Guest Blog: Fashion as Drama in ROBE

Monday, 08th February 2021

As ROBE approaches its launch this Friday, we’re hosting a special series of guest blogs from people involved in creating this piece, from its premiere at Tête à Tête to the new recording.


Gemma A. Williams. ROBE co-director and fashion curator: A Reflection. 


TatFest 2019’s cyberpunk fashion-opera ROBE is out Friday 12th February on Métier Records. To mark the release, I’m going to be selecting some of my favourite videos to accompany blogs about the process from the ROBE team – hopefully shedding some light on what it feels like to create a show at the festival, and celebrate the wonderful material on offer in the TaT archive through related works. 


You can watch the live performance of ROBE here:   



Paradise Lost is the original science fiction



It was great to see Her War in person, striking use of historical dress and of how the limits of the trumpet and vocal writing were tested



The Manna Threshold, an intriguing look at posthuman temporality from two of my most inspiring women in opera



The production behind UU Studio’s second outing, ROBE, was a development of the experimental collaboration that made its debut at 2018’s Tete-a-Tete with WEAR. To be accepted the following year was exhilarating, and I personally returned with a much better understanding of production and direction, of what to anticipate and how to push the limits.


UU Studios aims to place fashion and dress on a similar footing as each constituent element on stage, and part of that vision means working with designers who challenge or inspire. My interest in how people tell stories has led me to study fashion and film respectively, and I have a preoccupation with the role of fashion and dress within that. 


This work has led me from fashion archives to museums and fashion houses, exploring the history of contemporary dress and its preservation, devising narratives, and curating fashion exhibitions for institutions and galleries. Contemporary opera is an exciting next step in this journey.   


In ROBE, I chose to weave different fashion designers into the visuals which then were responsible in part for characterisation. Elaborate fashion ensembles were curated from emerging designers like RCA graduate Michael Stewart as well as Chinese labels Ka Wa Key and Tommy Zhong.


I first discovered Stewart when I was creating In The Fold, an exhibition commissioned as part of Irish Design 2015. The three sculptural pieces used in ROBE come from his graduate collection, the concept of which was based on the reanimation of ancient female forms. Stewart’s long jersey dresses mixed striking silhouettes with muted tones, anchoring the singers on their podiums; their bulging, uncanny protrusions interlocked when Beira and Neachneohain melded together to form EDINBURGH.


On the other hand, Ka Wa Key’s light but provocative menswear allowed the dancers to move easily, while further distinguishing their separate narrative within the structure. I came across this duo at London Fashion Week and the label, based on textile reimagining, design gender-neutral collections which they showcase in intimate performances all over the world, from New York to Helsinki, Paris and Shanghai.  


Finally, the startling ‘ROBE’ itself, a red, one buttoned taffeta coat dress came from London-based duo Tommy Zhong and Jenny Nelson. The founders combine Zhong’s Eastern heritage and aesthetic with Western creativity, design and workmanship: it’s a piece that I first saw on the runway at Shanghai Fashion Week and now am lucky enough to own. 


This visual palette was expanded by propmaker Brian Archer and the high fashion make-up design of Artist Kearney. Archer’s handmade inflating objects bathed in green light ingeniously aerated over the duration of the opera, creating obtuse, intriguing focal points as they puffed out. To extend the characterization, Kearney’s dramatic make-up animated and augmented the cast, compounding the onstage otherworldliness.  


In the end, as the journey of the staging evolved, what was captured on the night hinged on the communication of a restrained directional tone. Given the virtuosity of the performances, the complexity of the music and the multiplicity of narrative direction, my co-director Pamela Schermann and I embraced open spaces and restrained movement to anchor the singers, allowing them to express emotion through gesture alone: emphasizing stillness and spatiality against the choreographer’s sheer, angled kineticism.


On the night, some of my favourite scenes were the uncanny intrusions of the two silent actors who appear on stage as the characters’ visions. Like a moment of perception in a fever dream, the encroachment of the ‘real world’ prescribed by their realist, quotidian dress also throws into relief the spectral nature of the production. 


None of this would be possible without the support of Tete-a-Tete. The importance of the festival as an exploratory research medium cannot be underestimated: it allows you to take risks, to do the unexpected and ultimately find your own way, is always there to offer support and advice when you need it. Each time, the journey is unique, and the learnings invaluable, and the feeling – utterly exhilarating.


ROBE comes out on Friday 12th February 2021.