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For the Love of Costumes

Published September 30, 2022

For the Love of Costumes

by Steve Trounday

They’re lovingly referred to as “sweatshops” – rooms filled with fabric including satin, tulle, cotton and lace; along with sequins, mannequins, and sewing machines. These “sweatshops” are in the homes of dedicated volunteers who create the intricate costumes for A.V.A. Ballet Theatre’s productions. A.V.A. Ballet Theatre is the resident ballet company of the Pioneer Center for the Performing Arts. Most of the costumes audiences see on the stage at the Pioneer are owned by the ballet company and individually handmade by these talented seamstresses.

A.V.A. Ballet Theatre’s wardrobe consultant, Yolanda Huffmire, and wardrobe mistress Nicole McCarroll, coordinate the volunteers who spend countless hours creating these works of art. These seamstresses include Robin Fuller, Peggy Franklin, Eloisa Holmes, and Divinia Saylor. Many of the original The Nutcracker costumes were made by Stephanie LeGoy.

“It’s a labor of love,” Huffmire said. “There’s such a feeling of pride and satisfaction when I see the dancers perform. It’s a way I can give back to the community.”

The process for creating these costumes varies depending on whether the production has been performed before or if it is a new ballet making its debut on the Pioneer stage. Even with a recurring ballet such as TheNutcracker there are complexities. With over 100 dancers and performers, TheNutcracker costumes must be fitted to each one and altered every year for the particular cast. Due to the rigors of dance, and ballet in particular, the wear and tear on the costumes is always an issue. Repairs and replacements are constantly being made. 

For a new ballet, the process is even more daunting as the costumes must be created from scratch. In the last ten years, A.V.A. Ballet Theatre has performed six new ballets: The Little Mermaid, Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland,The Secret Garden, The Frozen Snow Queen, and Beauty and the Beast. Each one had a cast of at least 50 and needed the costumes designed and then fabricated in the beloved “sweatshops.”

The creation of new costumes begins with A.V.A. Ballet Theatre artistic director, Alexander Van Alstyne. Once he and his co-director, Miriam Allen, work out the choreography for a show, they decide what costumes they require. In most instances, Van Alstyne sketches out the designs or selects pictures of the costumes he desires and shows these images to the volunteer seamstresses.

“It can be a challenge,” Huffmire said. “Alex has an eye for detail and wants the costumes to be a major factor in a production. We work hard to make sure he is pleased with the results.”

It’s not just tutus that are being created.

“For Alice in Wonderland, I created twelve lobster costumes,” said Robin Fuller who is also A.V.A. Ballet’s board president. “There were twenty-four claws. The Little Mermaid had me sewing fish and crab costumes.”

The time it takes to create these costumes is significant. To sew a tutu takes over 24 hours of labor. The sweat and dedication needed to create the costumes is not lost on Van Alstyne. “I can never thank our volunteer seamstresses enough,” he said. “What they do for me, and this community is truly special. It shows in our productions. I hear constant compliments from the audiences about the beauty of our costumes.”

Fabricating the costumes from beginning to the end is not just an artistic endeavor but a financial one as well. It saves the non-profit ballet company an incredible amount of money by doing this in-house with dedicated volunteers. To purchase tutus for a ballet such as Swan Lake can cost tens of thousands of dollars.  Owning rather than renting also has long term financial benefits. 

Next spring, A.V.A. Ballet will be presenting The Frozen Snow Queen with the Reno Philharmonic Orchestra. This production was last performed in 2016. Van Alstyne and Allen have rechoreographed some of the characters for the spring 2023 production. There will be more costumes to craft. This includes a revamp of the giant Snow Queen dress that is so large a dozen dancers can perform below her when she levitates above the Pioneer stage. Most of the hard work of costume creation for The Frozen Snow Queen, however, has already been done.

When the time comes for any given production, the “sweatshops” are consolidated backstage at the Pioneer Center. The sewing machines are lined up and last-minute alterations are made before the curtain goes up. Every once in a while, a wardrobe malfunction will occur and the repairs need to be made before the next performance. The seamstresses are there for the rescue.

The next time you are at the Pioneer Center for an A.V.A. Ballet Theatre production, take a close look at the costumes. That they are so elaborate and beautiful is not an accident. It is the work of some of the most talented women in Reno.

Steve Trounday is a board member at A.V.A. Ballet Theatre, the resident ballet company of the Pioneer Center. A.V.A. Ballet Theatre will be performing The Nutcracker December 9-11at the Pioneer with the Reno Phil.

More from Steve Trounday

Swan Lake Takes Flight in September by Steve Trounday — September 2, 2022

Dancers Near and Far Share the Stage by Steve Trounday — August 5, 2022

Vortex, the Ballet that Rocks 2022 by Steve Trounday — July 8, 2022

Ballet with a Live Orchestra by Steve Trounday — June 10, 2022

En Pointe by Steve Trounday — May 13, 2022

Local Dancer’s Rise to the Top by Steve Trounday — April 15, 2022

Back on Stage with Beauty and the Beast by Steve Trounday — April 1, 2022


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