Guess What? We Made Our Own Custom Fabric Design for Nutcracker

A first for The Straz, the new fabric designs represent a wild collaboration between dance costuming and graphic design.

When people think of the graphic design department in a performing arts non-profit, they may imagine program layouts, banners, signage, logos and the like. They may not consider a couture collaboration to produce custom costumes specifically for dance.

The Straz Center houses an extraordinary ballet training program headed by Philip Neal, a retired principal dancer from New York City Ballet. Our pre-professional ballet company, Next Generation Ballet, stages a knockout production of Nutcracker each season, hosting famous guest artists in the roles of Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier. (This year we’ve got Maria Kowroski from NYCB—the real dancer for the Barbie ballerina movies—and Aran Bell of American Ballet Theatre, who was featured in the Youth America Grand Prix documentary First Position).

Next Generation Ballet students rehearsing for Nutcracker

If you’ve attended NGB’s production of Nutcracker, you already know it is lavish, sumptuous, magical and full of exquisite classical ballet technique. The production’s costumes star as some of the most fun eye candy in this Land of the Sweets, with their detailed faux fur trims, delicate embellishments and delightful array of bold colors. If you haven’t been to Nutcracker yet, then get your tickets for the show this weekend  because you’re in for a treat.

This past summer, NGB costumer Camille McClellan brainstormed with Philip about the possibility of producing designed fabrics that she could customize for NGB dancers. If they could find a local company to print directly to spandex blend textiles, then we could potentially have bolts of fabric for affordable, sustainable, unique-to-NGB costumes.

Costume Designer Camille reviewing plans for one of the new designs for Nutcracker

Philip and Camille decided to revamp the four leopard and 11 butterfly costumes using print-to-fabric technology, which would allow Camille to hand draw the new look Philip envisioned. What they needed to complete the project was the aid of graphic designers to trace Camille’s pattern in Photoshop, convert it to a digital print file and send it to the printer who could ink the design onto stretchable fabric. Then Camille could cut the patterns and sew the costumes together, add embellishments and have them show-ready by this weekend.

To see their idea become reality, Camille and the dance department partnered with Straz graphic designers Joseph LaCrue and Roderick Taracatac to take her designs into the digitally print-ready world.

Camille and Graphic Designers review samples of the custom printed designs.

“What was fun for me,” says Joseph, who worked with Camille for the new butterfly costumes, “was that Camille has been in the costume industry for years, so she automatically started off the project thinking about what the costume would look like under theater lights, how it would read from the back of the audience. That’s where I was really impressed. She’s thinking of not just the dancer; she’s thinking about the audience member … can they see it? Is it going to read? I thought that was really cool.”

Camille estimates she spent about 200 hours over the summer getting the design and measurements of the costumes perfect then painstakingly calculating the exact positions of where the designs needed to be on the fabric so they would line up properly when she cut out the parts and sewed the costume into one piece. She determined she would need three different-sized costumes to accommodate the diversity among the size of the dancers, which meant that she had to repeat the laborious calculations and draw the costume, in full, on graph paper with tick marks denoting where the pattern was to meet upon sewing.

Camille spends countless hours fine-tuning the details to each costume that will be seen on stage during the Nutcracker performances

Joseph then scanned the three life-sized costume drawings, reduced them to scale, hand-traced over them in Photoshop, colorized them and saved the work to a digital file to send to the printer. The anxiety-producing aspect of this project was that there was no margin for error. The calculations, drawings and tick marks had to be perfect, otherwise the pattern wouldn’t align, ruining the entire costume.

“This project was extremely technical. For me, it was two hours to draw the petite, two hours to draw the medium, two hours to draw the tall. This is about as couture as I think you can get in this day and age,” Joseph says. “We talked about why wouldn’t you do this with just dyed fabric and an applique, but the theory is that if we invested in this technology now, we’ll have these costumes for generations to come. I know this was a labor of love for Camille. I think we all learned a lot on this project. It was fun.”

Butterfly costume design for Nutcracker

“The dance department is thrilled to be using this technology, and the graphic designers have been great to work with,” says Camille, who hand-sewed the 15 new costumes, adding arm sheers to the butterflies and gem embellishments to the leopard unitards. “The butterflies were such a challenge because of the scattered design that wraps around the body and a ribbon element that had to match at the side seams in five different locations. I wanted something fantastical for the leopard print and found the inspiration from a Versace ad I saw in a fashion magazine. I gave that to Roderick and said ‘this!’”

“I have created prints and patterns for projects in the past, but never anything that was used for performing art on stage,” Roderick says. “This collaboration was a blast. Camille is a very detail-oriented artist, who had a strong vision of what she wanted the final piece to look like. That took a lot of the guesswork out of the project and really streamlined the creative process. Once the colors were finally nailed down, there was some back and forth on scale of the print, and before we knew it, we had the final product done and out to the printer. Camille named this print Confetti Leopard.”

Camille’s originally named ‘Confetti Leopard’ custom printed fabric

You can see the debut of these new costumes this weekend when NGB’s Nutcracker  dances onto Morsani Hall stage.

House of Karinska

How a Russian defector built couture fashion from ballet costumes during the rise of New York City Ballet

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Barbara Karinska. (Photo courtesy of Holly Hynes.)

Chanel. Gucci. Givenchy. These famous fashion houses earned notoriety for their signature styles, making their designs easily recognizable – the Chanel suit, the Gucci bag, the Givenchy dress.

