By Emily J. Weitz
It’s not every ballet company that hires a fashion-forward, well-educated designer to create the costumes for the sugar plum fairies. But to Sara Jo Strickland, Director of Hampton Ballet Theatre School (HBTS), costume design is a crucial element to the production. That’s why she hired Yuka Silvera, an accomplished designer who studied pattern making in Tokyo before moving to New York to study at FIT and work in the bridal and eveningwear business.
Even after many years in the couture industry, “I always wanted to go into costume design,” says Silvera. “I like classic designs and period costumes. I love fashion, but you always have to follow the trends. It’s not necessarily something you like. But for costumes, it’s great because I can just focus on the history and the culture of the time.”
Silvera has used this interest in fashions throughout history in her work. For example, in an HBTS production of the Little Mermaid several years ago, Silvera decided to make all the costumes in the 1920s style. Little clams danced around in flapper costumes. A shark wore a pin stripe gangster suit.
The Nutcracker is an annual performance for the HBTS, and every year they build on their stock of costumes.
“Miss Sara doesn’t mind investing in costumes,” says Silvera. “Many ballet schools might just buy cheap fabric and glitter, but Miss Sara is not like that. She likes the sophisticated, classic, chic fabric.”
This cache of high quality costumes adds to the experience for both dancers and audience.
“Looking at the costumes is a part of the enjoyment of going to see a show,” says Silvera. “It shows what kind of character that is.”
But in addition, stepping into a well-made, beautiful garment is valuable for the kids.
“The dancers look forward to wearing something exquisite,” she said. “I think the costumes give the dancers motivation to be able to dance a certain role because they want to wear that costume.”
One of the most sought after dances, Silvera says, is Snow. “It’s a costume many aspire to wear,” she explains. “It’s a big step to dance Snow, and that’s why it’s important to make a special costume for the difficult dance.” The design for Snow is very close to Karinska’s design at the NYC Ballet, Silvera says.
The attention that goes in to creating these costumes requires a lot of time and planning. It’s a process. Once Strickland chooses the next show, she and Silvera will have their first design meeting, when Strickland might suggest an idea or color scheme. Then Silvera goes into the city to purchase the materials, and she gets to work.
“I buy great materials that aren’t too expensive but are high quality,” she said.
This year, she made all new costumes for the first scene of the show.
“I went with a heavy upholstery fabric for the party dresses, but they’re all different colors. There are 15 girls, all wearing different colors. Overall, it blends nicely and looks very classic.”
In choosing the design of the costumes, Silvera does a lot of research. She tries to keep things authentic.
“I don’t want to mix or mess with cultures,” she says.
For the Nutcracker, she looks to one of the foremost authorities, The New York City Ballet.
“But I don’t like copying other people’s designs,” she says.
A favorite original design is the candy cane costume for dancers in the Suite scene.
“My candy cane costumes show my personality,” said Silvera. “They’re a take on a traditional Russian costume, with the red and gold color scheme. They have hoop skirts so when they jump it looks like the round peppermint candy going up and down. The kids love it.”
The trick with designing for dancers is that the costumes don’t only have to fit; they have to flow.
“I’m learning a lot about dance,” Silvera says. “At the dress rehearsal, I found some things I needed to improve, like in the Arabian costumes. There’s a long slit in the pants, and during the dance, it caught the dancer’s leg. So that needs to be changed.”
Silvera, who also does work with Kate Mueth’s Mulford Repertory Theatre and YAWP (Young American Writers Project) and designs private couture dresses, loves her work with HBTC.
“I love to hear how the kids look forward to wearing my costumes, and that parents call my costumes ‘couture costumes’,” she says. “I am very lucky. I always go for more fashion forward trends that I like, and Miss Sara trusts my eye.”
She believes that both the dancers and the audience deserve the attention she puts into creating these costumes.
“People are paying money to see this show at Guild Hall,” she said. “They want to see something beautiful.”
The Nutcracker will be performed this weekend, Friday at 7 p.m., Saturday at 1 p.m. and 7 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m. at Guild Hall. Tickets are $20 for adults and $15 for children under 12. For more information on Ms. Silvera’s work, go to www.yukasilvera.com.