Ballet Hispanico Unveils a Pair of New Works With Sumptuous Costumes by Willa Kim and Emilio Sosa

Costumes are arguably the most important design element in dance; they need to cover the dancers' bodies, yet free their movement and help convey the emotion of the music and the choreography. To do all this, a designer needs to develop a rapport with the choreographer. However, this is not always possible. A recent case in point is Ballet Hispanico's “Eyes of the Soul,” which had its world premiere at New York's Joyce Theatre in December and is currently touring the country.

Willa Kim was commissioned for the costumes for this Ramon Oller ballet; she had worked with him a couple of years ago on the company's “Bury Me Standing.” For this piece, she attended rehearsals in various stages, and at the final rehearsal, “He said he wanted to give me a couple of books,” Kim explains. “One was on Goya and the other on El Greco. I asked him how he saw the costumes, what he anticipated, and he said, ‘That's up to you.’ He kind of smiled and said, ‘I'm anxious to see what you're going to do with it,’ and he said, ‘I trust you,’ and then he disappeared. So I was left with trying to figure out what he wanted.”

A logical place to start is with the music, which in this case was by Neoclassical Spanish composer Rodrigo, “one of the most celebrated Spanish composers, an extremely popular composer,” Kim notes. “I thought my costumes have to reflect the fact that it's Spain, but I don't want it to be contemporary or of a period. I tried to get a feel of the Spanish through the colors one sees in Goya and El Greco — rich, vibrant, primary colors.”

She continues, “I tried to solve the palette by juxtaposing all the stretch fabrics I could find — stretch velvet, shiny satin, sparkle sheer — and combine them to get a shimmering sense of texture and gradations of color, using different values and textures of the same color in the velvet and the lustrous fabric together. I used as many different textures together as I could, all within a very simplified color scheme.”

The palette was jewel tones of deep reds and greens, and rich browns. The women's dresses seemed like streamlined versions of Spanish Renaissance gowns, with tight bodices and Juliet sleeves; the men had matador-style pants and bolero jackets. The lighting played off the subtle differences in texture between velvet, satin, and lace. “I did all the shopping myself, since I didn't have the money to hire shoppers,” Kim says. “That was interesting. I was able to find fabrics that caught my imagination or caught my eye. It's a lot of work, but I was able to find some fabrics that inspired me.

“We were shooting for the 1940s and 50s New York nightclub scene when it was hot, like El Morocco or The Latin Quarter.”
Emilio Sosa

“It was a very complex design problem for me,” Kim continues. “I was very nervous about it, especially because we never saw Ramon Oller again. He promised to come back, then he got tied up in Spain with his other commitments, so Tina [Ramirez, Ballet Hispanico's artistic director] and I were just thrashing around.” Kim may never find out what Oller thinks about her designs for this piece, because “I did my sketches, I had them color Xeroxed and Tina sent them, and that was it — he wasn't here at the opening. I've never worked under those conditions before. It really exhausted us. I'm glad he trusts us to that degree. We were both so committed to the ballet: It's very moving and beautiful, a very penetrating observation of relationships, the human condition. I was totally committed to it as a work of art from the moment I saw it in rehearsal.”

Martin Izquierdo Studios built the costumes. “It was quite a trying experience,” she says, explaining that “using stretch fabrics is still an experimental area for a lot of drapers. He said he hired someone very new, and after a few tries, I said, ‘Martin, he doesn't know enough,’ and he said, ‘I know, that's why you're doing it with him; you're going to teach him.’ It may have been a great learning experience for him, but it was a very trying experience for me. Anyway, I think eventually it all worked.”

Ballet Hispanico's other new piece, “Club Havana,” choreographed by Pedro Ruiz, also had spectacular costumes, but was very different in several ways. It evoked the atmosphere of a Latin nightclub, with Mambo and Rumba music and more modern, athletic ballroom dancing. Costumes were designed by Emilio Sosa, a young designer who was born in the Dominican Republic and raised in the Bronx. He has his own line of fashion clothing, has created costumes for hip-hop stars including Salt ’N Pepa, and has worked with Spike Lee on many commercials, and on the film Bamboozled.

Sosa says he has been involved in artistic pursuits for as long as he can remember. “I always tell this story, because it set me up for life: During summer recess after second grade, my new third-grade teacher found out from other teachers that I loved to draw,” he recalls. “She gave me a box of pastels, and that started me off. In high school I got into the whole fashion thing, so I went to Pratt and got my degree. While at Pratt I got a part-time shopping job at Grace Costumes, which is the oldest costume shop here in New York. That developed my love for costuming.”

