Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Costume Design: The Mucha-Klimt Lovechild

"Gothic White Assuit"
photo by Michael Baxter
I have always loved the artwork of Alphonse Mucha - the artist largely responsible for the Art Nouveau movement. I remember eagerly anticipating when we would cover it in Art History at RISD, and then being bitterly disappointed when it was briefly lumped in with several other "minor movements" and maybe discussed for about 15 minutes total. (Yet it seemed like we spent 6 hours on Bauhaus. Maybe longer - I don't know, because I fell asleep. Nothing holds my attention like the discussion of concrete minimalistic architecture and its social implications...zzzzz)

"Salomatra" Costume
I made up for the slight by hoarding Mucha and Art Nouveau books, and though I have made several BIG moves over the last 20 years and sold large portions of my library off, I have always held on to those books. They have been a major source of inspiration for my costuming since I started dancing, some just as a starting point, and others very directly, such as the "Gothic White" assuit costume from 2005 and my "Salomatra" costume, from 2006. Both of those costumes, I had a very specific idea in mind, and I gathered the materials accordingly to make them.

Other costumes were birthed simply out of what materials I happened to have on hand collide with a random crazy inspiration. This is definitely the case with what I'm now calling the "Mucha-Klimt Lovechild."

At Tribal Fest 2013, I purchased some pieces of Indian tapestry - two small strips that had been fashioned for use as a headband and for a belt, and a larger wall piece. I had a vague idea that I would make a costume for myself and a matching vest for Nathan, but the pieces sat in my closet untouched. I would pull them out to look at them, and then put them back.

Then at Clockwork Alchemy, I bought a body-chain piece that was very Art Nouveau in design and coloring. I had no idea what I was going to do with it, but it was only $10, and I figured I would think of something.

Then in July, I bought an obscene amount of two-tone yellow and peach chiffon at MedFest from a neighbor vendor who was going out of business. I'm not sure what came over me, but I eyed it for two days and bought it all as we packed up, thinking that somehow it would work with the body-chain, even though it was so untypical of a color choice for me.

It all sat in my studio closet, waiting within a pile of other costumes-to-be. And the thought wiggled into the back of my brain that I hadn't made a big theatrical costume since the Klimt costume (see cover of my website).  I had made/altered several versatile costumes in the past year, but nothing EPIC. How could this be? But what to make?

As fate would have it, I was trying to re-organize my closet after a small avalanche had happened. I wondered about the pile of chiffon I had bought, as I hadn't seen it in a long time. The bag with the Indian fabric fell on top of me, so it got pulled out.  Then a strapless nude bra I bought for a base became unearthed. I hunted down the chiffon and pulled out other bits and pieces from my fabric and jewelry pile, some pieces that I've had for several years.  I remembered the body-chain and luckily also found it.  I pulled out my worn and well-loved Mucha books, leafed through them all, and made sketches of various parts that caught my eye. I considered the pile of random objects on my floor, and wondered if it would work.

The tapestry pieces had been lined with a dull brown cotton, then finished off with white seed beads.  I got to work ripping off all of the fabric and white beads, and was astounded at how well the colors of the remnants now worked with the chiffon.  I covered the base of the bra with a vintage warm-gold brocade, and topped the bra off with the smaller strip of tapestry.  I took the "belt" piece, and relined it with the same brocade, edged with gold seed beads, and set it perpendicular to the bra. I took 3 yards of each color of chiffon and attached the center of each underneath the front panel. The body-chain was disassembled, broken, and reshaped to fit with the curve of the bra cups, and a vintage-style necklace/belt I had rescued from my last job served as a centerpiece and anchor. I found the brass belt that I had bought as a teenager at Lerner, had used minimally in other costumes, and hand-painted it to match the rest. Next I constructed a matching headdress, set off with an old brooch that my friend Tinah had sent me, with unused flowers from my wedding constructions, and other flower, ribbon, and jewelry bits I'd collected over the years.  Under it all, went a pair of gold and salmon-striped pantaloons Anaar had made (also scored at Tribal Fest 13), and on top, an emerald chiffon veil that Azar (one of my early teachers) had gifted me.  I devised a knot system for the peach and yellow chiffon to balance the bra in the back, similar to how I made my wedding dress - but this got taken up a notch by Geisha Moth right before I performed, where she did it even better! Hair by Diva Dreads (the set I had commissioned for myself and my girls in Providence for our "Sirens" performance several years ago), and necklace by my friend Shakira.

