A Wash­ing­ton Bal­let piece that’s out of this world

Ethan Stiefel chore­ographs dancers in space­suits for ‘Fron­tier,’ his new, NASA-inspired work

The Washington Post Sunday - - ARTS & STYLE - BY SARAH L. KAUFMAN

Ethan Stiefel’s new work for the Wash­ing­ton Bal­let, “Fron­tier,” is about as­tro­nauts and space travel. The dancers wear space­suits. They’re sleek, tai­lored, zip-up af­fairs, vaguely au­then­tic look­ing, as though NASA and New York’s Sev­enth Av­enue met and made a one­sie.

In fact, that is what hap­pened. Stiefel calls it “a wild, serendip­i­tous com­ing-to­gether” that led to his col­lab­o­ra­tion with Ted South­ern, owner of a com­pany that cre­ates space­suits and safety gar­ments, and South­ern’s wife, fash­ion de­signer Flora Gill, who founded the wom­enswear label Ohne Ti­tel and once de­signed for Karl Lager­feld.

“Fron­tier” will have its world pre­miere May 25, with per­for­mances con­tin­u­ing through May 27 at the Kennedy Cen­ter Opera House. It tells the story of a group of ASCANS — the NASA acro­nym for as­tro­naut can­di­dates — and flight tech­ni­cians pre­par­ing for a

mis­sion, and the stage ef­fects in­clude a rocket launch and travel to a dis­tant planet.

Just 25 min­utes long, the bal­let is a big event for ev­ery­one in­volved, but es­pe­cially for Stiefel, the re­tired Amer­i­can Bal­let The­atre star who is un­veil­ing his first ma­jor commission as a chore­og­ra­pher, and for Wash­ing­ton Bal­let Artis­tic Di­rec­tor Julie Kent, who asked Stiefel, her friend and former dance part­ner, to tie his bal­let to the Kennedy Cen­ter’s John F. Kennedy cen­ten­nial cel­e­bra­tion. That’s where the space theme came from, re­flect­ing the late pres­i­dent’s ex­pan­sion of the space pro­gram.

“Fron­tier” is Kent’s first commission as di­rec­tor, and it is the much-an­tic­i­pated cen­ter­piece of her in­au­gu­ral sea­son’s grand fi­nale. The new bal­let shares the pro­gram with two es­tab­lished 20th-cen­tury mas­ter­pieces — the heart­break­ing “Jardin aux Li­las” (“Li­lac Gar­den”), by Antony Tu­dor, a tale of clan­des­tine love and duty, and Fred­er­ick Ash­ton’s ef­fer­ves­cent “The Dream,” a dis­til­la­tion of Shake­speare’s “A Mid­sum­mer Night’s Dream.” The three bal­lets will be ac­com­pa­nied by a live or­ches­tra and per­formed on the Kennedy Cen­ter’s largest stage, on which the Wash­ing­ton Bal­let last ap­peared in 1988.

Stiefel’s bal­let fol­lows the path of a fe­male AS­CAN who, like Stiefel and Kent in their new roles, is find­ing her foot­ing in sev­eral ways. Gill and South­ern fit right in with this crew of en­thu­si­as­tic new­com­ers — they’re first-time bal­let-cos­tume de­sign­ers, although South­ern got his start in de­sign by mak­ing the giant an­gel wings for the mod­els in a Vic­to­ria’s Se­cret fash­ion show and has crafted cos­tumes for movies (“Spi­der-Man”) and Cirque du Soleil. There’s not a lot of de­mand for an aero­space/ ready-to-wear duo, so South­ern and Gill had never teamed up in their pro­fes­sional lives.

“We were so ex­cited when we got this project,” Gill said in a tele­phone in­ter­view. “This was the per­fect project for us to work to­gether on for the first time.”

With his com­pany, Fi­nal Fron­tier De­sign, the 39-year-old South­ern was used to pour­ing years of re­search into pro­to­typ­ing gloves for NASA, for ex­am­ple, while Gill, 36, had been churn­ing out col­lec­tions for Ohne Ti­tel (Ger­man for “un­ti­tled”) with a part­ner, de­sign­ing dresses and pantsuits with a post­mod­ern edge. Gill folded her com­pany a year ago, how­ever, so Stiefel’s call to the cou­ple’s Brook­lyn home, at the urg­ing of a mu­tual ac­quain­tance, came at the per­fect time.

