At New York City Ballet, A Dancer Turns Costume Designer

At New York City Ballet, A Dancer Turns Costume Designer

This winter season, the New York City Ballet presents “Copland Dance Episodes,” a full-evening work from acclaimed choreographer Justin Peck, set to the music of Aaron Copland. The work will feature visual design by acclaimed artist Jeffrey Gibson, while the dancers will be wearing costumes by one of their own: former NYCB dancer Ellen Warren.

Warren joined the NYCB in 2003. She danced nine seasons until she was let go, as she has explained, due to her injury track record, after a particularly grueling 50-show Nutcracker season.

After dancing with Oregon Ballet Theatre as a guest artist, she began a surprising career transition. In 2017 she launched her leotard brand Louise Apparel — but not before she had began a fruitful collaboration with Justin Peck as a costume designer.

Ahead of the work’s premiere on Thursday January 26, Warren told Forbes about her difficult departure and emotional return to Lincoln Center, offering words of wisdom to young dancers, and words of entreaty to the companies that take them in.

Ellen, how did you develop a passion for design and apparel while still dancing with the NYCB?

Through awe and necessity. NYCB holds such a rich, inspiring history within its costume collection. I would often admire the cut or design of certain costumes and wish there were simplified leotard versions we could wear for rehearsal. The higher neckline on the Karinska tutus for Balanchine’s “Diamonds” from Jewels for example, or the creature-esque leotards from Jerome Robbins’ The Cage. Many of us would comment on how comfortable our Agon leotards were and want to keep them.

I often altered my leotards not only for aesthetic reasons but for fit. I have a long torso and hated the way certain leotards rode up in the back, so I started cutting them in half at the waist and sewing good tops with good bottoms. Also adding in some extra length. Once I discovered many dancers desire a fine-tuned fit like this I developed a patent-pending custom-fit sizing/construction method for leotards and one-piece swimwear, hoping to bring a perfect fit to the masses with my brand Louise Apparel.

You’ve described your journey from dancer to apparel designer as something of a rebirth, and not a painless one. Based on that experience, would you have any words of advice to offer young dancers?

Seek support beyond friends and family. This career transition can be a leveling process and even feel like a death that needs to be grieved, likely beyond the scope of help loved ones or friends who are still dancing can provide. Professional support, whether through one-on-one or group therapy, can nurture and guide this evolution, so you can enter your next chapter with more ease and confidence.

And anything to say about what ballet companies need to do to support their young dancers?

I would love to see this aspect of a dancer’s career, and their mental health in general, receive more support from companies. Nearly all professional ballet dancers begin their careers as teenagers and I’ve come to feel ballet companies have a moral obligation to support their mental health as equally as their physical health. Many companies offer financial support for academic or professional pursuits beyond dance but I think a bit of focus is due towards the mental and emotional side of a dancer’s inevitable career transition.

What is it like for you to be back with the NYCB in the capacity of costume designer?

Joyful! I wasn’t sure what emotions would come forward reentering my former home after 10 years and a difficult departure, but I was so thankful it was joy and wonder. I’ve absolutely loved seeing the company through this new lens and witnessing the incredible inner workings of the NYCB costume shop bring this new ballet to life. I wish I had paid more attention to the costumes while I was dancing and snuck into the shop any chance I had to see how everything was made.

How would you describe your collaboration with Justin Peck generally? And tell us about your inspiration and design for this new work?

This collaboration with Justin has been truly thrilling. When he sent me the epic Aaron Copland score along with images of esteemed Jeffrey Gibson’s wildly colorful canvas drops — over 100 colors! — and said “Here’s your palette,” I was ecstatic. I love to play with color combinations for leotards and put things together where you can’t quite decide if they clash or look amazing. The cut of my designs for this ballet are quite classic and simple. It’s all about the colors. No two dancers are alike, yet they ebb and flow into distinguishable little color families throughout the piece. There is something very freeing about collaborating with Justin, especially on this project. He often gives loose parameters and lets you run with it, but this was a true color free-for-all Rubik’s cube of a situation and I couldn’t have loved it more.

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