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.

One More Time from the Top

The explosive partnership of Broadway star Gwen Verdon and choreographer/director Bob Fosse finally goes mainstream in a new miniseries from F/X starting Tues., April 9.

Even if you know absolutely NOTHING about Broadway, you know about “jazz hands.” And if you know a little about Broadway, you know the man responsible for crystallizing the impact of jazz hands in a musical is Bob Fosse. If you know A LOT about Broadway, especially Broadway dance, you know that Fosse is kind of a god, kind of a sad sack of a boy-man, and completely credited with inventing the modern musical on stage and screen.

And if you really, really know a lot about Broadway dance, you know Fosse’s jazz hand style came straight from Al Jolson and the Nicolas Brothers and his ascension into mythical status wouldn’t have happened without Gwen Verdon. (Or dancer Joan McCracken, but that’s another miniseries for another time.) In other words, Fosse didn’t happen in a vacuum, and there’s a lot more to his legacy than the man himself.

Around here, we don’t care how much or how little you know about Broadway history, but we do get excited to see such an important story in the evolution of American art get the royal treatment from a major network—and a gigantic advertising budget to ensure the word’s getting around.

On the off chance you’ve been distracted by other news lately, we’ll bring you up to speed: Sam Rockwell (Charlie’s Angels; The Green Mile; Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri among a million others) plays the cigarette-booze-pill-and-sex-addicted mercurial, enchanting and inspiring Bob Fosse. Tony-winning evergreen ingenue Michelle Williams (Brokeback Mountain, The Greatest Showman and the play Blackbird) stars as redheaded triple threat and saving-grace-guiding-light-hard-as-nails-showgirl Gwen Verdon. The series, Fosse/Verdon, starts on Tuesday, April 9. The series plays out over eight episodes, taking audiences through fifty years—thirty of which center around the Verdon-Fosse creative collaboration that overtook their lives and changed the American entertainment landscape forever.

Verdon and Fosse were colleagues (she was a huge Broadway star when he was an up-and-coming choreographer with only The Pajama Game under his belt), then lovers, then spouses, then parents, then separated. During that time, the combined force of Bob’s visionary genius and Gwen’s dancing/comedic/technical/personal brilliance delivered Damn Yankees, Redhead, Sweet Charity, Chicago and Cabaret to name a few. Their daughter, Nicole Fosse, co-executive produced the miniseries and guided much of the artistic interpretation of the source material, Sam Wasson’s metaphorically and physically heavy biography, Fosse.

The Fosse/Verdon production involves current Broadway game changers. Lin Manuel-Miranda also produces the show, and Dear Evan Hansen writer Steven Levenson penned the teleplay. Seasoned fave Norbert Leo Butz stars as Fosse’s intellectual pal, the playwright Paddy Chayefsky, and previous Chicago stars Susan Misner (a.k.a. Stan Beeman’s Wife from The Americans) and Bianca Marroquin play McCracken and Chita Rivera, respectively. Newcomer Kelli Barrett (Getting’ the Band Back Together) landed the choice role of Liza Minelli, and we’ll get to see Ethan Slater (SpongeBob in the selfsame musical) tackle Joel Grey. A few newly-minted recognizable faces from hit television shows also make an appearance, namely the lithe and lovely Margaret Qualley as Ann Reinking, Fosse’s ultimate girlfriend-of-girlfriends after the split with Verdon.

In all, it’s a heck of a cast, a dynamite production team and a timely moment in entertainment history to attempt a more authentic look at the disturbing behaviors that drove such a towering creative partnership. It’s also time for Gwen Verdon to get her due for the living generations of Broadway fans who know Fosse but say “Gwen who?”

Another note, since we’re talking Fosse, is that we decided to name our Straz Center coffee shop after the very dance that made Bob Fosse a Broadway name—Steam Heat, from the eponymous dance number everyone loves in The Pajama Game. It’s also worth noting that one of Ann Reinking’s students, Kelly King, now directs our Patel Conservatory Popular Dance Program.

Students posing with Ann Reinking at the Patel Conservatory’s ground breaking in 2004.