In the golden age of American ballet, during the times of Agnes deMille and George Balanchine, one woman rose to the top of her field, making and designing dance costumes that combined form, function and artistry to create ballet’s line of couture. However, no one called it that at the time; the garments were still “just” costumes – but history, and the designers who came after, recognized right away that something special happened at the hands of this woman.

Barbara Karinska created fashions in ballet that are as easy to spot as a Chanel suit. Though her name may not precede her designs (there’s no “Karinska tutu” or “Karinska leotard”), once you know what she did, you start seeing her every time you look at classic New York City Ballet dances.

Born in the Ukraine as Varvara Andryevna Zmoudsky in 1886 to upper-class privilege, Karinska learned the skills of that class, including intricate embroidery. She studied law and volunteered in a women’s prison, eventually marrying a newspaper editor. When he died prematurely of typhus, Karinska assumed his post at the paper, a bold and shocking move for a woman at the turn of the century. With her eye on the bubbling political climate that would lead to the Russian Revolution, Karinska closed the paper and set up an embroidery shop in Moscow, meeting her second husband, Nicholas Karinsky, a government official. When the Bolsheviks seized power, Nicholas fled, leaving Karinska and their daughter in Moscow.

Interesting side note: Karinska assumed Nicholas died while on the run. She never knew that he drove a taxi in New York for 20 years.

The above photograph of Karinska’s original costume for Balanchine’s Scotch Symphony records volumes of American ballet history in just one image. You can make out “Karinska, New York” on the label and the names of two superstar NYCB ballerinas who donned this costume. Karinska designed the costume for Balanchine muse Maria Tallchief in 1952, and we can see that the final muse of his storied career, Suzanne Farrell, wore this piece when she performed Scotch Symphony. Her successor, Kyra Nichols, stepped into the tutu after Farrell retired. The stark contrast between the frayed label and the almost pristine condition of the costume around it displays the impeccable construction of Karinska’s work. Also, Nichols’ principal partner was our very own Philip Neal, the artistic director of the Patel Conservatory’s Next Generation Ballet.

Eventually, the communists offered Karinska a position in the government as the Commisar of Museums. She accepted the post, convinced the Bolsheviks she needed to further educate herself in Germany, then grabbed her daughter and orphaned nephew and escaped to Belgium. She sewed the last of the family jewels in her daughter’s clothes. The refugees eventually found a life in Paris, with Karinska setting up a small sewing shop. She earned a few cabaret commissions, creating a small reputation for herself.

That reputation was about to go global, however: in 1931, the artistic director of Ballet Russes de Monte Carlo – a gentleman named George Balanchine – commissioned Karinska to make the costumes for his upcoming ballet, Cotillion. She agreed. Thus began a relationship that would dominate the ballet costume landscape until 1983, the year she and Balanchine passed away six months apart.

“I think there was a love thing there,” says Holly Hynes, the award-winning designer who took over the NYCB costume shop two years after Karinska’s death. “I mean, not a romantic relationship. He had plenty of wives and ballerinas, but I think Karinska was head over heels for Mr. B. Balanchine, I think, loved stories about Karinska and loved when there was some conflict in the costume shop. He’d have to go calm her down, pat her hand.”

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Holly Hynes. (Photo: Rosalie O’Connor)

Hynes, who came on the scene with NYCB during the reign of Jerome Robbins, inherited Karinska’s house – the elite NYCB costume shop full of original costumes, Russians and other assorted people virulently loyal to Barbara Karinska. In her 20s and a native of Des Moines, Iowa, without a single word of Russian in her vocabulary, Hynes had a rather large tutu to fill. In time, she earned the respect of the costume makers and picked up enough Russian to impress a cocktail party,

“I started to totally respect Karinska,” Hynes says. “She was many things. She was an unbelievable ballet costume designer. She went to Hollywood to work with Ingrid Bergman on Joan of Arc and won an Oscar®. She did clothes for burlesque star Gypsy Rose Lee. She was a maker, she was a designer and she also was someone who was so good at interpreting somebody else’s design. Balanchine would bring in artists to collaborate with her on costume designs. One of the artists was Marc Chagall to talk about shapes and colors. Karinska knew how to make what the artist saw.”

With the costume patterns being secrets guarded as closely as Cold War intel to prevent theft, Hynes discovered the dressmakers’ notes impossible to decipher. “The draper [person who keeps the patterns and cuts the cloth] was Russian but understood Polish and could speak English and French beautifully,” says Hynes. “She would use all four languages and a combination of the languages on her notes so that nobody could read her pattern. It was like Morse code.”

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Details of Karinska’s designs for Western Symphony, exclusive from the “costume bible” of Karinska’s successor at NYCB, Holly Hynes.

Hynes unraveled the mystery of Karinka’s designs the old-fashioned way – she took them apart. “This art form is dying back, so I feel grateful that I got to have that experience to take old Karinskas – stockings, bodices, skirts, tunics or whatever – and examine why patterns were done a certain way, or why she chose to have the workmen do it a certain way. She was a genius, a sculptor of soft fabric.”

For costume design, and ballet costumes in particular, Karinska’s genius lay within her deep understanding of ballet as a whole. “She didn’t just draw or pin stuff on a mannequin,” says Hynes. “She went to the theater. She watched from the house. She stood back and looked at stuff in fittings. She studied how different lighting affected different colors and fabrics. She got a sense of what the audience would see and what the dancers would see looking down at themselves. She was all-encompassing.”