The visual result, with the intricate patterns of the Indian tapestry, and the colors and lines of the overall costume, truly makes it a lovechild of Alphonse Mucha and Gustav Klimt!

photos by Corinne De La Coeur, taken at MedFest 2014

 There are still some details I'd like to add to this costume that I didn't have time to put on yet, but I'm thrilled with how it came out.  It truly captures the feel of Mucha's work, and is very sensual, while interestingly enough, covering a great deal of my body.  Which wasn't any part of my intent - I was very much focused on the artwork that was my inspiration, versus making this a "sexy" costume. I don't think it would have had the same effect as a typical bra and belt set.

Monday, July 14, 2014

5 Golden Keys to Help Unlock Success

Being both a well-known instructor/performer and event producer, I often get asked how up-and-coming dancers can get themselves "out there." It's particularly my job as an event producer that has helped me develop a list - usually as a result of experiencing "what not to do."

Being a professional dancer isn't just about how many hours you put in at the studio - it's about putting your best foot forward in a business sense as well: creating a brand, having your promo materials ready, and being involved.  If you think being a professional dancer means being awesome artist who just dances in her/his studio all day long, devoting every waking moment to dance, and the clients come a-knocking without ever having to do anything else - well, that is just an ADORABLE fantasy.  The reality of being professional means taking care of business - in and out of the studio.

The harder it is for you to be identified, and for a promoter to get succinct, reliable, and professional information from you, the more difficult your journey will be. So, besides obviously doing the work to advance your dance skills, I have put together a list of 5 key things to address that will aid you on your way.

Use The Google
When considering a professional name for yourself or your troupe - ALWAYS GOOGLE IT FIRST. There's been a growing trend to use given names vs. stage names, but even then, you should google it. Why? There may be a well-known person/troupe already using that name (whether it's a dancer, or a lawyer).  They may be local to you, or not at all, but that means little in consideration of searches and global context.  That name you're just starting out with, and some big name dancer has too? Don't tell yourself there's no way you'll be confused with them. You want to be easy to find and clearly identifiable as YOU - and not get incorrectly identified as being someone else, for better or for worse. (You have no idea what their reputation is really like, if you don't know them - and/or if someone hires you by mistake, that can create a really ugly situation on multiple levels.) If you're set on a certain name, and there are 3 other dancers using that name in other states/countries, you will want to brand yourself "Sparklepants of Cat City" instead of just "Sparklepants" to help define you and your market. Also, if it's a name originating from a foreign language or a fantasy invention, you may discover it means something different than you think it means out on the web. Like, it may sound beautiful but actually means "owl droppings" in Persian.  Lastly, read more than the first page of hits to get a complete idea for whatever you are googling. (Side note: be sure to say it aloud and consider how it can be mispronounced/misread. The worst I get is "Temptress"...which well, kinda works.)

Lean & Mean Biography
Your "fast and quick" biography should address who you are, where you are from, what you do/why you are awesome, and how to contact you - all in about 3-5 sentences.  This is the ideal format for websites, show programs, and introductions.  Don't list every teacher you have ever had, that you took ballet at age 3, that you once won an award in high school, are the best dancer in your area, or count that vacation cruise to Bermuda as "international performing".  Make it short, sweet, and to the point: "Tasselbottom is an award-winning Whovanese-style dancer based in Yourtown, Country.  She is well-known for her amazing lamp-balancing skills, which she presents for us this evening! She teaches weekly classes at X Studio, and performs throughout the Greater Jingly Area with her troupe FabulousShimmy.  For more info, go to tasselbottom.com." You can always have an extended biography on your website if you want to include more background. Also, use the same voice throughout, typically the third person: "Bunnyhop loves performing drum solos" versus "I love performing drum solos."

