COSTUMES IN MOTION Choreography key to design process

Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet (top), Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater (middle) and The Radio Show showcase costume design that contribtutes to each show’s presentation.

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater just finished a run of performances, and over the coming days more dance is coming to the Spoleto and Piccolo Spoleto festivals. Next up are Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet, “The Radio Show” by choreographer Kyle Abraham and the Charleston Ballet Theatre. Each company is characterized by its own particular style, and the costumes dancers wear contribute greatly to the presentation.

Costumes add to the aesthetics of the production yet must work for dancers in motion, helping with gesture and expression without getting in the way. Costume design for dance, therefore, offers special challenges.

Jon Taylor, wardrobe supervisor for Alvin Ailey, said there is room to be creative when designing for dance. “I like to design for modern dance because it gives you the freedom of throwing something out there and doing something different,” he said.

Taylor, a Charleston native who lives in New York City, oversees the company’s costume production from beginning to end. He starts with sketches and conversations with the choreographer, conducts fittings for each dancer and tours with the company in case emergency repairs are needed.

At the beginning of the design process, a choreographer will come to the costume designer with a general idea for the look, then the designer will create a unique costume. Designers also work with the stage manager, lighting designer and the artistic staff and director. Once the design is approved, technical details are worked out. Dancers in constant motion will work up a sweat, making the fabric choice one of the most important decisions.

Sarah Cubbage, costume designer for “The Radio Show,” knows that durability and practicality are essential when picking materials.

“Your instinct is to buy the most wonderful, beautiful, expensive fabrics, wool and silks and expensive things that look really lush in the store on the bolt,” she said. “Then you get it on a dancer and you realize, ‘Oh, my God, all this does is show their sweat stains!’ ”

Though sparkly and eye-catching under bright lights, sequins and embellishments are often a no-go for modern dance costumes. It isn’t worth the extra repair effort from everyday wear and tear.

Taylor recalls a costume built for a dance performed at the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics. It was made of nylon, the same material as women’s pantyhose. The costumes were constantly getting snagged and ripped from the movement of the dancers, he said, and he had to spend hours repairing the costumes after every performance.

As one of the original dancers of “The Radio Show,” which premiered in Pittsburgh in 2010, Rachelle Rafailedes has worn all sorts of costumes in her 23 years of dancing. Sometimes the designers don’t keep the dancers in mind. Rafailedes once danced in a ball-gown-style dress with a long train, and she kept stepping on it. In that production, even her hairdo was a problem.

“I had my hair blown to one side as a part of the costume so it was sticking almost straight out to my shoulders,” she said. “That messes with your peripheral vision and it was a challenge to stop your head quickly if necessary because you have so much hair on one side of your head.” Nothing is better than getting a costume custom made, Rafailedes said. “It’s really special when the dancers and the choreography and the costumes come together, and you’re the vehicle for that.”

When they work, costumes contribute to a story and the interpretation of a dance. “The Radio Show” tells the story of a radio station going off the air in Pittsburgh. Choreographer Kyle Abraham also tells the story of his father’s battle with Alzheimer’s. As seen on YouTube, the costumes look like simple shirts from the front, but when the dancers turn, the audience can see that the shirt is backless.

“That detachment or deterioration that can be parallel to the deterioration of the mind,” says Rafaildes. “(The costume) expertly pays tribute to the themes but in the slightest and very subtle ways.”

Costumes are crucial to put dancers into character and the right mind-set before a performance. As a preshow ritual, Rafaildes doesn’t put her costume on until the very last minute. “I feel it’s so connected to the piece I don’t want to be hanging out backstage in my costume,” she says. “I want to keep that sacred or special.”

Amy Brueckman is a Newhouse School graduate student.