Costumer for NYC Ballet Shares Her Story

As a young girl, Kellie Sheehan dreamed of living a creative life. She never dreamed she would be helping create costumes for New York City Ballet! Read about her journey from dreamer to costumer.

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Photo: Reid and Harriet Design; Kellie Sheehan, Draper

When did you discover your love for working with fabrics and clothing design?

When I was in college I changed my major a few times: psychology, photography, theater, dance...and finally came to the realization that although I absolutely loved performing, I didn't have the drive or the talent to make that my profession. My love for costuming came from the need to be backstage. I wanted to be around the creative energy of actors and dancers. I transferred from community college to San Diego State University and majored in Costume Design, with an emphasis on Costume Technology, which means sewing, patterning, and draping. I found I had talent in that department, and I LOVED it!

After you discovered your talent, what path did you take to follow your dream?

I took all the patterning and draping classes I could, worked on as many school productions as I could, and applied for a position as a summer season stitcher at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego. I stitched there for a few summers while not at school, and then moved up to First Hand (as a first hand, I cut out all the costumes according to the patterns that my draper made, determined fabric layout, and assisted in fittings.) I was First Hand for two summers before I made the move to NYC.

Did you ever doubt yourself throughout this process?

Strangely, I did not. I had many doubts about myself in other areas and aspects of my life, but this was the one thing I never questioned. I knew this is where I was supposed to be; it just felt right, and I was good at it. Costuming is so rewarding.  Even when it's stressful, I love it.

What or who encouraged and inspired you?

Of course, my parents. They encouraged me to find my way through all the changes in majors, through all the trial and error. I always had their support to follow my dreams.

My instructors at school were a big influence, too. Teri Tavares and Velta Hargrove from SDSU saw my potential and really encouraged me to live up to it. I thrived under their tutelage and learned so many things that serve me to this day.

Now, at New York City Ballet, the dancers inspire me. It's all about them. I feel so blessed to be part of the process. I want to help elevate them and show them off, as well as make them feel comfortable and beautiful. We are all here for our amazing dancers.

It's also about the illusion. We know how hard dance is, but the dancers make it look so easy. I love that something that I helped create adds to the fantasy of the performance.

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Photo: Reid and Harriet Design; Kellie Sheehan, Draper

How did you get involved with NYC Ballet?

I was very lucky! When I was nearing my graduation date at school, I started thinking about where I wanted to have a career. My sister was already in New York, having moved to attend the School of Visual Arts, so I decided to start there. I wanted to combine my two loves of dance and costumes, and I ended up emailing the then-director of the NYCB costume shop, Holly Hynes, to ask her where I should start! Pretty presumptuous, but she wrote back, and, after reviewing my resume, Holly asked if I would be interested in interning that Spring. I just died! And of course I said yes. I interned for the spring, returned to San Diego for one last season at the Old Globe, then came back to NYCB as the shopper in Oct 2001, and worked my way up!

What does a normal day look like for you?

I start by organizing my day and prioritizing costumes by fitting and performance date, and I meet with Anna, the men's draper, to discuss game plans. Then I dig in and start cutting, patterning, altering, draping... what I pattern or cut varies greatly. One day it will be a unitard for Maria Kowroski for Variations pour Une Porte et Un Soupir and unitards for Opus Jazz, the next it will be draping patterns for a new ballet to show to the designer the following afternoon, then the next it will be cutting tutu trunks and top skirts to refurbish existing costumes for Sleeping Beauty.

Most of the time, I cut things out, put them into the hands of our extremely talented stitchers (and this word doesn't really cut it - it's more like bodice experts, tutu experts, stretch fabric experts), then answer their questions as the construction process goes along.

On occasion we do get the odd costume emergency where a tutu or other costume has just come from a dress rehearsal and we have to make an alteration super quick for the evening performance. When this happens, everything else STOPS!

What is the craziest part of being a costumer for NYC Ballet?

A couple years ago we were preparing for a gala that had 3 or 4 completely new ballets in it, and we had a such a short time to construct the costumes. I think we created 1 ballet a week for 4 weeks. We were all working so hard and fast to get things done, it was pretty stressful! But we pulled it off. Somehow everything seems to work out in the end.

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Photo: Reid and Harriet Design; Kellie Sheehan, Draper

What is your favorite part of your job?

Fittings with the dancers. They are all so wonderful and nice people. I love that while pinning in alterations I get to talk with them. I've learned a lot about the dancers over the years during our fittings, like someone's love for singing opera, or classes they may be taking in Physics. Our dancers are so well rounded!

What challenges come with dressing ballerinas and danseurs?

Making sure that they are comfortable and feel good about the costumes. Design-wise sometimes I can't please everyone, because the design isn't up to me, but I can make things fit them well. Everyone has those little things they're self-conscious about, even if they're not visible to me. I take the dancers' needs into consideration and will work with them as best I can to minimize their perceived flaws. It's a delicate balance, working with a designer with a specific vision, and then getting the proportions just right for each individual dancer.

What is your creative process when working on costumes?

When I get to design sketches I like to talk with Marc Happel, NYCB Director of Costumes, and work out all the logistics. Such as, "What fabric is the costume made out of? Will it have a side or back closure?" Once all my questions are answered, I either drape a pattern on a dress form, or pull existing patterns as a jumping off point.

