The Society of British Theatre Designers

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Between Fabric and Flesh:

My 103 years old butoh master Kazuo Ohno, once said, ‘the costume is the performers universe’.

Over a 20-year career embracing choreography, performance and visual art for opera, theatre, dance and film I have experienced the profound and transformative relation between costume and movement. I have been fortunate to work with leading industry designers including Alison Chitty and Becs Andrews and for both large organizations such as Royal National Theatre and Royal Opera House and within the experimental context of my own internationally touring company productions.
My choreography is distinguished by an interest in sculptural form, distillation and an approach to space and time influenced by my extensive training in Butoh. Butoh, a radical anti-dance, embracing Japanese aesthetics, allows for movement to be read within an immersive visual field: the body and space become one and the audience have time to enter into a meditative and emotive relation with the performer.

The London College of Fashion, MA Costume Design for Performance, have recognized that my distinct choreographic and visual aesthetic and theoretical research, can enhance the teaching within the department and for three consecutive years has commissioned me to work as a choreographer/director and costume design consultant for their final year site-specific and stage shows for venues such as the Royal Academy, Victoria and Albert Museum and Lylian Baylis Theatre at Sadlers Wells.

I will never forget the revelation of first encountering the vivid storyboards adorning the walls of the MA design studio in 2007 After many years working with actors and dancers, in mirrored studios where text or physicality are primary, it was a joy to be returned to my fine art roots and initially surrender to a sea of visual and conceptual stimulus.

The student costume designers, through the course founder Donatella Barbieri, are encouraged to be ‘artists’ and have the rare opportunity to be executive initiators of their entire process from conception to completion (arguably, quite a different process from the more constraining realities of industry).

My engagement with the student costume designers involves an intensive process of consultation and dialogue, looking at storyboards, sketchbooks and toiles, developing their concept and design, both theoretically and physically. Often, the students will have initiated a rudimentary concept or script for a ‘performance’ and it is my particular expertise to then challenge and develop this concept.

At this stage they may not have worked with a live body and all concepts are abstract. I tend to encourage an immediate physicalization to test an idea. Working with scraps of fabric, toiles or props I will often move and dance in the studios and we will discover the unexpected or develop a new direction for the design. This may seem quite obvious as a process but it is incredibly surprising how late, in this context, the body and movement are considered or inserted into the design process.

I currently counteract this lack by encouraging costume designers to experience movement for themselves, with their own bodies, and this has led to workshops that look at the intricate and nurturing links between movement, design, drawing and concept. I focus on giving costume designers an understanding of movement process and language. My particular approach, informed by Butoh and fine art, encourages deep somatic internalization and poetic use of imagery so that movement originates from within to without, a process encouraging an embodied imagination and embracing an experiential awareness of anatomy.

I find that the student costume designers have well-developed visualization skills, which can be harnessed to link into an authentic and deep connection to movement. Through this process they are able to understand rudimentary or sophisticated movement patterning which in turn expands their imaginative and physical awareness leading back into the conceptual design process. They are then also able to approach their relationship to the final performer of their costume with an enhanced understanding of the complexities of the relation between fabric, flesh and the performative.

There are recurring themes which seem to fascinate the LCF student costume designers and which I conclude are archetypal and revolve around the dialects of constraint/freedom, inside/outside and open/closed. Themes often involve shedding or transformation, death and rebirth, human/animal hybrids or the revelation of the interior of the anatomical body. I currently consciously use this imagery in the movement laboratories with them and work to open up a stream of physical consciousness, which can be harnessed to finding nuances and new inflections between archetypal image, concept and performance.

I have noticed a tendency on this LCF course for students to work towards the fantastical, creating highly constructed and therefore often constrictive costumes that, in the worst manifestations can obliterate the living, breathing performer. To counteract this tendency I feel that when designers realize the significance and implications of those design limits upon movement, and make an informed decision as to whether this is part of the conceptual integrity of the work, or a case of over zealous design, then a true dialogue is accomplished, and creative endeavor begins.

The costume is the performers skin, an envelope which mediates a multiplicity of meanings but which has to work in symbiosis with movement to be successful. It is my experience that when designers encounter the realities of movement via their own body and experience, then a deeper and more meaningful engagement with the performativity of costume is possible.

Marie-Gabrielle Rotie is a choreographer, performer, university lecturer and artist.