Marina and Tisci: Dancing on the Edge

Marina Abramovic and Givenchy's Riccardo Tisci on their erotic, operatic collaboration

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Dancers from sexuality-inspired Boléro

Marina is currently crowdfunding a performance and education centre in New York. You can, and should, pledge for the Marina Abramovic Institute here

Marina Abramovic built a career on solitary performances, but has shifted focus in recent years to more collaborative work. She partnered with Belgian choreographers Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Damien Jalet for her latest piece, a new ballet of Maurice Ravel’s famously erotic 17-minute composition Boléro, based on the Spanish dance. Costume design came from Riccardo Tisci, Givenchy’s visionary creative director. It premiered last month at the Palais Garnier in Paris, one of the biggest opera theatres in the world. “In my work, everything is completely under control,” Abramovic says. “But the interesting thing when you collaborate is that you have to give up a part of yourself – that is, the ‘I’.” 

Her surreal backdrop was complemented by fantastical layered costumes by Tisci that expressed darkness and romanticism. Here, Abramovic and Tisci speak exclusively to Dazed about their friendship, working process and inspirations.

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Dancers from sexuality-inspired Boléro

DD: Can you remember the first time you met?

Riccardo Tisci: Six years ago, I was invited by AnOther Magazine to collaborate with an artist to create a dress. I knew lots of artists but I wanted to work with someone young and fresh. I discovered Paulo Canevari. I went to meet him in New York and we both got on; perhaps because we’re both Italian and we had lots in common. One day, he invited me to his house to eat pasta, and during this visit I met the most extraordinary creature – his wife. She was full of energy; she was beautiful; she was super sexy. When I left, I couldn’t get her out of my head. It was only later that I discovered that she was Marina Abramovic. I’d been obsessed with her at Central Saint Martins. 

Marina Abramovic: The second time Riccardo visited, we started talking and he revealed that he loved my work. We instantly became friends. Even after I divorced my husband, our friendship remained. We have so much in common.

Riccardo Tisci: I remember our first conversation – Marina spoke about life, about politics. She was very funny, very cool and very intelligent. We’ve been through so much together – love, problems, bad weather, good weather. We would always dream of doing something big together.

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Dancers don Tisci styled costumes

DD: How would you describe one another?

Marina Abramovic: Riccardo is determined. He is a good human being. And he is never jealous. He has a great sense of humour. And is always telling terrible, dirty jokes.

Riccardo Tisci: Marina is, for me, the world. She is black and white; romantic and tough; beautiful and ugly. She is elegant. She has the beauty of Mariacarla (Boscono), the intelligence of Einstein and the softness of my mother. If you look at both our work, you would think we were freaks. But as a person, Marina is funny and brilliant and warm. 

DD: Can you remember your first experience of opera?

Marina Abramovic: My mother was very strict. The only thing I read was the literature she gave to me; I certainly wasn’t aware of the Beatles or the Rolling Stones. My education was Bach, Mozart, Vivaldi and Tchaikovsky and opera. I think the first opera I saw was La Traviata, in Belgrade.

Riccardo Tisci: My first opera was also La Traviata! I came from a poor family so we never had the money to go to (Milan opera house) La Scala. I remember having goosebumps; I remember wanting to cry. I remember thinking it would be my dream to design costumes for La Scala or l’Opéra (in Paris). 

DD: How did the commission come about?

Marina Abramovic: I first met Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Damien Jalet at the Romaeuropa festival in 2004 and we had discussed a collaboration. Brigitte Lefèvre, the director of the Paris Opera Ballet, later asked Cherkaoui to create a piece for the company, and he suggested I be involved. The Boléro commission came at a key moment for me. I’d just finished my retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York (which involved sitting on a chair for over 700 hours). I could see my whole life ahead of me; I felt depressed. Boléro was new territory – I’d never worked with ballet or created scenography before. It was a challenge I accepted immediately. They asked me to suggest other creatives to work with. I said, ‘There is only one person who can make the costumes and that is Riccardo Tisci. And there is only one person that can do the lighting – Urs Schönebaum, the master of light.’

