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Elevating the Dance: When the performer's body is the medium of expression, the relationship between costume design and choreography requires careful collaboration.

For designers trained in other performance genres, designing costumes for dance presents new challenges but also creates distinctive opportunities. Designers may be called upon to create giant skirts that fill the stage, gossamer-thin tunics that withstand acrobatics, or nearlynude unitards that highlight each dancer's unique muscles and curves. Beyond the logistics of creating costumes that move and function well, another key feature of dance costume is the centrality of the body itself, and therefore, by extension, the garment that covers and reveals it. In other forms of stage design like opera and theatre, directors tend to start either with the whole design team or with scenery. However, in dance, the performer's body is the medium of expression, and so the costume is often the fulcrum of the overall design.

The re-envisioning of beloved American classics by two dance companies provides an example of the essential collaboration required of costume designers and choreographers. The Kansas City Ballet (as a co-production with Colorado Ballet and the Royal Winnipeg Ballet) presented The Wizard of Oz, and Nashville Ballet produced Appalachian Spring with the Nashville Symphony, and the author and photographer visited both companies. In detailed interviews, costume designers and choreographers shared their influences, inspirations, and challenges as they balanced paying tribute to what came before with developing a unique, relevant work. Acclaimed photographer Mitchell D. Wilson documented both productions in his dynamic style and has provided the images for this piece.

Choreographers for both productions wanted support and inspiration from trusted colleagues to help steer the production toward the desired end. Choreographer Septime Webre did not begin his journey with The Wizard of Oz until costume designer Liz Vandal was on board. Choreographer Paul Vasterling knew costume designer Holly Hynes would have the right approach for his Appalachian Spring. Prior to putting pencil to sketchpad or toe to studio floor, the choreographers and designers on each show met to talk through images and ideas, and to distill the foundational text to its essentials. Both choreographers chose a costume designer with whom they had a well-established history, and their familiar mode of communication made the design process flow smoothly. Vasterling and Webre both like to have design ideas in place before finalizing choreography. They wanted to create movement already knowing the shapes the clothed body would form, the way the fabric would flow, and which features would be revealed or concealed.

Appalachian Spring

In 2017, Nashville Symphony initiated a collaboration on Appalachian Spring between the Symphony and Nashville Ballet. Artistic Director Paul Vasterling jumped at the chance to stage the beautiful Copeland music with the dancers at Nashville Ballet. He chose his frequent collaborators Holly Hynes for costumes and Scott Leathers for lighting. The symphony itself would be the backdrop for the dancers, so no scenery was used.

Aaron Copland originally composed Appalachian Spring in 1944 for choreographer Martha Graham. The evocative music written for a small ensemble used quintessential American styles like fiddle tunes and hymns, including the famous Shaker hymn "Simple Gifts." The setting was a pioneer settlement, which also symbolized the wider ideas of America. Graham's ballet followed a young couple about to be married, with additional characters of a preacher, an older pioneer woman, and an ensemble of fellow settlers.

Vasterling's first task was to find a new take on the classic by developing choreography that would pay tribute to Martha Graham, but in his own language. To create his own work, Vasterling, of course, started with the music. After studying the storyline from the original, he chose to simplify the characters to a mother figure and a group of young people. "I started thinking about the Graham version, and how the central figures were a man and a woman making their way through the world, and decided to have a more feminist view and make it just about a woman," he says. As he continued to work through the themes of the piece, he went back to the essentials of the work itself and the original creators. Vasterling explained how, during a conversation with a friend, they realized the irony that this quintessential American work "was written by a group of outsiders: a woman, a gay Jew, and a Japanese man in 1944. [Graham, Copland and Artist/Set Designer Isamu Noguchi]... That really set the theme of [my version of] the ballet--a central figure that represents a mother [but also] the idea of America. There is opportunity and then there are outsiders and the outsiders are always trying to get in."

Although not a practitioner of Graham's technique, Vasterling wanted his expressionistic ballet choreography to pay homage to the modern dance icon. However, his personal connection to the material deepened as he developed the work. His usual mode of working is to finish the concept before beginning choreography. He weaves together disparate influences--ideas from texts he reads, research, etc. For this work, while he developed it from what he terms "a confluence of events," he didn't resolve everything until he had worked for a while with the dancers in the studio. "I couldn't figure out how to finish this ballet and then suddenly realized it was a tribute to my mother," he says.

