduced early in the choreographic process since they limit and inform movement, in turn. In Tropopause, we receive a wild interpretation of the choreographer’s initial prompt; one that still clearly references Johnson’s vision staked in amplified silhouette and attunement to color.

This evening, we pull dance into focus through the lens of costume and observe a broad range of both in Reid & Harriet’s work. Excavating a deeper through-line for the pieces aside from costume, Danchig-Waring asks, “In approaching this commission, did you have a sense of an overarching universe you wanted to create? Or was it a best-of playlist?” He adds, “At times it felt like the Opening Ceremonies of the Olympics and a high school reunion.”

The moderator’s allusion to the Opening Ceremonies is apt, with all their glamor and emphasis on costume, while his allusion to a high school reunion is literal: Bartelme, Ferver, and opera accompanist Tiffany Abban, met as teenagers at Interlochen Arts Academy and the Guggenheim markets the evening by referring to Reid & Harriet’s collaborators as, “favorite past clients and friends.” The design duo met while studying fashion design at Fashion Institute of Technology and their collective interest in design is inherently informed by Bartelme’s career as a dancer. An accomplished, virtuosic, and polished mover, Bartelme has performed for Ballet Met, Shen Wei Dance Arts, and other notable classical and contemporary companies as well as independent choreographers, including the dance makers on the bill this evening.

Bartelme is also a choreographer in his own right and runs the podcast What’s Going on with Dance and Stuff? with Jack Ferver. This evening, Bartelme performs in all six of the works and by the end of the evening he is exhausted. His attack underscores a deep commitment to his process, from concept to completion, and reveals his close relationship to dance, costume, and their twinned execution in contextual realization. Jung has a background in molecular cell biology and fashion, having worked at the design house Jil Sander. She took Korean dance classes as a child and participated in campus hip hop groups in college. Tonight, she dances in the works of Bartelme, Tanowitz, Ferver, Weillver, and Johnson. Bartelme and Jung’s dancing roles in Ferver’s Animal Queendom are intentional, pertinent, and resolved. At one moment they mime feeding fabric through a sewing machine, reminding us of their dual roles in the work. In the works of Tanowitz, Welliver, and Johnson, however, Jung’s presence feels tense. I find myself I wondering, why not instead invite a professional dancer into the process for these particular dances? The question acts as a distraction that I attempt to quiet. In tampering my thoughts, though, more questions arise related to casting and curation and they pull at the seams of my overall impression of the evening.

The seven dancers rotate through roles in distinct works, rebounding quickly between pieces to inhabit the rich worlds of six choreographers. An in-the-studio demeanor throughout the evening appears unresolved and the performers’ occasional good-natured banter onstage belies questions about who’s dancing which roles, why, and if friendship and previous successful collaborations is a casting and curatorial conceit strong enough to match Reid & Harriets rigor in costuming, as well as the setting in the Guggenheim. The duo aspires to evolve their costume design practice into a full production design studio, thereby staking claim to new ground and potentially, introducing an exciting moment for contemporary dance—one that turns up the volume on costume and asks the audience to consider movement and clothing weighted equally in a performance. The role of “production designers totale,” as Bartelme frames their ideal position, brings with it stakes to consider not only costume and choreography, but thoughtful continuity in the ascription of weight and value to casting, curation, and context as well.

Reid & Harriet’s “Works & Process” presentation underscores their tenacity as designers and their costumes glitter with clarity. The duo’s dexterous and fluid approach to collaboration, revealed in the evening’s post-show conversation, illuminates their potential to move into dynamic production design, informed by a strong multifaceted perspective on performance and undeniably, opportunities for growth as they pursue a new direction for their collaboration.

Contributor

Caroline Stinger

CAROLINE STINGER is a writer based in Brooklyn, NY.

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