Riccardo Tisci: I have had offers in the past from many other big theatres and operas. But I never felt ready. When this one came along, I felt it was the moment to say yes for many reasons.

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DD: What is so special about Bolero?

Riccardo Tisci: Sexuality. And this inspired my designs. The dancers are like human sculptures in the piece – their movement is incredible. I remember suggesting that they wear nothing except for bits of lace glued to the body. I wanted to do something organic, something natural.

Marina Abramovic: Boléro is a very obsessive music built on repetition. I am very inspired by repetition. Watching something like this, one almost goes into a trance-like state. For me, Boléro is about love, death, hate and passion. It’s just like electricity: pure energy. When I was designing the scenography, I thought about the field of static one sees when a television isn’t properly tuned. The sceneography became a cosmic image with black holes. There are suspended mirror panels to reflect reality and a dreamlike state. It’s basically a cosmic orgy.

DD: How would you describe your working process?

Marina Abramovic: There were five of us in total. Riccardo, myself, the choreographers Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Damien Jalet, and Urs Schönebaum. We all worked very closely together. 

Riccardo Tisci: And with the dancers, it became like a big family. We went on a journey together. 

Marina Abramovic: Riccardo and I met up in Paris and would talk for hours about ideas. That was when he had the idea of layered costumes. We decided we didn’t want to use red, a colour associated with the traditional bolero. We also chose not to have a central figure, and instead kept the focus equal on all of the dancers. 

Riccardo Tisci: I spent a lot of time with the dancers towards the end. In rehearsal I could see how the designs needed to be changed to allow movement for the dancers. I worked with the atelier of the Palais Garnier. It was a very couture-like way to work. 

DD: Riccardo, what were your initial costume inspirations?

Riccardo Tisci: I wanted to create something very strong, very sexual. And very me. I was inspired by romance. The skeleton design is very dramatic but the nude colour of the fabric has a sense of romance – I wanted the dancers to feel naked. For me, the skeleton balanced death and beauty. I decided not to use materials associated with classic ballet, such as feathers and beading. I wanted to keep it minimal but also strong, because the bolero is about jealousy and intensity. I began with the black cape, because it has been key to my career. I imagined the men and women turning in the cape. I imagined the moment they would remove the cape, and underneath would be a nude catsuit in illusion tulle embroidered with a lace skeleton. They shed several layers as they dance, just like the lifecycle of animals or flowers losing their petals. They become these moving skeletons, strong and fragile at the same time.

DD: What was the most challenging aspect of the commission?

Marina Abramovic: We wanted to find a way of creating something new, which is quite difficult with something so restrictive as opera. There were difficult points working with the conductor of an 86-strong orchestra who have worked in opera for 25 years. We suggested that instead of Boléro starting with the traditional music, we instead open with the sound of marching. He said, ‘This has never been done!’ I responded, ‘Precisely!’ It took almost two weeks to find a solution. We tried to find our own freedom in these restrictions and somehow succeeded.

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Abramovic and Tisci together

DD: How would you describe your working dynamic?

Marina Abramovic: Our ideas always seem to work in perfect harmony. 
It’s a rare kind of collaboration.

Riccardo Tisci: I have an ego, like everyone, but it’s always forgotten when I’m with Marina. I’ll ask her what she thinks and listen to her suggestions. I’m always very honest with her. 
Marina Abramovic: We are both very determined individuals. But we always put our egos aside with one another.

DD: How did you feel about the finished Work?

Marina Abramovic: We had the first dress rehearsal on January 1. I remember we had a standing ovation that night, and also for the opening night. French people are pretty cool and only show emotion if they mean it. It was like a dreamland. We were all so shocked we had actually made it. It wasn’t easy.

Riccardo Tisci: I’m so proud to have worked on Boléro with Marina, the dancers, the choreographers. It has been one of best journeys of my career. 

Marina is currently crowdfunding a performance and education centre in New York. You can, and should, pledge for the Marina Abramovic Institute here

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