DANCE / Dressed to impress, dressed to express: In opera or theatre designers can make or break a production, in dance they can make or break a leg.

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The Independent Culture
It may be that some of the people who dress ballets for the stage are themselves frustrated dancers. At least, Bruce McClean, who's recently designed a work for the Royal Ballet choreographer Ashley Page, was smitten by a late and burning ambition to dance when he was 21.

'I'd met a friend in a pub who suggested that as a conceptual artist I ought really to be a dancer too, so I cycled over to Ballet Rambert to join up. As I got nearer, I could feel it all coming on - the leotard, the jock strap and the lead dancer being taken ill. I was quite thin then and amazingly good-looking and I wanted to make sculptures with my body. They were very nice at Rambert, but they didn't really understand.'

Antony McDonald, who has also just finished designing a ballet for Page, is not to be outdone in thwarted potential. He, McClean, Page and I are wedged in the corner of a wine bar trying to discuss the current state of dance design.

'I've always been told I have a dancer's arches,' McDonald says, pointing a pink socked foot. 'Look, aren't they high.' Page looks down and says, apologetically, that actually, no, they aren't. Rebuffed, McDonald turns to McClean to discuss his thighs - which he admits aren't up to a professional standard. Then the two of them start ganging up against Page (who has very nice legs) over the unequal balance of power between choreographers and designers.

While private relations between all three are noisily amicable, the clash of artistic egos can be a major problem when designers work for dance. In opera and theatre, they're often given a fairly free hand because music and words have an independent life that can survive most of what a designer throws at them. But dance is itself a visual art and the wrong design can seriously disrupt the choreography. A clashing set may invade the movement's space or make it hard to see, while misconceived or badly cut costumes may hamper the dancers' freedom.

McDonald's work on Fearful Symmetries, Page's new ballet, has almost finished - and while it's been a good collaboration, it has crystallised some of the difficulties McDonald has with dance. To begin with, it's an abstract work and, coming from a theatre background, he is happier working with narrative. The set wasn't a problem because he found so much in John Adams' score to respond to - 'It's incredibly American, it evokes all the energy one feels in New York, the collision of huge skyscrapers.' But, however thrilling he thinks the movement, he found the costumes hard to do. 'It's a very fireworks piece so the movement has to be precise and Ashley didn't want anything distracting. But it's difficult doing abstract costumes, I mean, where do you begin?'

The problem is that there are so few variations on the minimal, dance-serving outfit. McDonald is allergic to the obvious one - the lycra all-in-one - not only because it's been used so often, but because he hates what it does to the human body. 'It's like clingfilm, it squashes in all the bits and makes them look horrible.' He has a fancy for tutus because 'women look so wonderful in them, and they're such a fabulous shape they seem almost mythic to me'. But tutus weren't appropriate for Pages' ballet, so McDonald finally came up with tight, supple mini-dresses for the women and fluid suits for the men. He feels, though, that he could invent far more radical alternatives if ballet companies had more flexible ways of scheduling new work. Ideally, he'd like to be able to play with several experimental costumes which could be tried out in rehearsal, before being committed to a final design.

McClean nods energetic agreement. His own costumes for Page's ballet Renard were the basic tutu and leotard school, but he had the fun of inventing bright, cartoon details for all the various animal characters - chic red cockscombs for the hens, a kipper tie for the goat, a huge scarlet penis for the cock. His set was also very dominant - a multi-level hen coop which took up about a third of the stage. While he was working on the piece, McClean was happy to fit in with Page's basic demands ('He always gets what he wants, Ashley'), but McDonald's comments now fire him up with a new vision of the designer as boss. Interrupting the latter's deliberations about how to make interesting costumes that don't impede the dancers, McClean snorts: 'I'd like to make them wear something constricting, I'd like to make them work a bit harder, and set some problems for the choreographer. What about a piece where the richest woman in the dance had the biggest dress, say 40ft across, which obliterated everyone else's movements? I'd like to see what the choreographer would do with that.'

Page, who's spent a long day working on the complex steps of Fearful Symmetries, looks rather pale. He's sportingly interested in McClean's scheme, but points out that it's a very different kind of concept from a ballet where he's trying to explore his own dance language and where his dancers have to be free to move.

But if Page isn't immediately rushing to explore the potential of 40ft dresses, he certainly isn't the kind of choreographer who thinks of design as a convenient window dressing for his steps. As well as working with McDonald and McClean, he's also collaborated with artists like Howard Hodgkin, Jack Smith and Deanna Petherbridge - all with powerful visions of their own.

'I use certain designers because I want my dance to take place in an interesting environment, but also because the people I work with always bring something to the piece, they help me think differently about it. I'm not interested in design; that's just an easy solution - a bit of floating skirt and painted backdrop, and I'll go along with most of my designers' ideas as long as they don't interfere with what I'm trying to do.'

Page has, in fact, been criticised in some quarters for the boldness of his designers' choices - Petherbridge's huge industrial structure for Bloodlines or Hodgkins' magnificent swathes of green and blue paint for Piano. He thinks that, although the English are uncomfortable with a stageful of unadorned steps, they are also suspicious of anything that smacks of an independent or radical visual statement.

While Page has been talking, McClean's vision of a new order for dance and design has swelled. He's now pondering plans for a revolutionary kind of theatre for dance which will be completely unlike 'the usual old cornflakes packet'. He's also getting excited about choreographing a piece which will feature a mass cast of dancers moving very slowly around the stage. 'Someone was telling me about the Egyptian army where they used to have about two million soldiers advancing on the enemy at a snail's pace. It completely terrified them. You can really freak people out with slow movement. We should do a piece like that. Let's go over and capture the Opera House and do it.'

Page turns even paler. McDonald meanwhile has headed off to the gym to work on his thighs.

'Fearful Symmetries' opens at the Royal Opera House on Saturday (071-240 1066)

(Photograph omitted)