Jazz pants, warm-ups, leotards and sweatpants—the dancer’s everyday uniform is designed for ultimate comfort in class. Onstage, however, all bets are off. From a very young age, dancers learn all about the annoyances of itchy straps and pokey sequins. As your students progress in their training, they may be asked to perform in complex costumes that require special preparation, whether they’re working with contemporary choreographers in college, or dancing in your annual recital.

To help you prepare them for the challenges ahead, DT talked to Karin von Aroldingen, ballet mistress and former principal dancer with the New York City Ballet; Elizabeth Auclair, principal dancer with Martha Graham Dance Company; and Trey McIntyre, artistic director of Trey McIntyre Project, to find out how they coach dancers to adapt to the challenges of unwieldy designs and use them to enhance their performance instead. The following tips and ideas hold true for all performers—those dressed to the nines or dancing in nothing at all.

Tip 1: Start early. If you envision complex costumes for your piece, meet early and regularly with your costume designer to develop a common vision, discuss concepts and begin sketching out ideas before you set the dance. Be sure to keep each other apprised of changes along the way. McIntyre, who has created works for Houston Ballet, Stuttgart Ballet, American Ballet Theatre and New York City Ballet, among others, says, “You have to make certain you’re on the same page with the designer from the start.”

Tip 2: Create a prototype. Ask the designer to make a rough version of a major costume piece as early in the rehearsal process as possible. The choreographer and dancer can begin working with the piece as dance phrases are forming, and the designer can troubleshoot the construction of the final design. This way, if you’re planning for a series of grande battements, your dancers aren’t caught in tight pencil skirts—unless restricted movement is the flavor of the piece.

Tip 3: Develop a partnership with the garment. Dancers often compare the experience of working with complex
costume pieces to developing a relationship. “As the Siren in [Balanchine’s] Prodigal Son, I came to see that long velvet train as a partner,” notes von Aroldingen. “Learning the way the fabric moves, and how its weight shifts as you become wrapped up in it, is much like learning the way someone else dances with you.”

Auclair had a similar experience learning to dance in her 15-yard, 10-pound skirt in the solo Specter–1914, the opening section of Graham’s Sketches from Chronicle. “I realized that I am really dancing a duet with this skirt,” she recalls. “I had to study the way the fabric reacted to movements I’d initiate and allow it to respond in its own natural way.”

Tip 4: Observe and respond. Dancers can begin working with a new (or existing) costume piece in much the same way as they would start a conversation: Initiate a series of movements in the costume and see how the material reacts. Then begin a dialogue with the fabric to determine a sense of its “personality,” and an idea of how various movements and dynamics elicit the desired reactions.

Choreographers and designers should participate in this process in order to make observations from the outside that the dancer can’t see. This will help determine if adjustments are needed to the piece’s construction, or if slight changes to the movement might be helpful.

Tip 5: Help foster ownership of the garment. Costuming should give dancers a sense that they are wearing something that their character might own, rather than something someone else has put on them. This approach lends a more organic feel to dancers’ relationships to their costumes—and allows them to treat the costumes as extensions of the characters.

McIntyre helped one of his dancers make this connection: “Alison Roper, who dances the personification of Death in my piece Go Out, had trouble adjusting to changes in the second version of her dress [after working with a prototype],” he says. “When I suggested to her that the struggles she was having with the dress were a part of her character, something clicked. She began to see that long billowy skirt, and the power and force of the bodice, as physical manifestations of the internal conflict—Death seeing how fragile and precious life is, but [feeling] conflicted because it’s her job to end it. Alison then started using the dress in new ways that conveyed both how brutal and horrific Death is, but also how tender and almost motherly it can be sometimes, too. That all added dimension and personality.”

McIntyre went through a similar experience himself in collaboration with renowned designer Michael Curry, who created a skirt made of bamboo rods for McIntyre’s Spirits. The piece didn’t really start to take on a life of its own, he says, “until I could connect with the costume as a part of myself, and speak through it to explore the images of spirituality and dreams that were the motivators for the work.”

Tip 6: Take time to explore. It’s easy to think that simply because one dancer has worked with a costume that another dancer can just step into it and use it the same way—especially if the former dancer has been doing the role for years. Yet it’s not that simple. Leave plenty of time for new dancers to explore working with a costume piece that has already been created for an existing role.

“When I’ve learned roles like Spectre and Lamentation in the past, I’ve had great coaches who’ve helped me understand how they worked with those costumes,” says Auclair. “I’ve also had the luxury of watching them perform these works over a number of years, and had plenty of time to work with the costumes before going onstage.”

That’s not the case currently as she prepares to premiere in “Medea’s Dance of Vengeance” in Cave of the Heart this fall. “I’ve had much less time to work with the spider dress that Isamu Noguchi made for Medea. I’ll get coaching, and from there, I’ll have to trust that watching those dancers before me was great instruction—seeing the way they worked with the piece and how they allowed it to inform their character.”

Tip 7: Pass on knowledge. Coaching from a dancer who has already performed a work is often key in helping a new performer figure out how to work with tricky costume pieces. When teaching the Siren’s role to new ballerinas, von Aroldingen says, “There are always questions, but you can’t really tell someone how that train works. You can’t tell them how to use it in becoming the character. You have to demonstrate—sometimes many times.” This relationship is essential in order for the new dancer to be able to operate the costume in a manner that is faithful to the original choreography, and doesn’t detract from the movement phrasing set by the choreographer.

“Mr. Balanchine always knew that we would find the way that was right for us to do a role while remaining honest to the choreography,” von
Aroldingen remembers. “He gave us that room, and while I may demonstrate something a number of times, eventually I let the dancer have room and time to figure it out for herself.” And, she notes, “You’ve never learned all there is to know about a costume or the character. I’m still learning.

Eventually, after you’ve performed something long enough, you start to understand. You start to feel like it’s right. That’s when you know you’re getting there.” DT


Joshua Legg is a technique instructor and rehearsal director for Harvard University’s Dance Program. He holds an MFA in dance choreography and performance from Shenandoah University.

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