Watching a ballet is giving yourself over to a world where beauty and elegance meet, where soaring dancers captivate you with their lyrical grace. Enhancing every movement, costumes swirl in frothy colors, diaphanous waves or muted opulence. The magic of costuming seems effortless, but behind each bewitching gown, tutu, tunic or shift lies hours of meticulous planning. Come with us as we take a look at the creativity behind the enchantment of the costumes at Ballet Memphis.
Costumes are one of the most important tools for bringing a character to life on stage, communicating details of personalities and emotions. To make sure designs harmonize with every detail of a production, conceptualizing the costumes begins very early in the creative process.
At Ballet Memphis, seasons are determined up to two years in advance. As Artistic Director Steven McMahon selects the ballets, he conceives the guiding artistic vision, casts the dancers and works with scenic designers. For the costumes, he turns to the mastery and brilliance of Wardrobe Supervisor and Resident Costume Designer, Bruce Bui.
A veteran of more than 20 years in ballet costuming, Bruce joined Ballet Memphis in 2011. He designs 90-95% of the costumes for the company, and even when a guest designer is brought in, the workshop builds the costumes under his supervision. He works with an amazing and skilled team to bring an artistic vision to life: Haley Warner, Costume Construction and Shoe Manager, Ashley Selburg, Costume Construction, and Gabriela Moros, Wardrobe Assistant.
The conception of the costumes starts with Steven. Gaining inspiration from his love of fashion and clothing, he first decides on an overall aesthetic. “Do we want to be hyper-modern? Stick with tradition? Go in a new direction?” he says. “Bruce and I have a lot of back and forth as we flesh out the ideas. Once we have the aesthetic, I trust Bruce to execute the vision.”
When Bruce begins to design the costumes, he starts first with sketches, then proceeds to choose fabrics and the embellishments that enhance the visual effect of movement. “We build a costume to the first fitting when we fit it to the dancer,” he explains. “The costume needs to fit the dancer perfectly. Then we add little details that show with movement.”
Bruce explains that using the term “building” or “constructing” a costume is the most accurate. “Each costume is built by hand. It takes anywhere from six weeks to six months to construct and each is custom-tailored to a specific size,” he says.
With the time frame required to build each costume, production overlaps. “We once had to take luggage, filled with unfinished costumes for a future ballet, with us on a tour in New York City,” Bruce recalls.
For organization and inspiration, he keeps a detailed “bible” of each ballet performance. Every costume has its own page with notes and swatches of fabric.
Since seasons are planned ahead, enough fabric is ordered for re-fitting and rebuilding when a ballet is performed again — even years later. “We keep fabrics and costumes stored together,” says Bruce. “We keep all our costumes and reuse them until we just can’t anymore.”
Upstairs, the storage space for costumes bears witness to that statement with a collection of approximately 8,000 costumes and the bolts of fabric that go along with each. The “storybook” or “narrative” costumes are for the classic big ballets. Ballet Memphis also creates and performs new, smaller conceptual pieces each year, as the company is committed to creating more new work than any other mid-sized ballet company and to developing young artists to create thematic work that is meaningful for the community.
Costumes are stored together by performance, so you’ll find rows and rows of storybook ballet ensembles grouped overhead. Lower racks hold the garb for more modern, shorter ballets, which usually have simpler, lighter styles.
On a recent afternoon, the costume workshop at Ballet Memphis was quietly busy, only a few weeks before the opening of the 2019-20 season with Romeo and Juliet. Haley was hand-stitching beautiful embellishments onto Juliet’s opening dress, while Ashley worked on Juliet’s ball gown and Gabriela finished the details of a costume for a Capulet.
Steven first choreographed Romeo and Juliet in 2011 — the second narrative he ever did for Ballet Memphis. He joined the company in 2004 as a dancer and took the helm as Ballet Memphis’ second-ever Artistic Director in July 2019. Steven decided in his original conception to keep the silhouettes of the costumes classic and simple and play with accents and patterns. “I wanted to keep it classical but give a nod to a modern aesthetic,” he says.
Most of the costumes from the 2011 Romeo and Juliet will see life again on the stage — some have been refitted to a different size dancer, readjusted or repaired. There are a few new ones, however.
“In Act III, Lady Capulet is supposed to be in mourning, but she’s wearing the same red dress from earlier acts,” explains Steven. “You can’t be sad in a red dress! I decided to fix that, so this year Lady C has a black dress.”
The creative minds behind the costumes are all looking forward to the new production of Romeo and Juliet. They’ve loved pulling out the gowns, tunics, headdresses and leggings, and polishing them up for the new season. “The men’s costumes in this production are some of my very favorites,” Steven shares. “They are just good looking!”
Reflecting on the more than 30 years of costumes housed above him, Bruce says it’s hard to pick any favorites.
“It’s part of the fun that all the costumes are so different,” he says. “They represent different ways of realizing a vision and all are special.”
Ballet Memphis 2019-20 season begins with Romeo and Juliet at Playhouse on the Square (October 12-20), followed by Nutcracker at The Orpheum Theatre (December 12-15), Winter Mix at Ballet Memphis Fly Studio (February 14-23, 2020), Cinderella at The Orpheum Theatre (April 18-19, 2020), and a special immersive dance experience (May 8-9, 2020). For times and details, please visit Ballet Memphis.
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