Vasterling works with a variety of designers, but he likes Holly Hynes' style for his more minimalistic pieces. Her years of experience designing for top companies, including New York City Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, and the Paris Opera Ballet have honed her ability to bring out thematic ideas without overwhelming the expressive power of the dancer's body. As his concept developed more layers, and he worked on interweaving the abstract themes of outsider-ness, tradition, and his family connection, he confirmed his feeling that she was the right collaborator for this ballet.

When developing a work, Hynes and Vasterling not only discuss ideas and look at sketches, but they also explore research together firsthand. For a previous work, Layla and the Majnun, they visited the Islamic Art section of the Metropolitan Museum in New York, wandering the galleries, responding to artifacts and images, and pointing out details to each other. For Appalachian Spring, they visited a Shaker village. Hynes studied the colors and textures of Shaker artifacts, as well as the balanced simplicity. The designer was struck by the idea that they are "people of the earth but also of the heavens."

Hynes begins any dance costume design by connecting with the music. She strives to translate not only what the music says to the choreographer, but also what it says to her. "Shutting your eyes, and seeing what you imagine as you listen--maybe that morphs or changes [your ideas] or gives you some other new direction." Edithe Gilfond's costume design for the original Appalachian Spring featured Graham's signature full skirts, but as part of a realistic, although simplified, translation of Shaker clothing to modern dance. Hynes developed a more abstract look, while keeping to Vasterling's request that the dancers look like individual people in real clothes. Together, they created a character for each dancer--the troublesome one, the youngest, the quiet one. She chose earthy textures and colors with an added touch of stronger hue on each dancer, and also used pattern to create a "relaxed and simple" feeling --plaid skirt panels for the women and striped shirts for the men. The Mother character's outfit is the most related to Shaker clothing, while she let more skin show on the younger characters.

To develop this alternate silhouette, Hynes looked to Graham and Copland's era for inspiration, the 1930s and '40s. She kept the flavor of Graham's full skirts, but only the mother figure has the long, covering length. Hynes developed a skirt shape with inset panels that open and close like a fan as the dancer twirls; the touch of colorful plaid gives a bit of a surprise for the audience. Hynes describes her connection with Graham's work being that she "didn't want to lose the heaviness and the flow of the skirt, because it takes so long for that big old skirt to come back to earth." The designer chose silk noil for the women's costumes for the rough texture, the dyeability, and the flow. The Nashville Ballet costume shop did an admirable job integrating the stiffer taffeta plaid panels into the drapey skirt fabric. She also found fabrics for the men's costumes that stretched and moved as needed for the dance, but still gave the appearance of structured trousers and vests.

Hynes made sure that the period flavor of the piece did not overwhelm the primary objective--showing the lines of the dancers' bodies and the subtleties of the choreography. The men's costumes have the V neckline of the vest without shirt collar to showcase collarbone and neck, and the pants are cut fairly lean, so the shapes of the legs are still clearly apparent. The younger women's halter shaped bodice shows the shoulders to advantage. Although the Mother's costume stayed more covering than the rest of the cast, Hynes streamlined her design from her original version. Designer and choreographer decided that a narrower sleeve would better show the lines of the dancer's body in her solo work, and the shawl and head covering should only be worn during part of the dance.

The weight and flow of the skirts influenced Vasterling's choreography, and he developed the movement with Hynes' designs in mind, knowing that, as he described, "It's not just what [the skirt] can do, it's what it masks. The leg work becomes less significant. In ballet--classical or even neoclassical--we speak so much with the legs. So, this makes it a little more contemporary because it focuses the movement up to the torso and the arms," says Vasterling. Hynes' fabric choices captured exactly what Vasterling was looking for and were in harmony with the score. He appreciated that the men's sleeves had movement to them, "kind of like the music, it has this ecstatic wave to it." The total stage picture, accented by the clean lines of Scott Leathers' lighting, has simplicity but also texture, pathos and joy.