From this perspective, Karinska was able to make and design a few revolutionary changes that are common in ballet today. “She realized dancers have to breathe. The corsets were tight because they were the same as dress corsets. In the ‘30s and ‘40s, the tightest part was over the ribs. She cut fabric on the bias [diagonal] which allows the fabric to give,” says Hynes. This one small, ingenious idea allowed ballerinas to have tight bodices and the ability to take deep breaths. Seems impossible it ever would have been another way, right? Credit Karinska.

Straz staff and volunteers working on the Western Symphony costumes, on loan from Miami City Ballet whose costumers re-created Karinska’s original work, for Next Generation Ballet’s Pirates and Cowboys.

“Another Karinska signature was the creation of the ‘powder-puff tutu.’ The skirts have a droop,” Hynes says. Prior to Karinska, classical tutus – ‘pancake’ tutus – shot straight out, encircling the dancer’s waist like a frisbee. If the tutus collided onstage, the skirts tilted upwards, a look both unbecoming and silly. Because Balanchine’s early dancers were thicker with muscles in the thighs and buttocks plus his choreography was so bustling, Karinska developed a new, softer style of tutu that appeared to hug the hips.

Western Symphony, Balanchine’s “cowboy and saloon girl” ballet being performed by Next Generation Ballet this May, showcases this powder-puff tutu design, possibly in its greatest form.

Another example of the powder-puff tutu design.

“When I got to New York City Ballet in ’85, the Western Symphony tutus had never been cleaned,” Hynes says. “They were ripe. And they’d been hanging in wardrobe for 10 years, so they were full of dust. I’m looking closely, and I’m thinking we can take the skirts off the bodices and wash them. We did, and oh my god. Those tutus were beautiful. There’s a ruched-up ribbon that goes around the whole ruffle, and it’s very lightweight. Called ribbonzene. Somebody told me there were no renderings for Western Symphony, Karinska hired a person to come in and just ruche up hundreds and hundreds of yards of this ribbon. The workroom people told me there would be four-foot-high piles of ruched-up ribbon. I can’t swear this is true, but in their memories, this person ruched ribbon for a month. Then quit.”

The use of ribbonzene represents another Karinska trademark – the use of unexpected, lightweight materials to keep the dancers decorated but unencumbered. “There’s a trim called horsehair,” says Hynes. “They would use it traditionally in the ballet world inside a headpiece. It takes dye, so you could color it the color of a dancer’s hair then sew it in a hat. You’d pin the horsehair to your hair and not hurt the hat. Karinska wondered what it would look like under the lights and started experimenting. You can twist it and knot it, make bows out of it and all this other fun stuff. It really reads [from the stage], but weighs absolutely nothing.”

A look inside our costume shop at the Western Symphony costumes on loan from Miami City Ballet.

Karinska, unlike the other designers before her, changed yoke colors on the costume to give dancers a figure. The yoke, that band around the top part of the skirt, matched the bodice or skirt before Karinska. “She would do a bodice that’s lime green maybe. Then she has a colorful combination of net in the skirt that would be black and gray and magenta and turquoise. Then she would make the yoke a mink brown color. It didn’t match anybody,” Hynes says. “You go, ‘well, doesn’t that break up the line of the dancer?’ But it was like putting a belt on somebody; it immediately gave you this hourglass figure. It was so beautiful and so risk-taking.”

Karinska’s designs come to life when Next Generation Ballet performs their spring concert this weekend. The Western Symphony costumes are on loan from Miami City Ballet, whose costumers re-created Karinska’s original work for Balanchine. Pirates and Cowboys: Le Corsaire & Western Symphony appears in Ferguson Hall May 11 and 12.

Superstar Tiler Peck Shines as Our Sugar Plum Fairy

Huge news for dance fans: the one and only Tiler Peck bourrés into Next Generation Ballet’s Nutcracker this holiday season with partner Tyler Angle as her Cavalier.

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Tiler Peck in George Balanchine’s Tschaikovsky Pas De Deux. (Photo: Paul Kolnik)

One of the many benefits of having a retired New York City Ballet principal dancer as the artistic director of our pre-professional ballet company is the talent he lands for our annual Nutcracker. Last year, Philip Neal treated us to Sara Mearns and Patricia Delgado alternately performing the role of Sugar Plum Fairy. This holiday season, he offers the gift of a performance by Tiler Peck, dancer extraordinaire, who is arguably at the height of her phenomenal career. Peck started dancing at two years old in her mother’s California studio. Under private tutelage of former Bolshoi and NYCB dancers between the ages of 7-12, Peck’s rigorous classical training led to a spot in the School of American Ballet, the official school of NYCB. She started an apprenticeship with NYCB in 2004, earning promotions within the company until she attained the highest rank of principal dancer in 2009.

Caught in the Act caught up with Tiler via email to talk about dance and her upcoming performance in the role of Sugar Plum Fairy for Next Generation Ballet’s Nutcracker, Dec. 21-23.

Caught in the Act: Tell us a little bit about how long you’ve known Philip Neal and what it was like working together at NYCB. Was there any sort of “defining moment” where you knew you and Philip would always stay connected professionally?