So, grab your ultra-sheer black tights, garter belts and French cut leotards for what we hope to be a *fingers crossed* riveting immersion into all that jazz.

Stompin’ Around

Everybody, everywhere’s got rhythm.

African juba.
Irish jig.
American tap.
African-American step.
Indian Kathak.
Argentine malambo.

Gumboot, chancleta, Spanish flamenco, Cuban flamenco, trash percussion (think STOMP).

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Tap dancing at the Patel Conservatory. (Photo: Marc Edwards)

From all the varied, colorful corners of our endearing and often baffling human society, rhythm dances emerge, catch on like wildfire and become a common language amongst us. Tribes ensconced in the rainforests and isolated deserts of this great planet stomp their feet on the ground to make an infectious, intricate inlay of beats that form a hey-this-is-us dance communication. There’s Riverdance and fraternity and sorority step shows. As you read this article, somebody in our country clacks out a shuffle-ball-change and another somebody somewhere pounds their shoe sole in time to frog songs or train wheels or the sound of an unlocked shutter knocking the side of the house.

This universal need for stompin’ around, making cool sounds with our feet and having those sounds mean something about who we are is about as utilitarian as you can get when it comes to the performing arts. Humans love to clap our hands and stomp our feet, as you can see in three-year-olds no matter what skin tone, shape, size, economic status or line of longitude that little one occupies. We seem to be born to make percussive dance. We love it. Some of us love it so much we make careers out of it.

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In the United States, the blending of African juba, originally West African sacred gioube dance, and Irish jigs birthed tap but not right away. A uniquely American art form, tap emerged during a three-hundred-year cultural exchange between enslaved Africans and Irish indentured servants who found themselves imperiled in the Caribbean sugarcane fields together under British rule. For a century, the two cultures, each heavy with a musical and dance identity, borrowed steps, rhythms and cadences until they fashioned something extraordinary – a new art form on its way to the American South.

An interesting anecdote to this relationship between Africans and the Irish occurred in New York City on March 17, 1781. The St. Patrick’s Day Rebellion, which led to the burning of British symbols of rule, was led by the free African Caesar and the Irish dance master John Cory.

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Farruquito, “the greatest flamenco dancer of the century” (The New York Times), performs at The Straz on Feb. 13.

Another interesting anecdote is that Irishmen launched the first successful blackface minstrel shows that mixed Irish and African folkloric traditions for the public. Later, an African-American dancer of unsurpassed skill named William Henry Lane trounced the reigning Irish-American minstrel dancer John Diamond to become King of All Dancers. Lane’s loose body on top of exacting percussive technique pulled from clogging and jigging launched the earliest known form of American tap dance.

As ragtime morphed into jazz, so did Lane’s style evolve into a dance somewhat recognizable as tap and jazz dance. Broadway defined syncopated jazz tap with Shuffle Along (1921) although the metal taps had yet to make it to the bottoms of the shoes. Bill “Bojangles” Robinson created a craze with his hoofing and wooden-soled shoes, and “tap dance” started showing up on the list of classes in reputable dance studios. The metal taps appeared in the 1930s, when the form skyrocketed in popularity on stage and in the movies. By the end of the 1940s, American tap dance was a thing, a very important badge of identity that arrived as the result of cross-cultural pollination between Africa and the United Kingdom.

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Like the percussive dance forms that came before, tap dance is essentially a street dance of the people. Now influenced by hip-hop and reflecting an impressive ability for infusions of other cultures like Indian Kathka and bellydancing, tap continues to shape-shift as new dancers and new cultures add sugar and spice to the form. Even tap gets pulled into other percussive dance forms or gets reflected in the heel-steps of flamenco or chancleta dance (a Caribbean dance using wooden flip-flops). As tap’s reigning King of Dance, Savion Glover noted, “They all come from the street – tap, jazz and flamenco. And the streets are always changing. If it comes from the streets, change is the only thing that’s consistent.”

Percussive dance is cool in that way: although humans, in our many corners of this world, make these dances separately, we see ourselves in the stomped-out rhythms of others. As we change, we remain a recognizable rhythm; in our own ways, we become music playing our bodies and the earth as instruments.

