Kermit Love

At first glance, Kermit Love (1916–2008), with his long, Santa Claus–like beard and gentle demeanor would seem the antithesis of fashion. But the man who died last year at age 91 was one of the theater world’s most original costume designers. With a career spanning more than six decades, Love worked with many of the 20th century’s greatest choreographers, including Agnes de Mille, Jerome Robbins, George Balanchine, Twyla Tharp and Robert Joffrey. Love also created several famous “Sesame Street” Muppets that won him international attention. From superbly conceived backless tuxedos to giant angel wings to mice sporting suits of armor to an 8-foot-2-inch yellow-feathered ornithological creature, Love’s constructions sprang from the mind of a uniquely gifted artist who could bring characters to life through detail. His work forever changed the ideology behind effective stage costumes and designs.

“Kermit was enormously valuable in providing a consciousness-raising toward the value of wit and fun in creating costuming for the stage,” says veteran dance photographer Herbert Migdoll, who knew Love from the designer’s work with Joffrey Ballet, including the 16-foot-tall Mother Ginger puppet he created for the company’s Nutcracker (1987). “The guy was a genius.”

He was born Kermit Ernest Hollingshead Love in Spring Lake, New Jersey. As a youngster, he first became enamored with Punch-and-Judy puppets. Then, after being thrown from a horse at age 12 and confined to bed for three years due to leg injuries, Love began listening to radio dramas and drawing pictures of how he imagined the characters. The theatrical die was cast.

In 1935, 19-year-old Love made puppets under the auspices of a federal Works Progress Administration theater before designing costumes for Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre. But it was his work with Barbara Karinska, star costumer for the New York City Ballet, that led the designer to the dance world. Love worked with Karinska in 1942 on de Mille’s Rodeo (which he redesigned in 1976 for the Joffrey), then, two years later, he designed the jaunty sailor suits for Robbins’ first ballet, Fancy Free.

However, it was Love’s 40-year collaboration with Balanchine that yielded a wealth of designs: the 28-foot-high marionette for Don Quixote (1965); Karin von Aroldingen’s Firebird wings in 1972; the masks for Pulcinella (choreographed with Robbins from 1972); and the full-body puppets for the 1975 one-act opera, L’Enfant et les Sortilèges (The Spellbound Child). (He also created dancing chairs, a spinning clock, life-size owls, frogs and dragonflies for the 1981 PBS “Dance in America” television production of this opera.) “Balanchine liked working with me because . . . I surprised him,” Love told Dance Magazine in 1998.

This innovative spirit was also evident in Love’s fruitful alliance with Twyla Tharp, whom he met in New York City while working as a designer-consultant at Judson Dance Theater in the 1960s. He designed garb for a number of Tharp’s works, including The Fugue (1970), Eight Jelly Rolls (1971) and The Bix Pieces (1971). Love, in conjunction with Tharp’s then manager, William Peter Kosmas, also advocated for a revolutionized company image—specifically, updated costumes and new haircuts at Vidal Sassoon’s salon. Tharp soon emerged with her signature angled bob.

Original Tharp dancer Sara Rudner, currently director of dance at Sarah Lawrence College, recalls Love’s ability to unify a piece yet work with the dancers individually. “He took these dances and put them in time and character and helped us become more—for lack of a better word—stylish,” she says. “We were dancing with the same wild energy, but we were in these exquisitely conceived, tailored costumes. He was extremely thoughtful and perceptive about what would help the dance be visible.”

While working at the Judson Theater, Love also met the future famed Muppeteer, Jim Henson. This introduction led to the creation of “Sesame Street’s” Big Bird, which debuted in 1969, and his 7-foot-tall wooly friend, Mr. Snuffleupagus. Love, who was occasionally known to be cantankerous, aptly designed two other regular “Sesame Street” residents, Oscar the Grouch and Cookie Monster, and created 22 versions of characters for foreign productions. But despite the common name, Love insisted that he was not the namesake of Henson’s famous frog. The late costumer also served as key Muppet supervisor for the iconic children’s show, and often appeared as Willy the Hot Dog Man—a character who always sported a yellow feather in his hat, as a tribute from Love to his treasured bird.

And it’s not every designer who gets the approval of artist Pablo Picasso. As part of the Joffrey’s 1971 remounting of Léonide Massine’s 1917 work, Parade, for which Picasso designed the original costumes for Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, Love was asked to reconstruct the cubistic creations. These characters included the Manager on Horseback, manned by two dancers, as well as two large constructions, the French Manager and the American Manager.

Migdoll says that Picasso’s original costumes (made out of papier-mâché and wood) were too heavy for the dancers to move in, so Love refashioned them with aluminum tubing and Styrofoam, enabling the men to move and jump around with ease. “Picasso signed off on the ballet,” adds Migdoll, “and Massine was impressed that the work was going to have a brighter life than it did in its first incarnation. Kermit’s work made it very fresh and it was extremely successful for the Joffrey.”

Love remained active in the business as he approached his 90s, but he died on June 21, 2008 of congestive heart failure in Poughkeepsie, New York, close to where he lived with his partner of 50 years Christopher Lyall. “Kermit had a gift to go in many different directions,” says Rudner. “He never seemed to be bound by his own previous work. That is the characteristic of a really interesting, wonderful artist.” DT

Victoria Looseleaf is an award-winning arts journalist and producer of the TV show, “The Looseleaf Report.”

Photo by and courtesy of Herbert Migdoll

Music
Mary Malleney, courtesy Osato

In most classes, dancers are encouraged to count the music, and dance with it—emphasizing accents and letting the rhythm of a song guide them.

But Marissa Osato likes to give her students an unexpected challenge: to resist hitting the beats.