He has worked with Alvin Ailey Dance Company, Complexion Dance, and Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra; “Club Havana” was his first project for Ballet Hispanico. “Tina Ramirez had called me last year to design something for her, but the timing wasn't right,” he explains, “so when she called me for this project, I dropped everything.”

“I tried to get a feel of the Spanish through the color ones sees in Goya and El Greco — rich, vibrant, primary colors.”
Willa Kim

Sosa's experience at Ballet Hispanico was somewhat different from Kim's: “I met the choreographer, I came to a lot of rehearsals, I took photographs, I learned the movement, I learned the dancers' characters and their personalities.” He made up a little story for each couple in his head. “We were shooting for the 1940s and 50s New York nightclub scene when it was hot, like El Morocco, Latin Quarter, so I envisioned what type of people would be in this place. Usually in those places you had a whole array of ethnicities and economic levels.”

This kind of background preparation was crucial, he feels, “Since we weren't using any set, we had to create the atmosphere with the lights and the costumes. I wanted to start it off dark and mysterious, that's why the dresses all have a black overlay — dotted Swiss net, plain net, embroidered lace — it had a dark, smoky effect, almost like you're looking at it through a scrim. As the night progresses, everyone gets comfortable, the music gets more hot and exciting. That's why I threw in the color on the inside of the dresses; that's when you show their personalities. One girl was purple on the outside and fire-engine red on the inside, so that when he flipped her you saw a burst of flame. I wanted to show that part of their personalities with the underdress.”

One costume is particularly striking: A woman in red, dancing a Cha-Cha with two men. Her dress is divided in three sections, with different fabric treatments drawing the eye to the different erogenous zones of the female body: bosom, waist, and hips. “She represents the hot, fiery woman,” Sosa says. “I think that's in all women, whether they're 25 or 65 or 85. She represented that to me, so I made her incredibly sexy. I'm very cautious and concerned with my female dancers, because aside from the choreography, they're people and they have to be comfortable in what they wear, so I'm always aware of what fits their bodies. I used two layers of net on the bust area, then a beaded lace and velvet corset-like midriff, and her skirt was three layers of net and crystal sheer, all accordion-pleated and dipped in the back so that when she spun around you saw her beautiful legs that were in black fishnet.”

For the men's costumes, he realized that “Men at that period were beautifully dressed at all times. It didn't matter if you lived on Park Avenue or the Lower East Side. I think men in history have always been well dressed, it's only in the last 50 years that we've gone away from that. I wanted to portray men that men in the audience can relate to, so a lot of their suits look like they're traditional fabrics, but they're all stretch, whether wool/Lycra or satin/Lycra, and I popped their color with their cummerbunds and their shirts, and kept the outside in muted navy and plum and green and black.”

Sosa's experience at the costume shop also differed from Kim's. “Grace Costumes built the women, and Jennifer Love Costumes built the men. I've tried to have all my costumes done at Grace, because A) with every costume I get a history lesson, learning new techniques of putting things together, and B) they last. These are companies that travel and tour, so as a costume designer I am very concerned with preserving my original idea. I came here when I was 21 and I'm still coming here. I met my mentor, who actually taught me the art, or developed my eye, Geoffrey Holder, at a young age. He took me under his wing and said do this, learn this, come here with me to do this, hold this pen, so I learned at the feet of a lot of great costume designers through the years.”

Something he has learned very well is how to design costumes that will stand the rigors of time and touring. “The first thing I think about is fabric selection, fiber content, whether it's going to last. All my fabrics are washed and dried prior to cutting to eliminate shrinkage,” he says. “I look at synthetics that will withstand being pleated. I test it to see how long it will hang; I send samples to different dry cleaners to see what would happen. I always do an interlining, usually a cotton-backed satin, to absorb perspiration and preserve the face fabric. I always put my dancers in flesh-toned leotards; that way they can launder the underthings every day, and that adds another layer to keep the perspiration away.”

The designer concludes, “It was one of those once-in-a-lifetime things: the right project at the right time with the right team to put it together. It was an amazing experience with Tina, Pedro, our lighting designer Donald Holder. We look forward to doing more there, definitely.”