Real Life Dance: Final Dress

When it comes to costumes, professionals don't leave anything to chance.
Published in the June/July 2005 issue.

Now that costume design runs the gamut from elaborately ornamented and bejeweled tutus and tunics to loincloths and skimpy combinations of see-through mesh and shreds of Lycra, being able to dance well in anything and everything takes some doing.

But a costume is more than just a covering for the body; it’s an integral part of the design of a production that can enhance—or obstruct—the choreography. At Ballet Austin, company members Margot Brown and Jim Stein dance a rep that ranges from the classical to the contemporary. Through practice, they’ve learned how to make sure a costume won’t faze them in performance. Read on to learn what they do.

Margot Brown: Tutu Talk

For the women who wear them—and the men who dance with those women—tutus take a lot of getting used to.

“My Sugar Plum tutu [at right] is huge,” says Margot Brown, who’s been with Ballet Austin since ‘91.  “Alexey [Korygin, wardrobe master,] says, ‘You’re a tall girl. You need a big tutu,’ so he just makes me this huge tutu.”

In traditional partnering, the man relies on seeing the woman’s legs as well as her spine to keep the woman on balance. Not only does the tutu’s skirt keep the woman at arm’s length, it also blocks his view of her legs. The sooner the man gets accustomed to that, the better.

“We start in rehearsal,” says Brown. “We have practice tutus not so much for the women, but to help the guys’ partnering. It makes a huge difference for them if they cannot see your legs.”

While the skirt may make problems for the man, for women, it’s the bodice that can be the major obstacle. 
“The boning is an issue,” says Brown. “I’ve been wearing tutus for years and years, so I am used to it now. But it certainly is restrictive. Ordinarily we rehearse in next to nothing—a leotard and tights and a skirt—or even no skirt—so you are used to having complete flexibility and total movement in your body. When you first put on a tutu, it’s tight. You can’t get your leg up. You can’t cambré back. You feel like your movement is really inhibited.”

The current trend in tutu bodices is to use stretch material that better matches the body’s movement. Traditional bodices, however, don’t give, and that can be a problem for some body types. “Alexey’s tutus fit like a glove,” she says, but “I’ve got boobs, and tutus don’t bend. You go, and they stay. I often wear a leotard, because of some of the plunging backbends.”

Practical considerations aside, dancing in a tutu is unlike any other costume experience. “It makes you conscious of every move you make,” says Brown, “You can’t hide anything in a tutu. I really do try to articulate clean, clear movements because you have to. It really shows if you haven’t done so.”

Jim Stein: Skirts And Beyond

Stein, who returned to Ballet Austin this season after a six-year stint at Atlanta Ballet, is a master at dancing in unconventional costumes. He’s pictured in the costume for Steven Mills’ Touch, in which he and his
partner wear earth-tone versions of the costume at right. 

“Partnering-wise, Touch is very intricate,” says Stein. “In the pas de deux, we both have skirts, so that makes it a little challenging. Sometimes [the woman] goes through my legs—getting the skirt out of the way in time to grab her is a challenge. We had two or three rehearsals in the studio to work that through before getting to the stage.”

In a recent performance Stein danced in a loincloth in one ballet and leather pants in another, but he finds it problematic when character roles require him to work with more substantial costumes.

“I had to do a stepsister in Ben Stevenson’s Cinderella in Atlanta,” he says. “That’s one of the most challenging costumes, because there is a lot of material that can easily get in the way when you are trying to do a step.”

Character roles often have accessories like wigs and hats, and managing them is not only distracting, but also the extra weight can throw off a dancer’s equilibrium in turns and jumps. Then there are roles like Captain Hook in Peter Pan: “Not getting the hook caught in the lace takes concentration,” says Stein.

Add to that the inherent difficulty of dancing in the shirt, waistcoat, jacket and wig he must wear as Captain Hook. “I sweat a lot,” he says. “With so many layers, you overheat in them very easily.” That is a problem in costumes that can’t be easily washed, but there is another issue that Stein points out: “Because companies share productions, there will be many others who will wear that costume after you. Usually I will wear a T-shirt underneath to help absorb the sweat, [which] helps prolong the life of the costume.”