Tiler Peck: Philip was a principal dancer when I joined the company 14 years ago at the age of 15. He was always extremely professional, and I was aware that many of the men looked up to him as a role model. He made it a point to make the younger dancers feel welcome and was always kind to me. I remember feeling very honored to be picked to dance Who Cares? in his retirement, not with him, but as a tribute to him – to showcase the wide range and variety of roles he danced during his wonderful career with NYCB.

CITA: You’re a superstar in the dance world, with Broadway credits (On the Town, The Music Man) and the Kennedy Center’s show Little Dancer, plus a slew of viral videos including the classical ballet/hip hop mashup you did with Lil Buck and Prime Tyme at Vail International Dance Festival. Because of your versatility and visibility, you’re a real role model to a lot of young dancers who get to see a principal ballerina pretty much do what she wants versus stay in the classical rep. What are you learning along your career path that you’d love to share about a dance career with young dancers who are watching you?

TP: I have learned that I owe so much to the versatility of my training. I grew up in Bakersfield, Calif. taking jazz, lyrical, contemporary, tap, hip hop, among others and I think every style has influenced and helped me become the ballerina I am today. I think it is important to be well rounded as a dancer because it opens many more doors and opportunities. So, I would tell younger dancers to always stay curious and have a willingness to want to learn multiple styles as I think it only helps one grow as an artist.

CITA: You also have film credits – two standouts being your role as “Beth Farmer” in the Sparkle Motion dance sequence in cult classic Donnie Darko and in the peerless 2010 dance film NY EXPORT: OPUS JAZZ. Do you have a preference between dancing for film or live performance? In what ways do you have to alter your performance for film, and how to you keep performing “for the first time” take after take after take? Any upcoming film performances we can anticipate?

TP: I don’t think there is anything more thrilling than watching or performing live; there is something so exhilarating in live performance that just cannot be matched! Even if I watch a performance from the previous evening on film the next day, it never has the same feeling that it did when I was dancing it. There is definitely something that gets lost when translating live performance to film. Regarding film projects, my documentary was just released in July on Hulu so you should definitely go check out Ballet Now produced by Elisabeth Moss.

CITA: Sugar Plum Fairy is such a traditional, iconic role. How do you make her “yours,” or do you feel like this is a role that makes you “hers”? Will you tell us about the first time you ever performed the role – how old were you, when was it, and how did you feel about stepping into the role the first time professionally?

TP: The Nutcracker has a special place in my heart because it was the first thing I saw the New York City Ballet perform and what made me want to be a ballerina with NYCB. My parents took me to see The Nutcracker at NYCB when I was 11 years old in New York performing in The Music Man on Broadway. I turned to my father and said “Daddy, I am going to dance on that stage someday!” So, to be able to dance a role now that made me want to be a ballerina feels very special. Personally, the holidays are my favorite time of the year, and I just love sharing the stage with children and spreading a little Christmas magic to everyone who sees the ballet.

CITA: We are truly so excited to have you here for our Nutcracker this year. What are you most looking forward to about your trip to Tampa and your work with Philip’s NGB dancers?

TP: I am really looking forward to being reunited with Philip and getting to share the stage with his students. I know that Philip was a huge mentor to my partner Tyler Angle, and Tyler is my favorite person to dance with (in fact, we are known as Tsquared or TNT) so it’s going to one big love fest in Tampa! We cannot wait!

Confessions of a Costumer

The performing arts are big business. In this industry, we have a lot of super important jobs for people who love the theater but who may have no interest in performing. This week, we sat down with Straz Center costumer Camille McClellan, who costumes dance and musical theater productions for the Patel Conservatory, to find out the story.

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Camille working in the costume shop.

Caught in the Act: What does it meant to be a costumer in the performing arts?

Camille: Well, it’s a lot more than just sewing. When you start off on a production, the team gets together and we talk about concept and we talk about, you know, is this a period piece, is it not a period piece? Was it written as a period piece but we’re putting it in modern times? Are they humans that you’re dressing? Is it animals?

Also, budgets are a big thing that most of us don’t think about. We think, oh this is a wonderful creative job, and it is, but you have to do all the administrative stuff, too, and stay within that budget, keeping in mind what you’re spending and what you’ve got to spend.

There is that administrative bit as well as once you start getting into the actual production of the show. You have to decide whether or not you’ve got things in stock that you can use—what you’re going to have to create brand new or what you can repurpose. For instance, we got a bunch of evening dresses donated that just happened to land in the costume shop about six weeks before we were doing Hello, Dolly! So, we took those dresses and repurposed a lot of them for the Harmonia Gardens scene when the ladies are all dressed up and guys are in tailcoats and that sort of thing. If you’re making something brand new, you sit down at the drawing board and do some sketches, and renderings, and then show that to the director to see if that’s what they’re really looking for.

Pretty much any regional theater, or community theater, or academic theater like at Patel, you’re going to be pulling your costumes from all sorts of sources as well as producing some of them.

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Costume for Glinda in The Wizard of Oz.

CITA: So, are you custom making some costumes to fit the Patel kids?

CMc: Some. Yes. For instance, for The Wizard of Oz, I didn’t have a lot of places to pull child-size lead costumes. Or even teenage-size for Glinda, the Lion, the Tin Man, Scarecrow. Usually those are full-sized adults in that show so we had to do a lot of creating. Same thing with Aristocats. It was all children. Third through eighth grade. A lot of that show had to be produced because of the size of the actor. When you’re creating something new, you have to think about making the costumes very alterable so that the next time you need them, you’ve got some length that you can add to them, or you can let a hem down, or side seams that are a little bit bigger and that can be let out so that it can be changed. Typically, you can change the size of a garment by three sizes up or down, and that’s what you need in a theater situation, especially when you’re building stock so that you can use those resources again. You’ve spent money on them. You want to be able to repurpose that, and then repurpose what you’ve repurposed. Or use it on a different-sized cast.

