Contemporary Dance Commission

Costume designed and made for a performance at the National Galleries of Scotland

as part of the Louise Bourgeois Retrospective exhibition


Louise Bourgeois constantly analysed her inner most thoughts and fears, finding peace with them through the process of sculpture. Her personal life and her professional work as an artist are one and the same thing; Any person viewing her work within its context is becomes analytical as they search for parallels in their own lives and both judge and make emotional connections with what they see before them. As an audience we judge Louise as a person - the defensive barrier or armour that most people put up is completely transparent in her case.

Protection and vulnerability have been predominant themes in many of her works. Both her amorphous Lair series of the 1960s and her late Cells of the 1990s make visible psychological states of fear. The inside gives protection while the surrounding structure is suggestive of camouflage and defence against prying outside eyes. It is the helpless exposure of someone who can’t conceal themselves within their own dwelling - a homely structure that is a container of comfort but also a space filled with secrets and suppressed violence, unspoken fears. This of course reflects back to her struggle in fitting into her role as mother and housewife, as well as the painful memories of her childhood home and all that it contained and concealed.

I decided to focus on these overarching themes as a starting point for development of both the costume and the discussion of ideas for choreography with my dancer. Each design explores different interpretations of Bourgeois’ presentation of defence and entrapment.

Cage like structures on the body act as restrictive barriers and contrast with visceral underlayers giving both an exterior silhouette and interior view. Just as the gallery space is transformed with the cell as a space within a space, I wanted the costume to have this element too, with the body masked by a structure around it. This also links to Bourgeois’ fascination with the body as a mechanism and sculpture in its own right.

The roughly hewn marble sockets of the Cells have a confrontational element to them when first seen, causing the viewer to feel small and insignificant, yet they also retreat away from the voyeuristic gaze of the audience. Where the costumes have socket like motifs - so you can see through to the softer layer next to the skin - the choreography of the piece will also reflect this unnerving quality with the garment masking parts of the body such as the face and hands, which will then emerge from parts of the costume. This is also evocative of the figure retreating into a womb like structure, linking to Bourgeois’ longing in old age to return to the role of a child nurtured by her mother. I wanted the dancer therefore to be able to both retreat into and break out of the costume, in the way that Bourgeois broke away from her fears by exorcising them and leaving them behind in her work.

Bourgeois’ Femme Maison was a key image in my research as it represents the solitude that she felt at a particular time in her life and how she visualised this. It links too to Fallen Woman where the figure has no hands and so is helpless. Both have strong silhouettes and I wanted this to be true of my designs too, especially as the dancer will be viewed at first through the mesh of the cell.

The choreography is to be based on the effect that Cell - Mirrors and Eyes has on spectators. When watching how people react to the room, they are at first confronted with the mirrors forcing self-criticism upon them. The dancer would be seen behind these mirrors, through the Cell and their headpiece, a bold red silhouette gazing defiantly back at them. The almost predatorial way in which visitors to the exhibition encircle the Cell gives the impression that the organ like elements of the interior are victims, in this way I want the dancer to be at once confrontational and vulnerable in her movements.