The Chanel logo is one of the world’s better-known symbols, adorning jewelry, handbags, lipstick and more. Now the motif has even imprinted on choreography.
A dance sequence with dancers’ bodies evoking the famous interlocking C’s is one part of “Coco Chanel: The Life of a Fashion Icon,” now making its North American premiere at Atlanta Ballet through Feb. 17. The moment is just one of the ways in which the acclaimed choreographer Annabelle Lopez Ochoa addresses the lingering, complex influence of her subject, the French designer Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel.
A tale of a strong-willed woman whose rags-to-riches life (1883-1971) included stunning success in a business environment dominated by men, the ballet has potential feminist resonance — all the more so because Chanel brought a new pragmatism, freedom and comfort to fashion, liberating women from their corsets. But a terpsichorean portrait of the couturier is also a potentially fraught project: She was notoriously antisemitic and a Nazi collaborator.
“It was important to share that dark chapter,” Ochoa says.
The ballet “opens the door for interpretations, for more research, more conversations. That is what art is supposed to do,” says Gennadi Nedvigin, artistic director of Atlanta Ballet, which has co-produced “Coco Chanel” with Hong Kong Ballet (where it premiered in 2023) and Queensland Ballet (where it’s headed next).
The show has its roots in Ochoa’s professional relationship with Septime Webre, Hong Kong Ballet’s artistic director. He knew her work from the 17 years he spent as artistic director of the Washington Ballet, which has performed her pieces, and he admired her flair for creating kaleidoscopic onstage patterns, surprising partnering moves and dramatic atmospheres. After taking the helm of Hong Kong Ballet in 2017, he looked for a way to collaborate.
A ballet about Chanel had been on Ochoa’s bucket list. The Belgian-Colombian choreographer has created dances about other tenacious and complicated real-life women: Eva “Evita” Perón. Frida Kahlo. Maria Callas.
“I love diving into the backstories of people to understand what their drive and their fears are,” especially women who “had a lot of hardships and a lot of flaws and were judged,” Ochoa says. (In a separate project, Ochoa will be curating a run of Washington Ballet performances this spring.)
Chanel’s biography has inspired other art, including the 2009 movie “Coco Before Chanel” and the 1969 Broadway musical “Coco,” starring Katharine Hepburn. Ballet has gotten in on the action before, with choreographer Yuri Possokhov creating a 2019 one-act about Chanel for ballerina Svetlana Zakharova. A cottage industry of nonfiction books has mined Chanel’s saga, and she’s a character in Apple TV Plus’s new series “The New Look.”
Her popularity as a topic is no wonder, given her meteoric ascent from an impoverished childhood (spent partly in an orphanage) to the social stratosphere, where she hobnobbed with royals and aristocrats, artists such as Igor Stravinsky (with whom she had one of her many affairs), and movers and shakers including Winston Churchill.
With a less-is-more aesthetic (think: little black dress) and practical designs that made it easy for women to dress themselves without a helper, Chanel created a fashion vocabulary still in use today. “People don’t realize the influence she had on fashion, because she is completely integrated now,” says Jérôme Kaplan, who designed the set and costumes for Ochoa’s ballet.
Chanel herself was a sometime ballet-costume designer, devising garb for Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, which she also supported financially. There’s a long, fertile overlap between the realms of the catwalk and pas de chat: Fashion heavyweights including Christian Lacroix, Prada and Rodarte have designed ballet costumes, and ballerinas such as Margot Fonteyn have sported couture offstage.
Choreographer Ochoa does not identify as a fashionista; she was interested in Chanel the person, not the brand. Working with artistic collaborator Nancy Meckler, Ochoa distilled Chanel’s story and set it to an original score composed by Peter Salem (the ballet “The Crucible”). One scene recalls the hat-making business that launched the designer’s career. In another, groups of flowerlike dancers conjure the development of Chanel No. 5 perfume.
Kaplan designed more than 180 costumes (including multiples), some of which allude to Chanel couture while allowing for dance movement and avoiding outright duplication. “You are close, but you don’t copy,” Kaplan says. (The Chanel company has not been involved.)
The elegantly minimalist black-and-ivory packaging of Chanel No. 5 was an inspiration for the show’s general look and color scheme.
In an expressionistic touch, the ballet includes not only a Chanel figure but also a Shadow-Chanel, who represents her ambition, determination and opportunism. “The shadow is really driving her,” Ochoa says.
Exploring the darker side of the story, the ballet depicts Chanel’s love affair with the Nazi officer Baron Hans Günther von Dincklage in occupied France during World War II. Also portrayed is her effort to exploit the Nazi Aryanization laws to target the Jewish Wertheimer family, business partners of hers, whom she resented for having gained control of her perfume business.
Beyond the production, Atlanta Ballet has taken steps to acknowledge and contextualize “the very problematic aspects, the very dark side, of Coco Chanel,” says the company’s executive director, Tom West. For example, the company teamed with the city’s William Breman Jewish Heritage Museum for a panel discussion exploring Chanel’s troubling legacy.
Webre says the ballet’s lens on gender makes it a valuable complement to hoary dance staples.
“Our classical canon, in ballets like ‘Giselle’ and ‘Swan Lake’ and ‘Sleeping Beauty,’ present[s] a narrow view of women as vulnerable creatures who live their lives in relation to a man,” he says. “Coco, by contrast, is a complex, independent woman — with flaws. Deep flaws. But she lived her life on her own terms.”
When it comes to creating ballets, Ochoa says: “I don’t like fairy tales. I like stories about real women.”