Then I construct a mock up in muslin, or a fabric that's of similar weight and drape to the fabric that the designer has chosen. The mock up is usually the right half of the garment only, pinned onto a dress form.

The designer views the mock up and makes any changes. Then I correct my pattern, and when I have the chosen fabric, I cut out the pieces for the costume and give them to a stitcher to put them together for the first fitting.

In the first fitting I pin in any alterations to make the costume fit well, then call in the designer. The designer then makes any design changes to tailor the costume to this specific dancer's body, and sometimes to their personality as well. Changes are again transferred to the pattern and the garment is corrected and taken to a near-complete state. We then have a second fitting, and if the costume is perfect, we finish it completely. This usually means some hand work and maybe finishing the hem of a skirt. If it's not perfect, we fix the flaws and then finish it. Sometimes we think a costume is finished, but find out it needs further adjustments during a dress rehearsal. We make the adjustments and send it back to the theater, where the wardrobe crew will be responsible for the costume's maintenance and small repairs.

What schools did you attend when learning your skill?

I attended San Diego State University and majored in Costume Design with an emphasis in Costume Technology. I felt after working at the Ballet for 11 years that I needed a refresher, so I took a draping course this Fall at Fashion Institute of Technology.

What advice do you have for young aspiring costumers?

Learn from everyone you can, and keep creating! We learn so much by trial and error, and we can also learn from other costumers' successes and mistakes. When you're starting out, try to be open to all of the information that others share with you. Learn how to construct and sew things well, even if you really just want to design. That way you can see a costume through to completion, and you will better be able to communicate your vision to the costume technicians about how you would like things to be done.

How do you go about getting a job as a costumer?

Use your time in school to intern at places you'd love to work at. You'll have a better idea of where you might like to apply for a position if you see the shop's inner workings from up close. Apply for stitching or other entry level positions when you graduate, and then work your way up.

Tell us about the show schedules. Are you always working on multiple costumes at once?

Yes! Our repertory is so varied that we can be working on Nutcracker, a new ballet for Valentino Garavani, and Herman Schmerman all at the same time.

What is it like seeing your costume in motion on stage?

It is wonderful. I'm grateful that I have had the opportunity to see so many dress rehearsals and performances at NYCB. It informs my costume making greatly to see them on stage. It puts it all in perspective when you're viewing the dancers from twenty or more feet away!

It's also good to see just how demanding the choreography can be on a costume, as well. It's our job to make sure that the costumes can withstand the rigors of many many rehearsals and performances and still look good.

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Photo by: Paul Kolnik

Dancers: Sterling Hyltin and Amar Ramasar; Reid and Harriet Design; Kellie Sheehan, Draper

Fun Facts About you:

Favorite Snack while Working: I love Trader Joe's Gingerly trail mix. And bananas.

Favorite Ballet You've Created for: I can't pick just one! Paz de La Jolla by Justin Peck was a lot of fun. I loved working with designers Reid Bartelme and Harriet Jung. Also Carnival of the Animals by Christopher Wheeldon was fantastic, too, with designs by Jon Morrell.

Classical / Romantic / Neo-classical Ballet costumes?
I LOVE the classical. The romantic tutus and neoclassical tutus we do an awful lot of, but the classical, like those for Symphony in C and Theme and Variations from Suite No. 3 we make less often. The classical tutus require more layers, more tacking (which is an art in itself), and an exactness, a precision which the other styles don't. Bodices for all three styles of ballet vary greatly, but there's a lot of overlap when it comes to them.

Romantic skirts are easy; they are soft and only require a maximum of 9 long tacks through all the layers. Neoclassical tutus are also softer, but short, and don't require arduous tacking.

But when we created our tutus for the re-do of Suite No. 3, we had a lot of work ahead of us! We hand scalloped all the edges of the ruffles, which utilize three different kinds of net: tulle, Diamond Net, and a very stiff English net called Amelie. After the ruffles are attached to the yoke and panty, the tacking begins. For a classical tutu this can take from 3 to 5 hours, depending on how experienced the tacker is. Each layer is steamed into shape one by one and then tacked in a very specific manner with heavy thread.

Often the top skirts, which we call "plates" are heavily embellished with crystals or lace, and that adds another layer of elegance and sophistication that the neoclassical and romantic skirts usually don't have.

When it's all said and done, I prefer the classical tutus, because they require more work and are more difficult to perfect. So when I see a beautifully balanced classical tutu that we have finished in our shop, I am very proud.

Favorite pre-work morning routine: I like to grab breakfast on my way in to work, either at a coffee cart on the corner outside Lincoln Center, or at the Juilliard/SAB cafeteria, and then go up to the shop and eat there while I start thinking about the day's activities.

Your Favorite Costume You've Worked on/Created: Sterling Hyltin's dress for Paz de La Jolla. I draped the pattern and worked with our amazing bodice expert, Mira, on constructing the dress. She did an amazing job.

What Inspires You: First of all, the history of NYCB. Barbara Karinska was Balanchine's costumer and they collaborated on many of his ballets. Barbara Karinska had such an amazing color sense and design aesthetic. Her creations inspire me. I also draw inspiration from my friends, most of whom are performers, costumers, designers, and artists.

Favorite Music Artist:
David Bowie.

What Job You Would Do if You Didn't do Costuming: I really have no idea! Maybe photography? Something creative.

Who is your role model? My mom

Do you have a life motto? It's not worth it unless I'm having fun.

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