"You dress a singer and you undress a dancer." So the saying goes, according to Guy Clark. He would know. He's the costume shop manager at Indiana Repertory Theater, and he's designed stunning costumes for hundreds of bodies, including the creations for Dance Kaleidoscope's Ray & Ella, which is being re-staged at the Schrott after a successful performance run at the IRT in March.
The average stage costume has to stand up to dozens of performances, take stage-makeup smudges (and their removal) and house a living, breathing, moving body for multiple nights in a row. Dancers' costumes have to do all that and more. The performers take their bodies to extremes, so their on-stage outfits have to do the same.
So why do you "undress a dancer?" Clark explained that dance is less about character than it is about being able to move freely. "It's all about movement. Dancers are so happy as long as they can move."
David Hochoy, artistic director of Dance Kaleidoscope, says, "Making costumes for dancers is an art. The costumes can't just look good standing still, they have to look good in motion. You have to be able to get your leg up, fall down and roll on the floor. [Costumers] have to be very resourceful."
Ray & Ella was only the second time that Clark and Hochoy worked together, but they seem to have found a rhythm. They wanted to create something really elegant for the Ella section. Clark knew that Hochoy wanted big, full skirts for the ladies, but he let his imagination take it from there.
Clark opted to put the ladies in lace and pearls, with tight bodices over big, frothy skirts. "I was inspired by dresses from the 1950s, images of Dorothy Dandridge ... so we started thinking silhouettes." To achieve fullness without heavy petticoats, Clark chose tulle, the fine netting used in ballet tutus.
A designer has to be flexible when building costumes for dancers. He can't be too tied to a time period, because anything that limits movement, even slightly, isn't going to work. For example, in partner dance, women are lifted by their waists. A full skirt that begins at the waist — as traditional 1950s cocktail dresses do — could get in the way and cause a major disaster. The ladies' skirts begin below the belly button, allowing plenty of space for a pair of hands. These details make a difference.
Another important detail is that, with all the pirouetting and grand-jeté-ing, those full skirts are going to catch air, giving the audience a peek at what's underneath. Clark planned for that, too. He explained that the designer has to make it seem like the "underwear" (usually the bottom half of a leotard) is something "the audience is supposed to see. It has to look like part of the costume."
Guest choreographer Nick Owens choreographed the second act of Ray & Ella, and the costumes look dramatically different from the first act. Instead of florals, the colors are steamy red and jet black. Instead of cocktail dresses and vests, the dancers strut in sleek one-piece outfits. Instead of full skirts, the women shimmy and shake in skintight pedal-pushers.
"Guy [Clark] listened to the music, and he saw red for Ray Charles," said Hochoy. How did Clark tie together such different palettes and styles to form a cohesive production? Hochoy smiled. "Lace worked its way into both sections."
"Dance design is different from theater design because it's less about character." Clark said, "I'm a costume designer because I love character...David [Hochoy] is very indulgent. He lets me create my own story in my head that may have nothing to do with what he's choreographing."