Artist Marcel Dzama and the NYC Ballet’s “The Most Incredible Thing”

From vibrant set design to mesmerizing costumes and a promenade exhibition

For the fourth year in a row, the New York City Ballet has partnered with a fine artist as part of their Art Series performances. To date, however, no artist has been quite as involved as Marcel Dzama, this year’s collaborator. Not only does Lincoln Center’s David H. Koch Theater feature an exhibition of Dzama’s work (both sculpture and video) but the artist has designed the costumes and sets for the production itself—a world premiere performance dubbed “The Most Incredible Thing.” Previous artists have done this to a smaller degree, but Dzama’s contributions are embedded in the show’s development. Last week, we sat in on a dress rehearsal of the show—choreographed by Justin Peck, with music by Bryce Dessner—and the balance it strikes between whimsicality and authenticity should appeal to longtime ballet fans and those looking for a beautiful entry point.

In many ways Dzama developed the visual language from scratch. As he explains to CH, “The story [adapted from a Hans Christian Andersen tale of the same name] had some character descriptions, but I did not work off of any of them. These characters were all biblical or mythological in origin, or contained some story references that I could work off of.” Peck gave Dzama a breakdown outlining how much each dancer dances. From there, he was able to push the limits based on movement. Though, he notes, “I did give one of the principal dancers an extended, club-like hand.”

“I was also heavily influenced by early ballets,” he continues. “From the avant-garde and also the Ballets Russes.” The artist also drew from art history and the Bauhaus movement. Directly, Oskar Schlemmer’s “Triadic Ballet” would inspire the form of the king’s costume in “The Most Incredible Thing.” While his influences are evident, there’s something fresh and vibrant about Dzama’s work—and seeing the pieces alive onstage lend the finishing touch. Ultimately, however, Dzama notes, “The whole theme here was this handmade feel but with one foot in the past and one foot in the future. This is the past trying to describe the future.”

Dzama himself is a fan of dance, but the origins of his connection are uncommon. “It came about in a weird, backwards way,” he begins. “I lived in Canada before and my drawings were minimal and my characters were sparse. When I moved to New York, these characters became dense and claustrophobic and I started trying to put order to the chaos. To do this, I put them in dance poses.” From there, Dzama began buying dance magazine from the ’60s and ’70s. They were inspiration and a fascination. Here, life has imitated art.

Three of the performances during the show’s run will feature surprises. Dzama teases that they may be drawn from some of his previous collaborators—anyone from Amy Sedaris to Arcade Fire’s Will Butler. That said, “The Most Incredible Thing” is a masterful collaboration unto itself. “I find it more fun than being by myself and drawing,” Dzama says regarding collaboration. And this new ballet is fun, but it’s also a noteworthy new addition to the New York City Ballet canon.

“The Most Incredible Thing” opens today, 2 February, and will run through 7 May 2016, with the three special Art Series performances taking place on 6, 11 and 19 February. All tickets for the special presentations cost $30. General Admission for all other performances begins at $30 per ticket.

Install image by Cool Hunting, all other images courtesy of the New York City Ballet