beyond the tutu

Interview+Slideshow: Adam Arnold on Designing for OBT’s Spring Show

The Portland fashion designer gives us a behind the scenes glimpse of the creative process for costuming a dance in OBT’s spring program, Chromatic Quartet, opening Thursday at the Newmark.

By Aaron Scott April 18, 2012

Choreographer Matjash Mrozewski takes members of the Oregon Ballet Theatre through the steps of The Lost Dance, which will be one of four dances in OBT’s Chromatic Quartet, April 19–28, at the Newmark Theatre. Photo by Blaine Truitt Covert

Read our review of opening night.

OBT’s spring program, Chromatic Quartet, running from April 19–28, offers four short works that explore how surprising partnerships can make for unbridled inspiration. Opening with a love letter from George Balanchine to his mentor and creative partner, Stravinsky Violin Concerto, the program will also include duet by international contemporary choreographer superstar, Christopher Wheeldon, and an homage to the legendary humanitarian doctor Albert Schweitzer, Lambarena, that combines his beloved Bach with African rhythms. But we’re most excited about the world premier of The Lost Dance by Canadian choreographer Matjash Mrozewski, set to the soundscape of electronic music composer Owen Belton (listen to a preview of his dreamlike composition). Since Mrozewski is no stranger to beautiful costumes, for his Portland premiere, OBT suggested one of Portland’s premiere designers: Adam Arnold.

In between final fittings and filing his taxes, Arnold was kind enough to answer a few questions about the process.

How did this collaboration come about?

I received a call from OBT late last summer asking if I would be interested. Indeed I was! I learned that the choreographer had seen my work online and was impressed after a recommendation by Christopher Stowell for a local designers he should consider for his new work.

You’re a busy man. What excited you about the project enough to give it so much time?

Kind of a story. Back in 2007, I provided clothing for the campaign Who’s Your Dancer? that featured company dancers in fanciful shots, arranged by Alicia Rose. My studio was practically across the street at the time. The poster series lasted about a year as I remember, and at the end, I expressed interest in costuming a ballet for OBT. The coordinator at the time mentioned that what dancers wore was far different than what I did. Always ready for a challenge, and sort of the rebellious type, I designed and made a tutu and hung it in my window right across the street as if to say, “Look! Give me a chance!” I put that same tutu in the window of my current studio on MLK as a sort of celebration of this new work, and to bring it full circle.

So, yes, I am a busy man, but this was personal. And the premiere happened to coincide with the time that I typically have my spring show, so I thought, why not think of this as my spring show and do it?!

Since it’s a world premier, it’s not like you got to see the performance ahead of time. How did you come up with the designs and what served as inspiration?

I met with the choreographer last October, and we brainstormed a bit about the process and discussed a number of things he liked about my work. But it was really during the emails he and I exchanged over the next several months, while he worked with the composer, Owen Belton, that I was able to pull together ideas for the piece. I listened to the music over and over again and would sketch out ideas that came to my mind though the music.

I knew that I wouldn’t really know what the choreography was going to look like until Matjash arrived in the middle of March, but by then, I was definitely feeling a sort of anachronistic aesthetic emerging. He and I both wanted it to feel elegant, but sexy—a bit gritty, but not sloppy. I began surrounding myself with photographs of the work of Halston, with a touch of Rudi Gernreich. And because it was going through the Adam Arnold filter, there was a definite structured sensibility. Also, color became a focus. I used mostly neutrals with hints of color like persimmon, magenta, and the nostalgic grace of a color that I can only describe as pickled pheasant egg—a kind of greenish mustard gold.

Tell us about the actual creation process.

Being a sort of “method designer,” I decided that I should sketch the dancers as they practiced in their morning classes to get an in depth understanding of how they move, and to observe their natural movements. I also created the opportunity to have a couple of them try on some of my sample garments in the dance studio, have them dance, and see where the stress points were, so that I could design garments that were made for dancing, not merely costumes.

Knowing that time was going to be an issue, I decided that it would be necessary for me to create the garments in my studio, rather than hand it off to a costume department. I started with the fabric, which I draped on dress forms into pleasing silhouettes, and then, from the ones I liked, I would draft patterns and cut and sew them in the studio. I tried the sewn garments on the dancers in the OBT costume department, and then I would take them back to the studio to make changes.

My 95-year-old grandmother, who taught me to sew to begin with, was in and out of the hospital. I moved one of my sewing machines into her living room in Vancouver, so I could sew some of the costumes by her. I think all of the men’s shirts were sewn in her living room. It meant a lot to me to be able to share this with her.

Are there unique challenges to designing for dancers?

One of the biggest challenges came in the form of a men’s tailored dress shirt. Through those observations in the dance studio, I was able to draft a pattern for a dress shirt that allows for exceptional arm rotation, without the use of stretch fabrics or compromising the fitted quality I wanted in the final piece.

Also, the fact that more than one sized dancer might use the same costume, adjustments and certain kinds of engineering were necessary. For example, the same dress worn by a dancer who is 5’3", might also be worn by one who is 5’7". This required the dress to be made in two pieces, a bodice and skirt. Because of this, you might see the line where the bodice ended under the skirt, so I built underwear into the skirt to hopefully smooth that line. These are all things that would not be necessary in the design and making of a dress for a client, but it is the same kind of problem solving that any designer in any field knows very well.

For those who want to see the show, but price is an issue, OBT offers a “Pay Your Age” discount for all patrons under 35 years old and also participates in Arts for All.

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