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.

Tools of the Trade: Music

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 music.

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Gouging Machine

Not just for medieval torture anymore, the gouging machine serves professional oboe players in the manual labor of their art—the making of reeds. Unlike clarinet and sax players, who can purchase pre-made reeds, oboists and bassoonists must learn to make their own. So, before practice comes the making of reeds, a time-consuming, meticulous process that involves a gouging machine which thins and contours the piece of cane that becomes the reed.

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Drum Key

The glorious kettledrums, unlike many drums, must be tuned to specific notes – which is where this little gem comes in quite handy. The timpanist fits this key on the screws securing the drum’s head to the kettle and gives it a quick quarter-turn ratchet to adjust the tone. Originally a Middle Eastern invention, the kettledrum traveled around the world, entering Western symphonic music as the timpani around the mid-17th century.

 

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Felt Wedge

While this handy little gizmo can double as a door stopper, the felt wedge has an important role to play in the life of a piano. Tuning a piano gets tricky because there are a lot of strings in that bad boy, and what happens if you accidentally hit the string next to the one you’re trying to tune? Well, then. If you have a felt wedge, you can mute the surrounding strings and get on with your business.

 

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Eight Dollars and Some Change

… will buy you a decent conductor’s baton, which happens to be the least expensive tool in any orchestra according to Detroit Symphony Orchestra harpist and blogger Patricia Masri-Fletcher. Of course, some batons run much more than that, like these Mollards, which we imagine choosing the conductor, much like a wand to a wizard. (“12 inches, cocobolo knob, birch shaft, pliable … ah, yes.”) With many conductors of major metropolitan symphonies making million dollar salaries, that’s quite a return on investment.

 

Tools of the Trade: Theater

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 theater.

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Orange Stick

Nope, not for fingernails—for eyelashes. False ones, that is. False eyelashes make the eyes pop, so many actors apply a pair before hitting the stage so the audience can better “read” the performance. However, if you’ve never put on a pair, these difficult-to-hold benign spikes glued upon the lash line require the hands of a surgeon and the patience of a rock. Orange sticks, typically used to push back cuticles in a manicure, aid and abet an actor needing help fitting the lash precisely to the curve of the eye.

 

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Gaff Tape

Ask a theater person—whether that pro is an actor, stage manager, theater owner or lighting tech—and she will tell you the go-to catch-all for any theater need is gaff tape. Originally used to tape or “gaff” lighting cables to the floor to avoid tripping over them, gaff tape proved to be useful for almost everything. Need a quick repair to a ripped costume hem? How about putting part of the set together? What to do about making a hat band, fixing a broken prop? Gaff tape. All of it. Just gaff tape. Everywhere.

 

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Milk of Magnesia

Theater lights emit a lot of heat. So, even though you may always bring a sweater for a show, the actors are hammering their parts underneath rows of high-energy lights that create a giant French fry warmer. The key to minimizing face sweat is to apply a thin layer of Milk of Magnesia before donning show makeup. The MOM dries, creating a tight mask that keeps the sweat down and adds the bonus of preventing makeup from flaking.

 

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Pencils, Erasers, Highlighters, Pens and Throat Coat

The actor’s toolbox somewhat resembles the back-to-school supply list for winter term. Acting and putting on a show require so much preparation, and almost all professionals keep notes, mark scripts, highlight their lines or tech needs and copy out their lines to help with memorization. When performers go “off book,” or start to deliver their lines without using the script, rehearsals kick into high gear. Voices must be protected; after all, an actor with laryngitis is very bad for business. Enter Throat Coat. This herbal concoction of primarily licorice and slippery elm bark soothes the voice with something akin to a loving embrace of the esophagus.

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.