The Wizard of Oz

Unlike the abstracted Appalachian Spring, Septime Webre and Liz Vandal transformed a tale best known on the page and the screen into a classic yet updated story ballet. While they did explore what it means to take a fantastic journey, their initial conversation about the Wizard of Oz was about solving some of the staging challenges as a frame for their overall approach.

Webre had wanted for years to do an adaptation of the L. Frank Baum story, but waited until he felt that he had something new to add. Despite beginning his choreographic career in more abstract dance styles, he felt himself drawn to narrative and sought to create his own contemporary style of story ballets. He began with classics, first trying his hand at Romeo and Juliet. However in Webre's estimation, when choreographing from an existing ballet score, a composer such as Prokofiev "has already done 75 percent of the work. He has structured the dance and the choreographer just needs to make up steps to that glorious music." After working through a number of classics, Webre decided to make a ballet completely from scratch. He chose Alice in Wonderland, which he created at the Washington Ballet in collaboration with Liz Vandal and composer Matthew Pierce. This 2012 ballet laid the groundwork for The Wizard of Oz, and he used the same approach for both. He created a libretto in collaboration with Vandal, who served not only as costume designer but also as a dramaturg, helping him to see deeper into the characters and their function in the story. He worked with Pierce to decide the shape of the music for each section of the story.

Webre waited until he had several concrete staging ideas for L. Frank Baum's story before proposing The Wizard of Oz to producers. Once he decided to personify the yellow brick road, stage the winged monkeys with puppets and projections, and use a bold color palette for Munchkinland, he began to see where his version might lead. Delving into the secondary characters also helped him to develop his own take on Oz--"what they might look like, dance like, and maybe even what the music might sound like. One of the things that makes The Wizard of Oz special is the ensemble of characters that Dorothy encounters--their outlandishness, their humanity, and the sense of fantasy that is made available in the book," Webre says.

Equally important to solving these design challenges was having the right team in place. Pierce's music and Vandal's costumes were part of the package Webre proposed to potential producers. After five collaborations with Pierce and 20 years of work with Vandal, Webre knew they were essential to realizing his vision. As the production progressed, puppet designer Nicholas Mahon and projection designer Aaron Rhyne proved equally vital to making the magic happen. Mahon created not only Winged Monkey puppets in forced perspective behind the humans in Vandal's stern leather biker looks, but also a stylized yet life-like Toto who wriggled and leapt across the stage alongside a puppeteer dressed like a Kansas farmhand. Rhyne created the tornado, the Wizard's disguises, and many other magic effects.

Webre and Vandal have a very dynamic working relationship that began on their first meeting 20 years ago. Vandal has a distinctive style, originating from her roots in fashion and honed during her work designing costumes for prominent companies like Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montreal, Marie Chouinard, Mannheim Theater, and Cirque du Soleil. Webre recalls that he saw Vandal as his "artistic soulmate. We just clicked right away." They brainstorm very quickly, and Vandal enjoys the great trust Webre has in her to take his ideas and translate them into costumes. She shows him sketches and swatches almost as a formality, knowing that she can create costumes and characters he will connect with. Her style is to work very intuitively. Being Canadian, Vandal had less history with The Wizard of Oz than most Americans do, and she decided to use her outsider perspective to her advantage. Although she was familiar with images from the classic film, she chose not to re-watch the movie or read the book. "I wanted to be intuitive about the story itself, be the one on the production team who was--feeling it on an intuition level instead of the background and history," Vandal says. She based her ideas on Webre's descriptions of how he saw the characters and the story.

Webre wanted the Yellow Brick Road to be more than a scenic element. To him, the road is a metaphor for Dorothy's adventure, and he and Vandal created the idea of Yellow Brick Roadies--eight men who are whimsical, but also a bit dangerous. Starting with Vandal's idea of the straw as a Mohawk hairstyle, they came up with a lithe, punk-influenced Scarecrow. They wanted the Cowardly Lion to have a flashy, macho look that he put on like a mask to hide his tender nature underneath. Thus, Vandal developed a glam-rock influenced style for him, his fur-trimmed sleeveless vest bedecked with jewelry. They kept the classic green skin for the Wicked Witch, but the rest of her costume came from Vandal's riff on a crow. The beak inspired her curved hat shape and the green and purple accents lend highlight to the black, like the bird's iridescent feathers.