In her contemporary class at EDGE Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles (which is now closed, until they find a new space), she would often play heavy trap music. She'd encourage her students to find the contrast by moving in slow, fluid, circular patterns, daring them to explore the unobvious interpretation of the steady rhythms.


"I like to give dancers a phrase of music and choreography and have them reinterpret it," she says, "to be thinkers and creators and not just replicators."

Osato learned this approach—avoiding the natural temptation of the music always being the leader—while earning her MFA in choreography at California Institute of the Arts. "When I was collaborating with a composer for my thesis, he mentioned, 'You always count in eights. Why?'"

This forced Osato out of her creative comfort zone. "The choices I made, my use of music, and its correlation to the movement were put under a microscope," she says. "I learned to not always make the music the driving motive of my work," a habit she attributes to her competition studio training as a young dancer.

While an undergraduate at the University of California, Irvine, Osato first encountered modern dance. That discovery, along with her experience dancing in Boogiezone Inc.'s off-campus hip-hop company, BREED, co-founded by Elm Pizarro, inspired her own, blended style, combining modern and hip hop with jazz. While still in college, she began working with fellow UCI student Will Johnston, and co-founded the Boogiezone Contemporary Class with Pizarro, an affordable series of classes that brought top choreographers from Los Angeles to Orange County.

"We were trying to bring the hip-hop and contemporary communities together and keep creating work for our friends," says Osato, who has taught for West Coast Dance Explosion and choreographed for studios across the country.

In 2009, Osato, Johnston and Pizarro launched Entity Contemporary Dance, which she and Johnston direct. The company, now based in Los Angeles, won the 2017 Capezio A.C.E. Awards, and, in 2019, Osato was chosen for two choreographic residencies (Joffrey Ballet's Winning Works and the USC Kaufman New Movement Residency), and became a full-time associate professor of dance at Santa Monica College.

At SMC, Osato challenges her students—and herself—by incorporating a live percussionist, a luxury that's been on pause during the pandemic. She finds that live music brings a heightened sense of awareness to the room. "I didn't realize what I didn't have until I had it," Osato says. "Live music helps dancers embody weight and heaviness, being grounded into the floor." Instead of the music dictating the movement, they're a part of it.

Osato uses the musician as a collaborator who helps stir her creativity, in real time. "I'll say 'Give me something that's airy and ambient,' and the sounds inspire me," says Osato. She loves playing with tension and release dynamics, fall and recovery, and how those can enhance and digress from the sound.

"I can't wait to get back to the studio and have that again," she says.

Osato made Dance Teacher a Spotify playlist with some of her favorite songs for class—and told us about why she loves some of them.

"Get It Together," by India.Arie

"Her voice and lyrics hit my soul and ground me every time. Dream artist. My go-to recorded music in class is soul R&B. There's simplicity about it that I really connect with."

"Turn Your Lights Down Low," by Bob Marley + The Wailers, Lauryn Hill

"A classic. This song embodies that all-encompassing love and gets the whole room groovin'."

"Diamonds," by Johnnyswim

"This song's uplifting energy and drive is infectious! So much vulnerability, honesty and joy in their voices and instrumentation."

"There Will Be Time," by Mumford & Sons, Baaba Maal

"Mumford & Sons' music has always struck a deep chord within me. Their songs are simultaneously stripped-down and complex and feel transcendent."

"With The Love In My Heart," by Jacob Collier, Metropole Orkest, Jules Buckley

"Other than it being insanely energizing and cinematic, I love how challenging the irregular meter is!"

For Parents

Darrell Grand Moultrie teaches at a past Jacob's Pillow summer intensive. Photo Christopher Duggan, courtesy Jacob's Pillow

In the past 10 months, we've grown accustomed to helping our dancers navigate virtual school, classes and performances. And while brighter, more in-person days may be around the corner—or at least on the horizon—parents may be facing yet another hurdle to help our dancers through: virtual summer-intensive auditions.

In 2020, we learned that there are some unique advantages of virtual summer programs: the lack of travel (and therefore the reduced cost) and the increased access to classes led by top artists and teachers among them. And while summer 2021 may end up looking more familiar with in-person intensives, audition season will likely remain remote and over Zoom.

Of course, summer 2021 may not be back to in-person, and that uncertainty can be a hard pill to swallow. Here, Kate Linsley, a mom and academy principal of Nashville Ballet, as well as "J.R." Glover, The Dan & Carole Burack Director of The School at Jacob's Pillow, share their advice for this complicated process.

Keep reading... Show less
Teachers Trending

From left: Anthony Crickmay, Courtesy Dance Theatre of Harlem Archives; Courtesy Ballethnic

It is the urgency of going in a week or two before opening night that Lydia Abarca Mitchell loves most about coaching. But in her role as Ballethnic Dance Company's rehearsal director, she's not just getting the troupe ready for the stage. Abarca Mitchell—no relation to Arthur Mitchell—was Mitchell's first prima ballerina when he founded Dance Theatre of Harlem with Karel Shook; through her coaching, Abarca Mitchell works to pass her mentor's legacy to the next generation.

"She has the same sensibility" as Arthur Mitchell, says Ballethnic co-artistic director Nena Gilreath. "She's very direct, all about the mission and the excellence, but very caring."

Ballethnic is based in East Point, a suburban city bordering Atlanta. In a metropolitan area with a history of racism and where funding is hard-won, it is crucial for the Black-led ballet company to present polished, professional productions. "Ms. Lydia" provides the "hard last eye" before the curtain opens in front of an audience.

Keep reading... Show less

Get Dance Business Weekly in your inbox

Sign Up Used in accordance with our Privacy Policy.