“I had this im­age of a war­rior ath­lete, pre­par­ing for bat­tle,” Stiefel says. “So we’ll see the as­tro­naut go from hu­man to a more su­per­hero look. And what many times we hide — the cos­tume change — in this case, it’s part of the chore­og­ra­phy.”

There’s a scene in the bal­let de­voted to don­ning and doff­ing the space­suit onstage, and that re­quired sep­a­rate re­hearsals for all the Vel­cro and zip­ping and un­zip­ping. Real ASCANS would have done this “a thou­sand times,” Stiefel tells his dancers on a re­cent af­ter­noon at the Wash­ing­ton Bal­let’s Wis­con­sin Av­enue NW studios. “So that’s the sen­si­bil­ity we’re go­ing for.”

Among the cos­tume ac­ces­sories neatly ar­rayed on the floor — gloves, shin guards, arm cuffs, har­ness, back­pack — NASA’s love of Vel­cro is ev­i­dent ev­ery­where. There are also zips and snaps, a mesh cap and a hel­met. So many op­por­tu­ni­ties for a wardrobe mal­func­tion . . . but that’s why this re­hearsal has been called.

“Okay, you walk — one, two, three, four, five, six, seven — and kneel on eight,” Stiefel tells Sarah Steele, a wil­lowy, dark-eyed 22year-old. She was re­cently hired as an ap­pren­tice, and Stiefel plucked her from that bot­tom rank to star in his bal­let. Her courage at the out­set of re­hearsals at­tracted him. She pos­sesses, he says, “the essence of a strong, brave artist.”

“You have a full eight counts to zip,” he con­tin­ues. “Then you’ll get lifted. Turn on four, arms on five. Four counts for the gloves. . . . Lift on five; six, you get into the back­pack.”

Steele and the dancer-crew mem­bers who are help­ing her dress eye him in­tently, tal­ly­ing up the counts in their heads. The first few run-throughs are rocky — Steele’s zip­per snags on the waist­band of her tights, the gloves don’t co­op­er­ate. The hel­met strap must be snapped — oh, where is it, where’s that dang other end? — and, mean­while, the cy­ber beats in the com­mis­sioned mu­sic are rac­ing on. Ah, at last, suc­cess! Well, the hel­met’s a lit­tle askew. But Steele stands tri­umphant, ready for take­off, fists clenched at her sides in the ready po­si­tion.

“This is go­ing to work,” Stiefel as­sures his dancers. “This will be ab­so­lutely no prob­lem. We have two weeks to work on it.”

With space­suits, it’s easy to get into the sci-fi aes­thetic or wan­der too far in the David Bowie di­rec­tion. At the get-go, Stiefel told the de­sign­ers that he wasn’t af­ter glit­ter gods and that they should avoid de­sign de­tails on the shoul­ders and hips, please — no dancer wants to draw at­ten­tion there.

The flight cos­tume re­sem­bles what’s called a me­chan­i­cal counter-pres­sure space­suit, an ex­per­i­men­tal con­cept that uses form­fit­ting ma­te­ri­als rather than the “big bal­loon” of the con­ven­tional suit. It’s more of a sug­ges­tion than a replica, be­cause the don­ning/doff­ing scene “dic­tated a lot of the de­sign choices,” South­ern says. He in­cluded some rigid mo­tocross ar­mor and fas­ten­ers for foot­ball equip­ment, while Gill made sure ev­ery­thing looked good on the body and was vis­i­ble from an opera-house-size dis­tance.

Hav­ing en­joyed this first col­lab­o­ra­tive project, the cou­ple are now div­ing deeper into tech-inspired fash­ions. They’re plan­ning to launch a cloth­ing line called Space Rated, “to take some of the tech­no­log­i­cal ad­vances done for space­suits and bring them into the cloth­ing sphere, and make sci­en­tific knowl­edge as cool as streetwear,” Gill says. She likens it to an aero­space ver­sion of the cult skater label Supreme.

“It’ll be inspired by the le­git­i­mate sci­en­tific re­search that Ted is work­ing on,” she says. No word yet on what the line will in­clude, but who knows? “Fron­tier’s” bal­le­rina-ASCANs may help put slim-fit­ting, fu­tur­is­tic jump­suits into the mix.


Dancers Sarah Steele, front, and Sona Khara­tian in re­hearsal for the Wash­ing­ton Bal­let’s “Fron­tier.”


Above and be­low, dancer Sarah Steele at a cos­tume re­hearsal for the Wash­ing­ton Bal­let’s per­for­mance of “Fron­tier.” Re­cently hired as an ap­pren­tice, Steele was cho­sen to play the lead­ing role.

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