CITA: When people read this blog, we want them to know how much effort and how much labor goes into the costumes that they see in dance and theater. It’s not that a truck rolls up with a pre-packaged show that unloads the sets and costumes, and you’re just darning and altering to fit the size of the students that we have. It’s mostly you working in the costume shop with helpers, right? So when people come and see a Patel show or a Patel ballet performance, they’re looking at original work that’s coming from you in our costume shop.

CMc: It is. For the most part, 80% of the time, yes. There are times that some costumes are rented, and then we have to fit and get those on the stage. A great effort is made to make it look cohesive. But mostly it’s us. For Aristocats, we pretty much built or bought everything. We had to build 34 tails … so then that meant 68 ears. There was a two-week period where that’s all we were doing were building ears and tails.

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CITA: How did you get into this career. Did you know that you wanted to be a costumer in a theater? Did you go to school to study it?

CMc: I did, but it started off when I was six-years-old, and I went to elementary school on a college campus. They had a sliding opera department, this college did. And they needed children to populate the village scenes of the opera. It was for Hansel and Gretel, and they needed kids to be the gingerbread men. And I auditioned. I was on stage for eight years before I ever did anything costuming-wise. But also, at six-years-old, for four generations in my family, you learned how to sew. Both my children know how to sew and were taught at six.

I was raised to sew couture style. Beautifully finished inside and out … you should be able to walk down the street with your garment inside out and nobody knows it because it’s so beautifully finished. I spent many a day at my mother’s elbow just watching her and sewing.

CITA: Was your mom a seamstress?

CMc: No. She was a mom and a secretary. And her mother taught her. My grandmother lived just across the road; she basically took me in one summer and every day we sewed. Both my father’s side of the family and my mother’s side, women at one point or another made their living sewing. Most of it was taking in alterations and things like that in their home. So, the transition for me from being on stage to being a costumer kind of just naturally happened. I went to college for theater and my sophomore year, one of the directors realized that I knew how to sew and asked me if I wanted to design a show. And I said, “Sure.”

CITA: What show was it?

CMc: An opera. Monetti’s sci-fi operetta Help, Help, the Globolinks! We had to come up with aliens. But it was fun. You know, it was like oh my gosh, this is so much fun.

CITA: That put you on the path to become a costumer, and then did you get a degree in costume design?

CMc: Yes. Yeah.

Acteon original design Patel YAGP 2016-17

An original design and construction Camille created for a Youth America Grand Prix ballet competition.

CITA: Then how did you end up in Tampa at the Patel Conservatory?

CMc: Well, I grew up in Alabama. Met my husband at the university there in my home town. He did his graduate work in Dallas, and I moved out there and did some theater work, some costuming, but for the most part since he was in graduate school worked a regular job and kept life going there.

Dallas is important because I got hired to do some finishing work at the Dallas Ballet. They were finishing up Swan Lake, and because I knew how to tailor, I was finishing the men’s costumes for them, the jackets, the decoration of it, the fit of it, that sort of thing.

Then I was hired on for the rest of the season—and that is where I learned how to make a tutu. The woman who taught me how to make tutus was 68 at the time. She had been a professional dancer at The Royal Ballet in London, and then had moved into costuming after that.

I was the first person she ever taught. It’s a guilded craft; you can’t really go to school to learn to make tutus. There are a lot of workshops that are offered out there, but I don’t really think you can learn to make the tutus that I make in a weekend workshop. Just as I learned how to sew from an expert, I learned how to make a tutu from an expert.

And it was a gift, both were gifts to me. If I hadn’t been in Dallas at that moment, I probably would have never learned how to make a tutu. And I’m fascinated by dance. The Dallas Ballet was the first place that I worked specifically with dance. Fabrics are very fascinating to me—how they move. In dance, that is the most important thing, choosing the right fabric, and if it’s going have hang time when they leap; if it’s going ripple and do what you want it to do, that kind of thing.

But, when you build a tutu, it is construction. It’s like building a house. If you get the gathers too heavy on one hip, it can take a girl off her point when she does a turn. You know, it’s just net. You wouldn’t think that it’s heavy, but if it’s not, if things aren’t evenly distributed, she will lose her balance.

Circus Polka cast photo w me and Philip Patel 2017

Camille pictured with Philip Neal and our Patel Conservatory ballet dancers who performed in Circus Polka, choreographed by Jerome Robbins. Often in ballet, the costumer is required to follow guidelines that detail how the costumes must look in order to present the ballet. If the shade, value and tone of the three colors weren’t right the piece could have been pulled from our repertoire.

CITA: How did you get from Dallas to the Patel?

CMc: Well, Miami City Ballet opened in 1988 I think. They didn’t have a tutu maker, and they were starting off from scratch. They had no stock. At the beginning of the second year, they actually called the woman who taught me how to make tutus to see if she would move to Miami to be their tutu maker, and she wasn’t interested. She sent me. From Miami we moved back up to Lakeland where my husband is from, started a family. I did the Gasparilla Ballet as a one project deal that was performed in Ferguson. That director suggested me to Peter Stark [former director of Next Generation Ballet at the Patel Conservatory] who was looking for a wardrobe manager for Nutcracker. Peter brought me on, and that was about seven, eight years ago.