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TAP DOGS, coming to The Straz March 29-31.

Feet Beat @ The Straz
Try tap for the first time or return to the form if you’ve been away for a minute. Our Adult Tap classes meet Tuesday at 6 p.m. and Thursday at 6:15 p.m. and 7:15 p.m. The lovable, super-talented Susan Downey teaches all three classes. To take in a percussive performance, get tickets to Farruquito, the greatest flamenco dancer in the world for Feb. 13 in Ferguson Hall and TAP DOGS in Morsani Hall March 29-31.

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.

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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.

Crock head

Finished crocodile head for Peter Pan.

crock body

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.

camille costume

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.

 

shoe prep

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.

 

taping toes

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.

 

face cream

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.

 

Ashe! Ashe!

The Florida African Dance Festival in Tallahassee Celebrates 21 Years June 7-9

class_2017

Photo taken during a class at the 2017 Florida African Dance Festival.

“Ashe,” pronounced ah-SHAY, similar to “sashay,” and also spelled “ase,” is the Yoruba word for a West African spiritual concept of the life-force energy. Everything has ashe. Everything has the power to transmit and communicate ashe—and two very powerful forms of working with ashe are drumming and dance.

Thus, the Florida African Dance Festival, held in Tallahassee every June and hosted by African Caribbean Dance Theatre, positively rattles the walls with ashe as drummers and dancers from around the world gather to learn and teach traditional African rhythms, dances and cultural heritage. The festival runs next weekend, June 7-9, at Florida A&M University Developmental Research School.

You can find out everything you want to know about taking drum and dance classes, being a vendor, attending the Saturday night performance or contacting FADF on their website, fadf.org.

congolese drummers

Last year we attended FADF and saw this finale performance of Congolese dance-drummers. Suffice it to say they alone are worth a round trip to Tallahassee.

In 2017, we packed our bags and trekked to Tally for the three-day event, overestimating our endurance and registering for three hours of class on Friday and Saturday. We had five options for classes that Friday and chose Makaya Kayos’s morning Congolese class first. Makaya is the middle drummer in the photo above with the red band under his knee. He’s probably 5’7” and appears to be able to jump that high as well before tucking into a front somersault. After the first half hour, when all of us students were pouring sweat, thighs hammering from non-stop deep squats up and down a basketball court in a college gym, Makaya and the drummers gave us a much-needed rest and boost of hype with a mini-performance that concluded with the aforementioned jump-into-forward-roll move. The students erupted into hollers and applause, buoyed by the energy (Makaya has a LOT of ashe), and we finished the rest of the class in exuberant spirits and spurting sweat.

Following Congolese class, we took Ismael Kouyate’s Guinean class. Ismael returns this year to teach his Guinean class Friday morning and Saturday afternoon, and we can tell you first-hand that his class, like Makaya’s, is outstanding. If you go this year, make sure you take it.

Marie Basse Wiles

Marie Basse Wiles and Senegalese percussionists perform at the 2017 FADF Concert.

On Saturday morning, we lined up for Marie Basse Wiles’s Senegalese/Sabar class, and we’re not ashamed to report that we were in way over our heads. About ten minutes into class—so, right after the warm-up—we chose to make the class a “growth opportunity.” Grow we did by artful application of humility—and a few Band-aids to our “beginner’s feet.” Marie brought an intricate Senegalese wedding dance for the festival, and we happened to be in class with several professional African dancers who were simply stunning. For us, even when the dances are more advanced than our training, just being on the floor with the drummers and witnessing the elegance and athleticism of the advanced dancers makes us appreciate the legacy and technique of African dance.

We have to mention that among these dancers were a few members of Tampa’s Kuumba Dancers and Drummers including USF’s Dr. Kya Connor, who performed in the Saturday night concert, and founders Natalie and Myron Jackson. Kumbaa Dancers and Drummers usually represent the Tampa Bay area at the festival, and we are super lucky to have them in town keeping the traditional African dances and rhythms alive. They also hold an open community African dance class every Tuesday night. If you’re interested, check their website for information on the when/where/fees.