When the artist Marcel Dzama moved from sleepy Winnipeg to New York, his sparsely populated figure drawings took on the energy of the city — suddenly, the backgrounds were overrun with dense, claustrophobic markings. Looking to create order out of the chaos, he began posing his figures to mimic the performers from old dance magazines he found at flea markets. The model stuck: He’s incorporated dance into his work ever since, even choreographing Kim Gordon's moves in his film Une danse des bouffons, which he showed at David Zwirner Gallery in 2014.
The video caught the eye of Justin Peck, the New York City Ballet’s resident choreographer and soloist. A 28-year-old star who’s collaborated with the likes of Opening Ceremony and Sufjan Stevens, Peck had been shopping around for a new creative partner to complete his team with Bryce Dessner, the acclaimed composer and guitarist in The National. Soon, all three were brainstorming a new ballet. “Usually you come up with a concept and then you seek out collaborators from there, but in this case it was the opposite," Peck said. "We just wanted to work on something together.”
In keeping with Dzama’s “storytelling quality and kind of otherworldly aesthetic,” Peck explained, they settled on a lesser-known fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen. The Most Incredible Thing tells of a king who offers the hand of his daughter, plus half of his kingdom, to whomever can show him something he deems truly incredible. The winner is the Creator, who brings a magical clock with dancing creatures for each hour – Adam and Eve for two o’clock, the deadly sins for seven o’clock, and so on. All told, over 50 dancers are involved, which Peck described as “a huge ship to maneuver." "It’s difficult to keep an eye on every single person,” he said.
While Peck handled the choreography, Dzama got to work outfitting all 56 performers. There was a delicate balance to determining how costume-heavy each character could be in relation to Peck’s idea on how they should move. The king, for example, didn’t have many moves, so after Peck told him to “go crazy,” Dzama reimagined him as a black mass made up of five dancers. Eventually, they scaled it back to two dancers who move as one – their sprawling legs not unlike David Bowie’s Kansai Yamamoto pantsuit.
Many of Dzama’s ideas came from the Triadic Ballet, a 1920's work by the German Bauhaus teacher Oskar Schlemmer, but the costumes are rife with other references, too. A cuckoo's headpiece came from the George Balanchine ballet The Firebird, and another bird’s flowing red dress is a nod to an early silent film that inspired Picasso and Braque's Cubist turn. The polka dots that appear throughout Dzama’s work, and show up here on children's costumes, are a reference to the artist Francis Picabia, who put on a ballet in Sweden in the 1910's in which performers danced in their polka-dotted underwear.
Another Marcel – Duchamp – also played a big role. “My art’s very influenced by his work, so I tried to give a little homage,” said Dzama said, who added whorls to one costume that calls to mind Duchamp’s rotative sculptures. (Duchamp's love of chess also got Dzama back into the game, which figures prominently in his Art Series installation on the David H. Koch Theater Promenade, also at Lincoln Center.)
Other flourishes were the happy accident of simple technicalities: Marc Happel, the head of the company’s in-house costume shop, advised Dzama to use metallic, reflective materials because they were more visible. Many of the costumes were continuously revised to accommodate the dancers’ movements: eye-obscuring masks were changed to makeup and wigs, and the final iteration of the Destroyer – a macabre version of the Creator with a long sword for an arm – only came together the day before the dress rehearsal.
Characters like a dancer without hands, of course, proved a challenge for Peck, which only made communication between himself, Dzama, and Dessner all the more essential. “Certain sections were musically and choreographically pulled back to give value and emphasis to Marcel’s visual designs, since we didn’t want to overwhelm the viewers,” Peck said. In the case of characters like the eight monks, who don’t so much dance as float about, candlesticks aloft, the eerie effect is provided by the lighting and the costumes. “I had to put a lot of trust in those elements and really restrain myself from doing too much choreographically,” Peck said.
Dzama was also behind the ballet’s set design, and its two massive backdrops depict his trademark figures with glowing eyes in di Chirico-like landscapes. “At first, I didn’t know that ballets didn’t have that much stuff on the stage, so I had much more elaborate ideas,” Dzama said, laughing. When the crew asked where the dancers would go, he scaled the props back to just a slide that some of the characters use to make their entrance.
For Dzama, less work was probably for the best, given that he simultaneously worked on the ballet, the Art Series installation, a film with Amy Sedaris, and a gallery show in collaboration with Raymond Pettibon that’s now open at David Zwirner. “I’ve been busier than I think I’ve ever been, but everything was so much fun to do that I couldn’t say no to any of it,” he said. There was a bit of overlap, too: his costume sketches appear in the Sedaris film, and if you head up to the balcony level at Lincoln Center and look down on the installation, the carousel below just might resemble the face of a magical clock.
The Most Incredible Thing premieres at the New York City Ballet on February 2, and will have additional performances on February 19 at 8pm, April 21 at 7:30pm, April 30 at 8pm, and May 7 at 2pm.