Costume designer Milla Wilkes-Davis said since her children have done ballet, costume designing has become her primary job. With tutus costing hundreds of dollars, she found a way to make her own.
Some of the most detailed costumes include the Lion, played by Patryck Lempicki, Tin Man, played by Koyo Yanagshima and Scarecrow, played by Luca Sportelli.
Costume designer Milla Wilkes-Davis had to make several alterations to costumes during the rehearsal, because one of the biggest challenges is fitting all the dancers exactly right to allow them to perform well.
The primary type of tutu used in Columbia Classical Ballet's "Oz," is called "romantic" style, which is often long and flowy. Classic "pancake" tutus, which are short and flat, are typically used in more classic performances, such as "The Nutcracker."
By Taylor Halle
Walk backstage at a Columbia Classical Ballet rehearsal and the whirring sounds of sewing machines will lead you to the workspace of Milla Wilkes-Davis, the company’s costume designer.
Wilkes-Davis and her co-designer Tricia Meadors are the wizards behind one of the most exciting aspects of a ballet performance, the costumes. And being a whiz at sewing is particularly important as they come down to the final preparation for Friday’s performance of “Oz.”
Wilkes-Davis logs thousands of stitches in the classic costumes for Dorothy, the Cowardly Lion and the Tin Man.
“When you look at it on stage, people go ‘Oh that’s really pretty,’ and you want to go ‘No that’s a lot of blood and sweat and tears,’” Wilkes-Davis said as she held up her bandage-wrapped fingers.
The mother of five considers herself just a “mom with children who are in the ballet,” but she has taken over the role as costume designer for Columbia Classical Ballet’s “Oz.” Wilkes-Davis went into costume design with no prior design experience but plenty of knowledge of sewing.
About 13 years ago, Wilkes-Davis’ daughter needed a tutu for an upcoming competition, but an undecorated tutu at that time was around $600. Pre-professional tutus for young dancers can cost anywhere from $1,000 to $2,000.
“I thought, oh I know how to sew; I could sew a tutu. No, that is totally different than sewing regular clothes,” Wilkes-Davis said. “It took me a whole month to make that tutu with a lot of phone consultations with somebody who knew how to make tutus. But I got through that, and I proceeded to take a few classes over the summers.”
After moving to Columbia nine years ago, she was asked to make her first set of tutus for a Columbia Classical Ballet performance, which is still being used in “Oz” today. Wilkes-Davis and Meadors said many of the costumes are reused for certain shows. They usually end up having to make detail additions such as sparkles or extra fabric.
The anatomy of a tutu is not as simple as it looks. Pancake tutus, which are the short, flat style used in classical ballets such as “The Nutcracker” or “Swan Lake,” can have anywhere from 10 to 12 layers of tulle. Usually the top layer is hand-pleated and the bottom layers are ruffled.
“It should take you about 60 hours to make a tutu appropriately, because there’s a lot of steaming, a lot of pressing in between and hand-pleating, a lot of quilting,” Wilkes-Davis said. “A lot of different things go into making a tutu.”
Multiply that amount of time by 60 to 80 outfits. That’s about how many costumes Wilkes-Davis and Meadors had to make for “Oz.” They agree the most challenging part however, is fitting the costumes to each dancer once they’re finished.
“That’s what I’m struggling with right now. There’s one boy there that it’s not fitting on him correctly, so I have to rip apart the costume and revamp it, because we want the costumes to fit like gloves,” Wilkes-Davis said. “A lot of the girls’ costumes we can add bars, or take them in, or let them out just a little bit once we’ve got the costume already made.”
She said it’s a lot of “under-the-gun pressure.” The artistic director, Radenko Pavlovich, can watch the rehearsal the night before and decide he doesn’t like a costume, sending the pair back to square one. But the pay-off of seeing their creations on stage is worth needle-stabbed fingers and late nights of work.
“The first time when I saw the red tutus on stage, you know, eight or nine years ago, I had designed those differently so they’d have some orange, peeking out of them, and I just loved it, you know it was like, ‘Wow,’” Wilkes-Davis said. “I think for me color is the ‘funnest’ thing.
“We’ve done other ballets where we’ve tried to really incorporate different colors, like you’re painting a picture on the stage. You’ve got that backdrop but what are you putting in front of that backdrop?”
Wilkes-Davis’ and Meadors’ costumes for “Oz” can be seen at the Koger Center for the Arts Saturday at 7:30 p.m. Tickets can be purchased at the center’s box office or online at www.kogercenterforthearts.com.