CITA: If there’s a child out there, somebody reading this and saying, “I really want to be a costumer but I didn’t think I would be able to make enough money or I don’t know how to do it,” what advice would you give to that person?

CMc: You do have to have the right training. You do have to know that it is hard work. It’s long hours. But anything in theater is. It’s unusual hours. You can’t go into it because you want to make a million dollars, because you’re probably not going to. For the most part, you do it because you’re driven, because you’re passionate about it, because it really makes you happy.

To go about getting into it, you do need some education. Then you need to start seeking out opportunities to just help out in the costume shop and learn, learn, learn. From there you might get to be an assistant designer on something, or you might work in a big shop, maybe working for a designer that does the five main stage shows, and there might be an opportunity to a second stage show eventually. You also need to have some sort of drawing skills.

Pan shadow

Camille and her team built 12 of these shadows for Peter Pan. They flew the children and Pan, and moved set pieces as well as were up to general mischief during the show.

CITA: In your years of being at the Patel, do you have some favorite productions?

CMc: You know, people ask me, ‘What’s your favorite show,” or, “What’s your favorite setup for costumes.” I always want to say “the next.” But, that’s kind of a canned answer. I’m pretty much always excited by the next challenge. I’m really proud of the shows that I’ve done this last season.

With Nutcracker, there’s 350 costumes to put on these people. Even though that is basically a standard set of costumes, every year we’ve changed something. Every year we’ve added something.

For Peter Pan, we didn’t have a fly system, so we could not fly the actors typically like they are in other theaters. The director came up with the idea of having people fly them. Then the idea came up the people who are flying them should be dressed as Pan’s shadows. So, you know, that becomes an exciting thing. And how exciting for me as a costumer to get to go, “Oh, okay. Well we can do this.” And it turned out really great. But then also in that same show, we had a crocodile and a dog. You know? So that’s more sculpture than it is sewing. As a costumer, you have to figure out how to address that costume need and still make it functional for the actor to do what she or he needs to do.

Beginning of Croc PeterPan at Patel 2018

Beginning stage of creating the crocodile’s head for Peter Pan.

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Finished crocodile head for Peter Pan.

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Crocodile’s body for Peter Pan.

CITA: Camille, we want to wrap up with some quickie questions. First: what happens if a costume breaks on stage, or there’s a costume malfunction? Are you there to fix it or is this something that the actors are just going to have to figure out and the show must go on?

CMc: Okay. Well, the show must go on, and that truly is a realism in theater. There’s always somebody backstage that’s got safety pins nearby, that’s got a needle or two threaded. I have had to sew somebody into a costume in between a scene because a zipper broke. They’re usually moving when we’re having to do this because they need to be back onstage. I’m like, “Okay, two more stitches, two more stitches. How much time have you got? How much time have you got?” I’m like, ‘In two more stitches. All right. Knotting it off, knotting it off. All right. Go!” And then they run out onstage.

It’s quite fun back there. I love live theater, and this is why I love live theater. It’s never the same show. Always something is happening. Always something wonderful happens. Always something interesting happens backstage or on the stage. I have offered board members or directors, or even civilians, just come backstage and just watch. Just stand there and watch. You don’t have to help. Just see what happens.

CITA: Quickie question number two. So you are sewing moving people. You’re around a lot of machines with fast moving needles, and you’re just around a lot of needles all the time. How often do you get hurt on the job?

CMc: Well … I mean there’s “hurt” and there’s hurt. The worst thing that has happened is, and it was because it was a long day, a long night, it was way too late. I was working on an industry suture, and I let it veer off track. It ended up running over a steel bone in a bodice, and that machine just basically exploded. Oil went everywhere. I mean needles flew, steel bones flew. Luckily, I had goggles on. That happened about 20 years ago, so I’ve learned past a certain time you really do have to stop working and go home and get some sleep.

And I sort of jest, but I don’t. I get my tetanus shot on a regular basis because you are sticking yourself with a needle all the time or a pin. I wear glasses now, so if a needle breaks on a machine and it goes flying I have had one hit the glass of my glasses and nick it.

CITA: Which sounds like a lot of people’s worst nightmare. Rogue needles flying at eyes.

CMc: Yeah. And we use very sharp little scissors—I call them snippy scissors—to cut threads, or to take something apart. I’ve cut little Vs in my finger before because I was trying to get at something so close and I’m pressing from the back with the other finger. Accidents happen.

CITA: People need to know in the world of costume and theater, when we say blood, sweat, and tears, it is literal.

CMc: It is.

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Camille, left, with one of our summer apprentices, Katie Richards, in the costume shop.

CITA: Now the last question: If somebody from the public wants to come tour the costume shop, can they do that?

CMc: They can for the most part. But, you know, if there are six of us in there and our heads are all down in the sewing machines, it may be two days before we open on something … and we may not be as welcoming as other times. You know?

CITA: That’s such a kind way to put it. Yes.

CMc: But almost always we’re thrilled to share the shop with people and let them see what’s there. We do ask that they try not to touch a lot of things because for instance, with the Nutcracker costumes, that’s literally a multi-million-dollar set of costumes. Most of the things are made out of silk. And I don’t know what your hand has touched just previously, but I don’t want you to touch my silk dress. “Touch with your eyes. You’re welcome to look.” But yeah, we love for people to be able to see our work and come in and ask questions. We’re proud of the beautiful things that we get to work on and create. We like to share that. We do everything with love for the viewing public.

