Since its inception in 1933, the San Francisco Ballet has received awards, toured internationally to much acclaim and celebrated countless firsts. It was the first ballet company to form in the United States and the first to debut full-length ballets that we now know as classics—Swan Lake in 1940 and Nutcracker in 1944. Now under the artistic direction of Helgi Tomasson, the ballet remains as pioneering and groundbreaking as ever; to commemorate its 85th anniversary this season, Tomasson is staging the Unbound Festival, which has invited 12 of the world’s top choreographers, from Alonzo King and Cathy Marston to Edwaard Liang and Myles Thatcher, to unveil never-before-seen pieces at the War Memorial Opera House this spring. It’s a massive undertaking for everyone involved. Not only do the dancers have to learn new choreography, but the production team has to build new sets and lighting plans. The wardrobe department has to craft new costumes.
Kate Share, the manager of wardrobe, wig, makeup and costume construction, oversees this logistical nightmare.
The life of a costume starts with a conversation between the choreographer and designer. The ballet doesn’t assign designers; instead, choreographers select the designer in the same way they choose the dancers for the piece: by personal preference and talent. After the designer has been hired, Share is sent a sketch for approval; once she accepts a costume concept, her next task is finding an artisan to build it. The SF ballet does not have its own costume production shop—all costumes are outsourced to seamstresses in various locations across the globe. Constant communication is kept through email. Final fittings take place in SF to “make sure everything works,” Share says.
For the Unbound Festival, Share must do this routine a dozen times. “Our schedule is so crazy-busy, from December through May, that finding a time that’s available for dancers to be there to go to a fitting is difficult.”
The costumes are sent back to the builders to be reworked. Share expects to receive the finished outfits in the beginning or middle of April, just in time for dancers to don them in dress rehearsals. At the time of our conversation in February, she had only seen four of the 12 costumes. Share must trust that when they arrive, they’ll be perfect—or else require only a few tweaks in time for opening night in April. She describes the Unbound looks as “different from what we normally do.” Like the dances themselves, each will be innovative, cutting-edge and thrilling—and ultimately stored for posterity in the wardrobe department’s archives.