A Look At Burklyn Ballet Theatre's Angela Whitehill's Costume Designs

A secondhand shop housed in a rustic log cabin was the unlikely site of a sparkling discovery for Angela Whitehill, artistic director of Vermont’s Burklyn Ballet Theatre, seven years ago. “I saw a sari that was absolutely beautiful, just gorgeous,” says Whitehill. “It was covered with sequins and jewels, and I thought, ‘I could use this for overlays, for decoration, for headdresses. There’s so much I can do with this!’”

 

In what would become the first of many such purchases, Whitehill took the sari back to the BBT costume shop and “started cutting it up.” Then she noticed a tag on the sari indicating that proceeds from its sale went to an organization called Child Haven International. Whitehill immediately decided to find out how she could get more. After investigating, she learned that the secondhand store, Forget Me Not in Johnson, VT, had obtained the sari from a local whose mother collected them to raise funds for CHI, then a home for destitute women and children in Dhanera, India.

 

Since that time, Child Haven International has grown tremendously and so has Whitehill’s use of saris to supplement and expand her 26-year-old summer program’s sizable costume closet. Founded in 1985 by Bonnie Cappuccinno (who orchestrated the Forget Me Not sari donations) and her husband, Fred, CHI is dedicated to supporting women and children in need of food, shelter, health care, education and emotional support. The organization currently operates in Nepal and Tibet as well as India, and includes a women’s work program and literacy project that aims to provide women and children with the skills and self-sufficiency to support themselves and their families. Volunteers raise funds in a number of ways—through sales of a cookbook, a gardening book, their own paintings and, as Whitehill was pleased to discover, their used saris.

 

In the United States, saris are typically worn by Indian women to religious functions and other formal events both within and outside of the Indian community. The average sari consists of a rectangular stretch of fabric that measures six yards by 42 inches. One end is typically reinforced with cotton, while the other end, the pallu, is embellished with jewelry or other decorative material. Whitehill gets the most use out of this decorative end, which is often covered with embroidery, faceted sequins, jewels and golden medallions that can be cut out and applied to chiffon skirts, leotards or bodices so that, according to Whitehill, “when the stage lights hit them, they just sparkle.”

 

Through the years, Whitehill has fashioned a unique arrangement with the Cappuccinnos’ son, Robin Hood Cappuccinno. Every year he delivers a new crop of secondhand saris to BBT’s studios on the campus of Johnson State College. Whitehill and her staff sort through the boxes of saris searching for the perfect color, texture or shape to satisfy their summer costume needs. Although Whitehill gets first pick for the school, she and her staff have become so taken with the silk saris, which she says “are so beautiful you want to buy them all,” that they typically purchase 45 to 50 altogether. She and staff members use leftover fabric to make personal items such as scarves and handbags.

 

The students dance in the costumes all summer long. BBT is a 6-week summer course in which the students perform on a weekly basis. The approximately 270 dancers, who attend 2-, 4- or 6-week sessions, range in age from 10 to 25. The summer concludes with 25 to 30 of the participants traveling to Scotland to perform in the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, where in past years they have been awarded The Scotsman’s Reader’s Choice of Best Dance and Physical Theatre, in part, Whitehill says, because of the costumes.

Whitehill, who designs all of BBT’s costumes, typically purchases 20 to 30 saris per season specifically for fashioning tutus, skirts, bodices and anything else that’s needed. In addition to silk, Whitehill uses a lot of velvet in dressing her young dancers for ballets such as Cinderella and Alice in Wonderland. Although saris come in almost all colors, Whitehill uses blue, green, white, gold, cobalt and magenta most frequently. “I try to stick with primary colors,” she says.

 

A self-described lifelong sewer, Whitehill counts a backstage tour of the Royal Ballet’s costume shops as valuable preparation for her career in costuming, or “making magic,” as she puts it. What was meant to have been a 15- to 20-minute overview with Pat Pickett, one of the Royal Ballet’s main costumers during the 1980s and ’90s, turned into a five-hour tour that included a showing of the opera costumes and wig room. Whitehill left with a newfound appreciation for the craft as well as tutu measurements, scribbled on the back of a photograph of her daughter that she still carries in her wallet.

 

While the price of silk saris can begin at $75 and go up to $2,000, the secondhand saris Whitehill purchases range from $35 to $50. Since one six-yard long sari can be used for as many as 10 to 15 costumes, she saves on fabric costs substantially; she had previously spent as much as $100 per yard of decorative fabric to make just one tutu. But, says Whitehill, “the real issue is that our dancers love knowing that they are dancing and helping less fortunate children at the same time.” DT

 

Meital Waibsnaider is a freelance writer based in New York City.

News
Getty Images

Despite worldwide theater closures, the Universal Ballet Competition is keeping The Nutcracker tradition alive in 2020 with an online international competition. The event culminates in a streamed, full-length video of The Virtual Nutcracker consisting of winning entries on December 19. The competition is calling on studios, as well as dancers of all ages and levels, to submit videos by November 29 to be considered.

"Nutcracker is a tradition that is ingrained in our hearts," says UBC co-founder Lissette Salgado-Lucas, a former dancer with Royal Winnipeg Ballet and Joffrey Ballet. "We danced it for so long as professionals, we can't wait to pass it along to dancers through this competition."

Keep reading... Show less
Robbie Sweeny, courtesy Funsch

Christy Funsch's teaching career has taken her from New York City to the Bay Area to Portugal, with a stint in a punk band in between. But this fall—fresh off a Fulbright in Portugal at the Instituto Politécnico de Lisboa, School of Dance (ESD), teaching and researching empathetic embodiment through somatic dance training—Funsch's teaching has taken her to an entirely new location: Zoom. A visiting professor at Slippery Rock University for the 2020–21 academic year, Funsch is adapting her eclectic, boundary-pushing approach to her virtual classes.

Originally from central New York State, Funsch spent 20 years performing in the Bay Area, where she also started her own company, Funsch Dance Experience. "My choreographic work from that time is in the dance-theater experiential, fantasy realm of performance," she says. "I also started blending genres and a lot of urban styles found their way into my choreography."

Keep reading... Show less
News
Courtesy Meg Brooker

As the presidential election approaches, it's a particularly meaningful time to remember that we are celebrating the centennial of the 19th Amendment, when women earned the right to vote after a decades-long battle.

Movement was more than a metaphor for the fight for women's suffrage—dancers played a real role, most notably Florence Fleming Noyes, who performed her riveting solo Dance of Freedom in 1914 to embody the struggle for women's rights.

This fall, Middle Tennessee State University director of dance Meg Brooker is reconstructing Dance of Freedom on 11 of her students. A Noyes Rhythm teacher and an Isadora Duncan scholar, Brooker is passionate about bringing historic dance practices into a contemporary context.

Keep reading... Show less

Get Dance Business Weekly in your inbox

Sign Up Used in accordance with our Privacy Policy.