Tools of the Trade: Dance

We’ve realized Straz fans love knowing what goes on outside of the spotlights, so we’re running a short series called Tools of the Trade, listing some cool and maybe-unheard-of tools for life in the performing arts. This week’s spotlight is on dance.

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Rosin Box

Slippery dance shoes? Slick flooring? No problem, thanks to this useful trick-of-the-trade. Filled with small clumps of dried pine sap called rosin that break into sticky crystals, this box lurks in some corner of the stage or studio. Dancers crush the rosin on their pointes or jazz shoes to provide a much-needed grip in dicey dance conditions.

 

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Pliers, Hammers, X-Acto Knives

Guess what? Ballet dancers literally have tools of the trade. These hand tools are must-haves to break in a new pair of pointe shoes. Pliers remove nails, hammers beat the box (the part where the toes go) into submission and X-Acto knives score the tips for traction.

 

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Athletic Tape

A dancer’s toes know. This tool of the trade belongs in studios and dance bags all over the world. Toes and feet need TLC and/or mending after hours hard at work in a pair shoes, be those shoes pointe, tap, salsa, ballroom or jazz sneakers. Barefoot dancers keep tape around for toes as well, often with a companion roll of gauze for blisters, broken skin and the occasional rehearsal sesh that involves parts of the foot’s skin falling completely off.

 

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Preparation H

Dancers love to prepare, and perfection is often the goal. We’re probably going to get in big trouble for revealing that a trade secret (for actors and other performers as well), is using Preparation H on wrinkles before showtime to create a plump, youthful face. Gentle readers, this trick-of-the-trade may not be the best idea for treating your maturing skin at home, but it works for a minute onstage. Ah, there’s no business like show business.

 

Pardon My French

On the neck of the foot? The bite of the donkey?

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Next Generation Ballet dancer Alexandra de Roos demonstrating échappé.

The French codified ballet under King Louis XIV by defining the five basic positions of the feet and setting a catalog of positions related to the “turn-out” of the legs in the hip sockets (i.e., the legs rotate out of the hips instead of facing forward). Placement, a.k.a. alignment, and lift, a.k.a. pull-up, became fundamentals that traveled with ballet when it spread to Italy, Russia, Denmark and finally to an American style with George Balanchine. The different countries put their own flair on the fundamentals and their major schools altered the basic vocabulary just enough to be super annoying if you study one school, like Vaganova, and then take class with a teacher from the Cecchetti school.

However, the basic language of class and choreography roots en francais, in French, from the founding school.

Let’s be as plain as possible: ballet is hard. It’s a tough art form with an unforgiving technique that requires ballet dancers to be the most elegant professional athletes with (let’s face it) the best team uniforms. The bitter irony for dancers is that training until your toenails slough off results in a form that looks effortless onstage. Sometimes, it’s also tough for the person who has never studied ballet terms to appreciate the cool connection between the moves and their names.

We thought we’d put together a brief list of classical ballet terms with their English translations to give a little pro tip insight to our audience.

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Tendu. [Photo: STOCK4B | Getty Images]

Tendu – “to stretch;” when you see a dancer’s foot extend to point the toes, that’s tendu.pas de bourree

Pas de bourrée – “pas” means “step.” “De bourrée” means “of the bourrée,” which was a three-step 17th century French dance. Chances are, if you’ve ever taken a jazz, ballet or contemporary class, you’ve done pas de bourrée, though it usually sounds like padda bou-ray.

Two more that you may have heard whose spellings might surprise you are chassé (sounds like “shah-SAY”) and chainés (those “sheh-NAY” turns). “Chassé” looks like “chase” so that’s an excellent way to remember chassé is a step where one foot chases the other. “Chainés” looks like “chains,” which also serves as a foolproof mnemonic device for those rapid little turns that look like the dancer is drawing chain links in a line or circle across the floor.

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Pas de chat – this fun term means “step of the cat.” This jaunty leap mimics the quick, arching jump of a cat onto something. The idea here is to get both feet in the air with bent knees at the same time and land soundlessly with a touch of ennui, much like our feline friends.

Pas de cheval – again, another animal step. This one means “step of the horse” or “horse’s step.” The dancer extends from the knee à la Mr. Ed pawing at the ground, but more gracefully.

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Three sur le cou-de-pied positions: devant (pointed), devant (wrapped) and relaxed. [Photo: Dance Spirit]

Cou-de-pied – “Cou” means “neck;” “pied” means “foot.” The French named that area between your ankle and base of the calf “the neck of the foot.” You’ll often see dancers with their pointed toes placed delicately on this area.The bite of the donkey – This phrase is a perfectly apt description of what it feels like to hit a correct attitude (a position with one leg extended from the hip and bent at 90 degrees behind the other, with the knee HIGHER than the foot.) Try it, and you will indeed feel like a donkey is biting you in the derrière and/or low back. Ouch.

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Échappé – “to escape;” used to describe when the legs open at the same time. Admit it, that’s witty—the legs are getting away from each other.

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Pirouette – “to twirl,” “to whirl,” “to rotate.” This iconic ballet turn with the toes tucked to the knee in a shape like the number 4 literally means to rotate and to twirl and whirl. Excellent job summarizing the whole shebang in one word, nos amis français.

