Designing through the pandemic with Martha Chamberlain

3 minute read
Lyric Fest blends visuals with sound for an immersive online experience. (Image courtesy of Lyric Fest.)
Lyric Fest blends visuals with sound for an immersive online experience. (Image courtesy of Lyric Fest.)

Costume designer (and former principal dancer) Martha Chamberlain has been sewing since she was 5 years old. She first designed for the Pennsylvania Ballet at the age of 22, when a stress fracture in her ankle sidelined her from performing, so it should come as no surprise that a pandemic didn’t stop her. It hasn’t been easy, though. She worked with choreographer Penny Saunders via Zoom for BalletX’s Ricochet, filmed for the BalletX and Beyond streaming series.

Threads of fate

“We were just coming off the first wave, and Christine [artistic director Cox] was taking things very, very seriously,” Chamberlain says. Everyone had to have their own cowboy hat, which was challenging. “We had to fit them and [the dancers] are sending me measurements. Like, that can’t be the size of your head!” Tooled boots were the next struggle. “You can’t get nice new boots for everyone, because that’s just a huge expense. So I just went to every thrift shop in this area.” Jeans have a lot of stretch in them these days, but for the prairie skirts and plaid shirts, she worked with her sister’s vintage store in the Catskills.

When we talked, Chamberlain still had scraps in her sewing area from another BalletX production, choreographic fellow Alia Kache’s To Rend, To Render. “She had a complete storyboard, color, images. It was very clear from the get-go exactly what direction she wanted to go in, and so we just kind of decided what was important: very urban rococo," she recalls. "She wanted everything pink, supersaturated. And so that way you could just play within that idea.”

The pandemic also presented challenges for her teaching at the University of the Arts, but it gave her an opportunity to rethink a bit of her design class. Working from home, students had to share some machines, passing them from person to person, so for Zoom classes, she focused more on design and discussion. Going forward, she says, she will bring design forward and mix it in more while still teaching the technical sewing skills.

All about the mesh

For a costume designer, fabric choices are key. Spandex is a dancer’s friend, especially in jeans or pants. “Before, you’d have to put in a gusset,” Chamberlain said. “People would always split the crotch open and you don’t want that happening on stage!” Chamberlain loves silk organza for its beautiful movement, but mesh is her signature fabric.

It started with a bathing suit. “The lining in it was really uncomfortable, so I cut it out, and it was this mesh. And I wondered, what if I put it in a certain section of the leotard, and broke it up? This was before mesh was being used widely—so I put one across the center, and I made this scoop down the back. I wore that and people just went crazy and everyone wanted one. So that became my personal leotard.” And thus, the Meshy was born! It has become a mainstay of Chamberlain’s line of dancewear.

Mesh also breaks up a leotard costume on stage, adding a bit of sexiness while allowing freedom of movement. Chamberlain points to Nicolo Fonte’s 2015 Grace Action, for the Pennsylvania Ballet, as costumes that successfully combine mesh with the color palette. She had to be a bit more persuasive about those color choices. "I had Navy, but then I had this sort of grayish ice-blue, and then a white and then this coral color, and just the way those colors came together especially the one that Lauren Fadeley wore.” The costume seems backless on the stage, sinuous and, yes, sexy, thanks to that mesh.

Image Description: Martha Chamberlain sits by a sewing machine threading a white cloth. Spools of thread are on the table beside her. Shelves, tables, white boards, and another person can be seen out of focus in the background of the brightly lit shop.

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