By Desiree Murphy
Edited by Emily Hoefer
Growing up in New York City, Alexis Doktor was immersed in a world of art – from subway entertainers, to graffiti on buildings, to music at the Julliard School when she visited her mother at work. It wasn't long before Doktor developed her own passion –ballet.
When an injury at 16 kept her from dancing one summer, she turned to sewing and volunteered under internationally recognized costume designer A. Christina Giannini. This led Doktor to enroll in design classes at the Fashion Institute of Technology, in hopes of making a career out of costume design.
But when an opportunity to dance professionally opened in Columbia, she couldn't say no.
"I really missed dancing," Doktor said. "And you can really only dance for so long before your body will give out."
Now 29, Doktor gets to live out both her passions as a professional dancer and costume designer for the Columbia City Ballet.
In between rehearsals, Doktor sat down in her costume shop for an interview with the Carolina Reporter.
The movie "Black Swan" has really brought ballet into the public eye. Nina Sayers, played by Natalie Portman, takes perfection and competition to the extreme in order to stand out from other dancers in the company. How does that play out in real life on the stage and backstage at the Koger Center? Is ballet really this kind of mental self-torture as portrayed in the film?
Absolutely. For certain people. The thing that bothered me about the film was they really only went into depth in maybe three of the female characters. Nina and the dark-haired girl and the mom. And it was sort of like the opposite ends of the spectrum. I mean Nina was this perfectionist who had to have everything absolutely perfect no matter what, and she was willing to do anything to get that, to attain that. And then the other girl was the complete opposite end of the spectrum like, "Oh it just comes naturally, I just love it and party girl." And then the mom, the mom I think was the closest. Because ballet moms are the most insane of anything. You think soccer moms are crazy, you think sports moms are crazy? No. There's no one crazier on the planet than ballet moms. . . .
It was slightly frustrating to watch, because 90 percent of us are somewhere in the middle. … But yes, you do get emotionally involved. And part of what makes the great dancers are the ones that find a way to connect with the role and connect with the character, whether it be the swan, or the sugarplum or the Little Mermaid, which we've done recently, or Cleopatra. But there's a difference between finding a piece of that character within you and losing yourself to the role. …
Now injuries, if severe, could easily end the career of a dancer. What was it like being told you wouldn't be able to dance that summer?
I think it was more I was bummed out just because I was in this amazing place with these amazing teachers and I wasn't getting to take full advantage of that. I mean it all worked out in the end. It sort of led down the right path and gave me some knowledge that I now am really glad I have, but at the time it was more depressing, just because I wasn't dancing, than career threatening.
What's your most difficult challenge about having two jobs that require hours of work and how do you keep things balanced, both physically and creatively?
I'm a Gemini. Geminis are the twins, so we're constantly in two places. So I actually think it sort of gives me something to thrive on because I've always been one of those people that has an amazing idea, and like three seconds later it's like, "Wait! What about this?" and I'm jumping all around. So it's kind of good that I get to do something that exercises both of my passions, but it goes towards the same greater goal. In one sense I think it keeps me a little bit more grounded, but creativity, that's always come naturally. I guess I'm lucky, I don't know. Anybody who's artistic, it's just, you have it or you don't.
And back to "Black Swan" – what did you think of the costume design in the film, specifically the extravagant tutu designs by Rodarte?
I thought the costumes and makeup were unbelievable. The tutus – I was sort of watching and wondering the whole time, if it was actually a dance designer or if it was a costume designer. And I believe that there was a collaborative effort that happened, that somebody who was familiar with ballet costumes and the proper way to construct them came in and sort of worked with the costume designer to get everything functional, yet amazing. … A lot of fashion designers are turning to costume design, not necessarily for ballet, but a lot of fashion designers have done movies and vice versa. I think it's a great way to bring in a little bit more high fashion into the world of theater.
Do you ever get envious and wish you had all the resources films like this depict?
Yes, and in one sense I do kind of feel like it's rewarding to work on a tiny budget because you can see how much I actually got done on pennies. But in the same respect it's constantly counting this, counting that. I try not to buy anything unless I know I actually need it, so a lot of times I'll find myself close to the end going, "Oh my god, I still haven't found a fabric that I like or is cheap enough for this," and I'm running around trying to find something that'll work. … The ultimate goal though one day is to do movies. So I don't know, I don't even think I could comprehend what it would be like if somebody was like, "Here's your $10 million budget, go at it!" …
If I had the money, and I say this all the time, I think that people get sick of hearing me say this, if I had the money and a staff of 10 people that were as knowledgeable and skilled as me, I could turn the costume shop and the ballet company into something nobody's ever seen.
Now, what is the average budget for a typical ballet?
Brand new ballets, a couple thousand. If it's a ballet that we've done before, like "Dracula" usually isn't that much because we do it every year, it's the same sort of costumes. Now "Nutcracker," which we do every year, that one's a little bit more, just because there's always stuff that needs to be repaired. Usually a few hundred to a grand.
Do you think you have an advantage over other costume designers being a dancer yourself?
Absolutely. Everybody who's been a great costume designer has been in the theater in one facet or another. … Being a costume designer adds in a whole ‘nother dimension. When you're dealing with opera singers, for instance, you have to understand that they sing from their ribcage and from their diaphragm and they absolutely cannot have a constricting costume in the chest area, or they can't sing. If you're dealing with theater, they need to project, they need to speak and they need move. And ballet dancers, we're one of the few arts in which our bodies are the art form. Something as simple as when the guy is partnering the girl, just knowing how the costume needs to close that it doesn't constrict motion. To me, that is absolutely No. 1 – always comfortable, and they always have full range of motion because if you take away their motion or their ability to sing, or their ability to move, then you've just taken away their art. What's the point?