Naturally, this vocabulary list represents but a fraction of full joy that is the often literal, somehow simultaneously poetic names of classical ballet moves.

And, imagine the surprise of your friends when, at intermission, you can casually mention how impressed you were with the dancers’ placements sur le cou-de-pied and how much you enjoyed the sequence of pas de chevals.

Put your new knowledge to use when Ballet Nacional de Cuba returns to Morsani Hall on May 23 as part of a very limited United States tour.

Alicia Alonso: La Reina de Todo

Ella es la reina del baile. La reina de musica. La reina … de todo.

Alonso_RoderickWarholize

Alicia Alonso, artistic director of Ballet Nacional de Cuba is such a superstar we gave her the Warhol treatment.

Ask Cubans “who is Alicia Alonso?“ and you will hear this short, comprehensive explanation: she is the queen of dance. The queen of music. The queen … of everything.

Alonso, born in Havana in 1920, possessed a gift for dance so profound, so prodigious that she and anyone who watched her early training knew she was a born legend. She became an instant star of American Ballet Theatre in the 1940s with searing portrayals of Giselle and Carmen that are still unequaled. She returned to Cuba in the ‘40s to establish professional classical ballet, and she did – creating one of the most rigorous, largest ballet schools in the world.

There is dance; then there is The Dance. Alicia Alonso is The Dance. They are synonyms. The words might as well be Spanish-to-English translations.

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Like everything else, dance and audience expectations of dance morphed with the digital age, ushering in a new era of commercial dance guided by the “wow” factor of competition dance broadcast on television reality shows and through social media. Often, today’s young dancers and companies possess hyper-flexibility, video-game standards of leaps and tricks and operatic emoting that, while exciting, suits a needs-to-go-viral aesthetic that misses the mark with The Dance.

Insulated and isolated from America after President Kennedy’s 1962 trade embargo, Alonso and Cuba worked, lived, loved and danced unaffected by the technological revolution. She taught and choreographed in the enduring timelessness of one anointed by the dance gods to transmit the heavenly conversation between dancers and their audiences. As Martha Graham noted, “dance is the language of the soul.”

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So it is with Ballet Nacional de Cuba. When they dance, it is a conversation of souls unlike any other ballet company. Alonso, la reina de todo, taught them that.

Alonso’s signature ballet, Giselle, arrives at the Straz Center on May 23 as part of an exclusive, limited American tour. The last time the company appeared at The Straz was in October 2003, so it’s been a long absence. The stop here this month, orchestrated in part by arts benefactor, Straz Center namesake and Liberian ambassador-at-large David A. Straz, Jr., took three years of negotiations and diplomacy. Straz, known for his enthusiastic embrace of the historic Tampa-Cuba connections and love of the island’s culture, visited Cuba the first time in 2001, eventually working on behalf of the Tampa Bay area’s Alliance for Responsible Cuba Policy Foundation.

 

As an informal cultural attaché for Tampa, Straz hosted a dinner party in Cuba between the Straz Center Board of Directors and President/CEO Judy Lisi and Cuba’s then-deputy minister of culture, Rosa Teresa Rodriguez, and the government representative for Alonso’s Ballet Nacional de Cuba. Because Cuba has such deep artistic roots in West Tampa, Ybor City and parts of Tampa proper, offering the country’s premier dance company a home on the Morsani stage seemed logical and necessary.

“It’s really important to Tampa to have them here because of the number of Cuban people who live here,” Straz says. “The places are so close to each other; we should have good relations. Their ballet is some of the finest in the world,” he continues. “Everyone should take the opportunity to see them; this is a big deal for Tampa, and who knows when the opportunity will come back. I hope Alicia will be able to come.”

Alonso, now in her mid-90s and almost completely blind after losing most of her eyesight early in her career, made an express trip to the ballet to sit with Straz during his visit to Cuba last October. In the state box at Gran Teatro de La Habana for an evening performance by Ballet Nacional de Cuba, Straz experienced the “Alicia effect” when she arrived, bedecked in her signature red head wrap with matching ruby red lipstick. Because of her health, Alonso had not been able to attend any other performances of the season.

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Catherine and David Straz (left) with Alicia Alonso and Ballet Nacional de Cuba staffers at The Gran Teatro de La Habana.

“I was with Alicia for the final performance of their season. She came that night and sat with me,” he says. “When she arrived, the place exploded in applause, everyone was on their feet. Everyone in the country knows her. At the end of the performance, she stood up in the box and leaned into the railing with her arms outstretched – it was such a balletic gesture and even at her age, so marvelous. There she is, in all red, arms outstretched, to thunderous applause and a standing ovation.”

Alonso and Straz spent time after the show conversing at length in her dressing room with the help of translators. “My Spanish is poquito,” he laughs. “That’s the extent of it. But she is so important. I invited her to Tampa. She said, ‘it’s possible.’ So, we’ll see.” Although a visit by the prima ballerina assoluta, the highest and rarest rank for a ballerina, is unlikely, we would love to host the grand dame of dance in the vivid red backdrop of Morsani Hall, befitting her majestic and magical legend.

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Ballet Nacional de Cuba performing Giselle. (Photo: Carlos Quezada)

Ballet Nacional de Cuba performs their hallmark ballet Giselle on May 23 at 8pm in Morsani Hall. Get tickets here.