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.