Vandal's designs do pick up on some of the classic images associated with the story, but she has also created her own worlds. Kansas was done in grays, both warm and cool, in shapes that evoke a deconstructed version of the early 20th century. She cleverly brought in hints of the Oz characters to foreshadow the farm hands and crotchety neighbor becoming the Scarecrow, Tin Man, Lion, and Witch. As she passes by on her bicycle, Miss Gulch wears a hat decorated with a crow and her tight bodice and full skirt echo the shape of the witch's dress. "I decided for some reason that [the ballet] would be all asymmetrical and I've never done that," the designer explained. "Normally I like symmetry." Dorothy is the only character in the ballet whose costume is symmetrical. Vandal sought to give each part of Oz its own unique look, with contrast between angles and curves, juxtaposing matte against shiny. "I wanted people to travel as she is traveling, as if it's different planets." From Webre's request that Munchkinland be a garden of flowers, she created rounded costumes in a riot of color and graphic pattern. Emerald City is angular and faceted and glittery "like a disco ball planet. The lighting [by designer Trad A. Burns] makes it all come alive." Vandal's goal with all her designs is to give each dancer a "sexiness," which for her means a sense of power and beauty, and the feeling of honoring and being "in the body."

The influence of the costume design on the production was magnified by the fact that they had to change set designers mid-stream. Set designer Michael B. Raiford joined the team after the costume sketches were finished, and he took his cues from the colors and shapes Vandal developed. He echoed the graphic colors and patterns of her costumes in the giant geometric flowers that fly in for Munchkinland, and the dynamic, angular sunbursts in the Witch's castle complement the swirling strips of the Winkies' Cossack-like coats.

Webre explains how "the DNA of the costumes worked themselves into not just the set design but also the steps." He began choreographing the ballet after the costumes were completely designed. He prefers to work in this way. The costume illuminates the character and helps him develop the way that they move. The three "ruffians," Webre's homage to the Lollipop Guild in the movie, are three athletic men in fluorescent colors with flanges protruding from hip and shoulder. Their David Bowie-influenced shape helped him develop "cocky and preening" choreography for them. At times, the influence goes even further. The "Yellow Brick Roadies make a lot of graphic shapes in the air that mirror the costumes themselves," Webre explains.

Relationship Advice

Interviews with choreographers and designers reveal that most agree on the key components of successful dance costume design. Designers must see the choreography in rehearsal as often as possible and provide prototypes well ahead of dress rehearsal to be able to truly evaluate the look and function of the costumes as the dancers move. They must strive to deeply connect to the piece, the music, and to all of the individuals involved in the collaboration. Successful designers like Hynes not only plan for but embrace the constant change that comes with live performance. "Every time I watch [a piece], I see something different I hadn't seen before," says Hynes. "And that's just thrilling. That's a living piece of art." And although the choreographer is the one who signs off on the designs, dancers have to be comfortable and empowered in their costumes. "Dancers are in their bodies--if you make them beautiful and honor their bodies, they glow," Vandal explains. "You made them happy."

While, of course, there is no right way to collaborate or to make art, a key aspect of the designer-choreographer relationship is finding an effective mode of communication in order to develop ideas together. Some choreographers respond best to a lot of preparatory work like exploring research and talking about sketches, while others prefer to move quickly into three dimensions, looking at prototypes on the body. Trust and mutual understanding take time to build. Most artists like to develop a relationship with collaborators, and gradually find a common language or shorthand. Especially for a first collaboration, many designers suggest responding to the piece being designed but also responding to the choreographer's overall body of work, as well as to the aesthetic and style of the dance company commissioning the work.