A Picture is Worth...A LOT
Professional photos are essential. Whether they are posed studio shots or active performance shots, your photos should be clear, eye-catching, and flattering. And sell what you're offering! Yes, that sexy implied "no bra" backshot with a pretty scarf draped on you is alluring - but does it sell "American Tribal Style Classes for Children"?  Are you trying to sell a Gothic Workshop when the only photo you sent is you in a bright pink Egyptian costume? Selfies are not proper headshots.  Promoters and event producers also often want high resolution images for printing, so be sure to have your photos ready for both "web" and "print" to ensure that you don't end up being that dancer with a poorly pixelated image in the program.  Also, does your photo work well in both color and black and white? It's so worth it to invest in a proper photoshoot with a professional photographer whose work you admire. And update your photos regularly! If you're still using the same shot from 10 years ago, it's time to get some new work done.

It's also important to consider the moving picture - video! As a producer, I want to see clean footage of an uncut performance - meaning, while it may have been edited for switching camera angles, I am able to see you dance in a properly lit setting to the actual music you're performing to, for the length of the piece. I despise "best moments" videos with background music laid on top, and unless I have seen you perform in person, it's a one-way ticket to my "nope" pile.  Why? Your "greatest hits" with a soundtrack and pieces that change every 5-10 seconds tells me nothing about how you put together a performance, your musicality, and overall technique. It may wow the general public and inexperienced dancers, but it tells me nothing about what you can really offer outside of a few sparkling moments.

Your Home on the Web
Do you have a website? If so, is it easy to find, navigate, and holds relevant current info? Is the URL easy to spell? Is it attractive and visually appealing/easy to look at, or does it look like it was built in 1998? There are many affordable and easy DIY - including free options for creating a web presence - even if it's just a professional page on facebook. Your website should include your quick bio + an extended biography/resume, class/workshop schedule (if you offer them), performance schedule, contact info, gallery (video/photos). Be sure to include your website when someone asks for your bio! I used to hunt them down and add them for my instructors - but I don't have the time or patience to do that anymore.  If you have multiple URLs and websites, indicate which one/s you want to use.

Be Prompt, Get Involved, Be Gracious
When you're dealing with promoters and producers, be prompt in getting information to them when asked.  Always re-read and double-check that you have included (and attached) all of the information that was requested.  If you're traveling/out of town - even just a quick reply with a date of when they can expect the material is appreciated.

Get involved in the event - if you're teaching and/or performing at an event, be sure to promote it on your social media platforms, post flyers/postcards, and share it with your students, friends, family, newsletters, etc. If it's an event you would LIKE to teach/perform it, and it's within your means to attend - then do so - and see about volunteering, introduce yourself to the producers, etc.  Take workshops. Event producers are often thinking about the next event, before the current event is even done.  However, contacting a festival two weeks before the event and asking to be added to the current year's teaching roster because you happen to be in town or think you're the next hot thang isn't going to fly. It will get you a fast ticket to the NOPE list, even if it does make us laugh.

And ALWAYS be gracious!
When you're at an event, if your schedule allows, take the time to watch the show - the pros and the students! EVERYONE IS IMPORTANT. Understand that the best events rotate some or most of their teachers/performers regularly - so don't pitch a fit publicy if you're not asked back for the next one.  Event producers work hard to bring back favorites while offering new/fresh/up-and-coming teachers/performers to keep things from getting stale.  Consider feedback when it's offered (or ask if there's something you're unsure about).  And it sure doesn't hurt to say please and thank you :)

So there you have it - 5 keys that will help you get through some very important doors. There are always more things to consider, but these are an excellent start that will help get your name out there, build a solid reputation, and signify that you're an active participant who is great to work with.