Divas of Dance

2012-10-24 12:04

Two of the grande dames of South African culture – fashion designer Marianne Fassler and choreo-grapher Robyn Orlin – have collaborated on a typically innovative dance – Beauty Remained for Just a Moment Then Returned Gently to Her Starting Position. Charl Blignaut met them for a chat.

Marianne Fassler is working the cappuccino machine in her kitchen.

With her fiery red dreadlocks, the country’s most enduring fashionista quite simply never has a bad hair day, but she’s tired after a long session in her Leopard Frock studio, where she’s finishing off the wardrobe for a new piece of experimental theatre by Robyn Orlin.

After almost four decades in the rag trade, the legendary designer is becoming increasingly anti-fashion.

Then again, Marianne has always been elegantly anti.

At the height of apartheid, in 1976, the art student and Afrochic pioneer staged a fashion show using only black models.

Today, in her ridiculously gorgeous home in Joburg, amid the stonework and the walls exploding with contemporary art, Marianne has been embraced by the mainstream and received countless awards.

But clothes are the last thing on her mind. She talks about South African artists, writers and activists with the quiet enthusiasm of the lifelong patron.

She and her businessman husband, Charles Bothner, are constantly unearthing new art talent.

Robyn bustles in from a rehearsal for the new piece, called Beauty Remained for Just a Moment Then Returned Gently to Her Starting Position.

Long titles are one of Robyn’s things.

Her performative multimedia dance collaborations travel the world and she is a big name in France.

She lives with her husband, filmmaker Oliver Schmitz, in Berlin.

Another supplier of the anti, the diminutive, edgy Robyn was the first of the avant-garde successes of contemporary South African dance.

Now the bad girl of ballet, who helped reinvent the tutu to produce a darkly naive African aesthetic, has had skirts made by Marianne.

The designer’s layered and wispy garments have been exaggerated and restitched using byproducts of the consumer age.

There are reptilian dresses of shiny black bags, mielie sack sashes and China bag ballgowns, tutus of Fong Kong Louis Vuitton handbags, of water bottles, of tulle with silver CDs shining through, plastic supermarket packet skirts long enough for a man on stilts.

They offer a kind of street circus couture.

I have only one real question:

What’s it like to be so old and still in fashion?
(Hoots of laughter)
Robyn: Well, that’s a question for Marianne, because I’m not in fashion!

Marianne:
She’s very young!

Robyn:
No, I’m old, but I’m not in fashion!

Do you tell journalists how old you are?
Marianne: I’m not telling you how old we are! It’s completely irrelevant. It’s ageist.
I hate it when they say woman, 23, in car crash or grandmother, 47, gets boob job.

Robyn:
I talk very easily about my age. Which is 56.

How long have you known one another?

Robyn: Oh God. Forever.

Marianne:
I still remember Robyn’s very first work, at the Market Theatre. Sunrise City. It was brilliant. There was such an energy.

Robyn
: And then we got banned.

Marianne:
Why? Were you naked? I can’t remember.

Robyn:
Me neither. I wasn’t in it, I did the choreography.

You hadn’t made it yet?
Robyn: No, but Marianne had a reputation for being one of the best designers in town.

Marianne:
The reason I had it is that I was Afrikaans and all the journalists came to me because I could speak their language.

Robyn:
It’s not true! All the Jews came to you to have their bat mitzvah dresses made.

Marianne:
We’ve always understood one another. She’s just become very European now. It’s not a negative thing. You’re an incredible success.

Robyn:
I still feel very South African. Though I must say that this year, coming back to South Africa, things have changed.

For the better or the worse?

Robyn: It doesn’t matter. I’m not making any judgements. There’s been some kind of an evolution and I think to myself, am I still part of this? But after two or three days, I’m back.

Marianne:
I see changes I don’t like. I wrote letters to the city council saying, by the way, when the city manager gets back from his overseas shopping trip and he’s finished with his manicure… He just has to walk round any block to see what’s happening. Because I walk in Joburg and I think the city manager doesn’t exist anymore.

So how did the Beauty collaboration start?
Marianne: We sat down and said, what do we think is beautiful?

Robyn:
My incentive, living in Europe, was that I’m so sick and tired of Africa always being depicted as starving and at war. I’m not saying those things don’t exist, but I need something positive. I knew I must talk to Marianne.

Marianne:
I love unexpected intrusions of beauty, things that turn your head. There’s that quote, ‘any-body who tries to be beautiful is ugly’. The more you try to have the hair and make-up and the fashion, you turn into this ugly thing. Most people live with blinkers that make them think Louis Vuitton is beautiful.

So you’ve made fashion out of trash?
Marianne: It’s an extension of what I do. I recycle everything. I don’t throw an inch of fabric away. I treasure things. The girls laugh at me. I will pick a scrap off the floor and say, ‘This is very valuable, put it on the pinboard.’

Robyn:
It’s similar to my working with dancers.

Marianne:
Because she actually asks the dancers to invent their own dances, which is what the fabric does for me. I don’t sit and design a collection, make pretty pictures and then post them up and put the fabrics with it. I start and the gaps fill themselves in. I work organically. Robyn works organically.

So here we sit and now you have grandkids, Marianne, and you have a kid, Robyn.

Marianne: Must we talk about this?

It’s compulsory.

Marianne: I was a child bride, remember that. And she was on the shelf when she got her child.

Robyn:
Totally. I’ve had three marriages, after all.

Who’s had the most?
Robyn: Me. They call me Zsa Zsa Gaborlin.

Marianne: The first ones are starter marriages. You have to kiss a few frogs… I only have one ex and I don’t like him. I think it’s bizarre when people remain friends, otherwise they could still be married.

You’ve got a prolific number of grandchildren.
Marianne: I love it. I like to see things through their eyes. For me it’s part of creativity. It’s a life flow.

The grandkids call you Sussie?
Marianne: Yes, but everybody calls me Sus in my family. I was christened Martha Johanna because my granny’s name was Martha Johanna.

You won’t tell your age, but you’ll admit to this!
Marianne: My mother told the entire family that they must call me Marianne. They ignored her. We were twins. My brother was Boetie and I was Sussie.

Robyn, why did you decide to adopt?
Robyn: I had two quite horrible miscarriages and I said to Oliver I can’t do this anymore.
I was fairly old – I decided at 43 I wanted a child. I said, let’s adopt. That was nine years ago. Her name is Ruby Nomalanga, which means Ruby Sunshine. She’s very German, even though she’s really a Zulu.
But we bring her back here often.

Why have you chosen to settle in Berlin?
Robyn: Oliver chose Berlin. He was struggling. He couldn’t find the money here to make movies.

br>And you, Marianne? You never went off to work overseas?
Marianne: I did have an opportunity, but I had my kids. And I realised what was really important to me was my infrastructure. I’m very attached to the people who enable me to be creative – my technical crew. I’ve never had an ambition to run a famous international fashion house. I don’t go and look at fashion shows in Paris. For me fashion is so disposable that the minute it appears anywhere, it’s obsolete. For my next show I just want to do what I do and I couldn’t care a damn about fashion. I don’t even like fashion.

Robyn:
And I don’t like dance! So what are
we doing? (Hoots of laughter)


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