Costume design for dance is best learned through experience, working with the medium's unique demands. When designs are due prior to the start of rehearsals, even seasoned designers must be able to adjust and adapt later in the process as choreography develops. While designers hope that most choreographers have respect for the timeline and don't ask for changes on a whim, both designers and choreographers need to be willing to start fresh if a costume is no longer serving the piece well. Holly Hynes, who has designed more than 250 ballets, explains her strategy: "Better to have it all and then take it away than to get on stage and think 'that's not enough.' Because then you're [creating new garments] at the last minute and it's not your best work." For Appalachian Spring to be a success, Hynes stayed tuned to the needs of the piece and the ideas of her collaborators from the initial meetings through the final dress rehearsals. She found plaids with the right texture to add interest to the simplicity. She looked at her work with fresh eyes and saw that even a simple cap or shawl seemed over-detailed.

For The Wizard of Oz to be a success, Vandal drew on her years of experience to choose the right fabrics and create silhouettes that not only show character and scene, but also work with partnering and lifts. She created garments that moved well with the body, such as the streamer-like skirt on the Wicked Witch and the poppies' buoyant circle skirts, and made sure that the dancers had ample rehearsal time in the specialized shapes. She used techniques that she learned at Cirque du Soleil designing OVO to create unusual body shapes, support headpieces, and handle athletic movement in harnesses. But she thinks her best accomplishment is her ability to relate to her collaborators. "I connect myself to what is right for the group. I am a giver and receiver of information. We can't be neutral receivers, though, because of our personalities. I try to be as receptive as I can without any judgment but I feel as it passes through my body."

Septime Webre sums up it up well. A successful dance costume should "have its own unique point of view in addition to the dance--[it should] elevate the dance, not just complement it. But it can't overtake the dance--it must support the movement. It's got to understand how the body moves, how the body is complemented."


E. Shura Pollatsek is a versatile costume designer whose work spans theater, dance, opera, film, and television. She is the author of the book Unbuttoned: the Art and Artists of Theatrical Costume Design, as well as multiple articles for TD&T and other national publications. Pollatsek and her collaborator from Unbuttoned, photographer Mitchell D. Wilson, are currently at work on a second book, documenting the collaborative process between costume designers and choreographers. The new book will continue their style of weaving together interviews with artists, background information, and photos that capture the spirit of the creative work. Favorite costume design credits include Halcyon and Thirst with choreographer Christopher K. Morgan, The Duel and Woodrow Wilson on PBS' The American Experience, and The Kingdom of David and Andrew Jackson, also for National PBS. She has been assistant costume designer for Broadway, including Thoroughly Modern Millie and All Shook Up, and for the Metropolitan Opera. After many years as a freelance artist, she is now based in Kentucky where she is professor of costume design and technology at Western Kentucky University.

Mitchell D. Wilson is well known for cinematic eloquence, impressionistic historical re-creations, and striking juxtaposition of photojournalism and visual metaphor. Recent work includes four projects for PBS' series Frontline, and When Worlds Collide about the origins of Latino Culture, also for National PBS. Other favorite projects include Andrew Jackson: Good, Evil and the Presidency and the four-hour PBS series The New Heroes, hosted by Robert Redford. His cinematography for the series was nominated for a National Emmy award. His work has been recognized with numerous awards including Primetime Emmys, the DuPont Columbia Award, and the Peabody for Excellence in Broadcast Journalism, as well as being named National Press Photographer of the Year. He began his career as a combat cameraman and underwater photographer in the elite Combat Camera Group of the U.S. Navy. He is also a member of the Directors Guild of America.

Appalachian Spring performed March 2017 By Nashville Ballet and Nashville Symphony

Choreography by Paul Vasterling

Music Composition by Aaron Copland

Music Performance by Nashville Symphony

Conducted by Music Director Giancarlo Guerrero

Costume Design by Holly Hynes

Lighting Design by Scott Leathers

Dancers from Nashville Ballet performing

The Wizard of Oz at Kansas City Ballet performed October 2018

A co-production with Colorado Ballet and the Royal Winnipeg Ballet

Choreography by Septime Webre

Music Composition by Matthew Pierce

Scenic Design by Michael Raiford

Costume Design by Liz Vandal

Lighting Design by Trad A Burns

Projection Design by Aaron Rhyne

Puppetry Design by Nicholas Mahon

Design Coordination by Trad A Burns

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Author:Pollatsek, E. Shura
Publication:TD&T (Theatre Design & Technology)
Article Type:Dance review
Date:Jun 22, 2019
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