Annabelle Lopez Ochoa Explores the Controversial Life of Fashion Icon Coco Chanel

March 22, 2023

The little black dress is an essential women’s wardrobe piece and a symbol of its inventor, Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel. Now, Chanel’s rags to riches life story is the subject of Coco Chanel: The Life of a Fashion Icon, a new ballet choreographed by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa and co-produced by Hong Kong Ballet, Atlanta Ballet and Queensland Ballet.

One could argue that we shouldn’t glorify Chanel. She was an opportunist who grew up in poverty, then, through a series of wealthy lovers and her genius for design, rose to the top of the fashion industry, eventually living among Paris’ social and artistic elite.

A black and white photo shows a male and a female dancer rehearsing together in a large studio with white roller desks behind them. The ballerina, wearing a dance sweater, tights, a leotard, a long practice skirt and pointe shoes, does an arabesque penché on one of the desks, holding onto her partner's shoulders. The male dancer, wearing a t-shirt, tights, ballet shoes and a bandana, lunges and holds her steady. They look into each others' eyes.
Hong Kong Ballet artists rehearsing Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s Coco Chanel: The Life of a Fashion Icon. Photo courtesy HKB.

When Germany invaded France during World War II, Chanel took as a lover Hans Günther von Dincklage, a Nazi spy who helped her maintain a luxurious lifestyle in Paris, author Hal Vaughn writes in Sleeping with the Enemy: Coco Chanel’s Secret War. Citing wartime police files and intelligence archives, Vaughan illustrates how Dincklage led Chanel to work as an agent for German military intelligence and the Nazi SS (Schutzstaffel).

Notoriously antisemitic—event hough business alliances with Jewish men served her—Chanel was, in short, a piece of work. Yet public fascination with the fashion iconoclast remains strong.

Coco is Ochoa’s 10th narrative work and one of several ballets Ochoa has made about strong and complicated historical women—stories she tells through a style that depicts modern narrative scenes in abstract and concise movements.

One of the most prolific female choreographers working at the top of her profession, Ochoa brings her fluidly inventive style to a collaboration with dramaturge Nancy Meckler, composer Peter Salem and designer Jérôme Kaplan, who will tell Chanel’s story amid the glitz and dynamism of Jazz Age Paris.

A black and white photo shows Annabelle Lopez Ochoa from the waist up as she raises her hands up, smiling, during a rehearsal. Two male dancers laugh with her in the background.
Annabelle Lopez Ochoa in rehearsal with Hong Kong Ballet. Photo courtesy HKB.

Ochoa says she has choreographed “an entire scene about Chanel’s dark chapter with the Nazis,” she says, adding, “I do not idolize Chanel, nor do I put her on a pedestal.”

When Atlanta Ballet produces the work next February, the company will partner with the William Breman Jewish Heritage Museum to explore the harmful impact of Chanel’s antisemitism and collaboration with Nazis, while providing educational resources and hosting discussions on combating antisemitism today.

“Behind the surface of a strong woman,” Ochoa says, “there is always a hidden emotional story full of hardships and flaws.”

Hong Kong Ballet will present the world premiere March 24–26, 2023, followed by Atlanta Ballet’s North American premiere in February 2024 and Queensland Ballet’s debut in the fall of 2024.