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Delicate Dance for the Pacific Northwest Ballet

At PNB, the pandemic has brought on Zoom fittings and tight turnarounds.

By Rob Smith March 24, 2021


This article originally appeared in the March 2021 issue of Seattle magazine.

It’s no secret that the pandemic has devastated arts organizations.

A recent study by Seattle-based ArtsFund found that 73% of arts organizations throughout the region had laid off or furloughed employees because of Covid-19. Arts groups pivoted quickly, with 100% of respondents transitioning to digital programming.

Pacific Northwest Ballet quickly shifted to a six-performance digital season. That created a host of challenges, especially for costume designers charged with bringing life to the movements of dancers.

Costume Shop Manager Christine Joly de Lotbiniere and First Hand Pauline Smith rose to the challenge of their new virtual world. Joly de Lotbiniere joined PNB in 2019 after more than three decades of design experience, while Smith has worked in the costume shop for 30 years. They discuss the creative and logistical challenges of costume design during the pandemic, including dealing with significantly shorter deadlines and the heightened communication necessary to pull off a virtual season.

Christine Joly de Lotbiniere: It’s trying to make a very labor-intensive collaboration happen in a very different and remote kind of way. So it’s even more management heavy but it’s not unheard of. A lot of designers work remotely from all over the globe. This is just ramping that up.

Pauline Smith: Remotely, it’s difficult, but we’re looping people in with Zoom and making that happen.

CJdL: We have to mask up and wear shields and get fitted for masks. The dancers are separated into pods and as costume shop personnel, we all have to be a fitter for a pod and we cannot cross-contaminate. Everybody is basically wearing multiple hats in this pandemic.

PS: Sometimes I’m doing everything. I’m patterning, cutting out, sewing, fitting and finishing. Sometimes I work alone on a small number of costumes, and sometimes I work as part of a group creating a larger number. My PNB experience designing is quite unusual because I’m wearing all those hats.

CJdL: The contact with the dancers is very minimal. You really have to approach this with an entirely different way when you do the fitting. The contact with the designers is all done remotely. The preparation is key. It’s all done with Zoom, emails, phone calls and a lot of texting.

PS: Of course, nothing is going zipping out to the dry cleaner and back. We have an alcohol, or pit spray, that we’ve created, and you just turn the garment inside out, spray the pits, let it dry and then it just goes on the next person. All of the layers that are against the skin are washed and laundered.

CJdL: If something is not going to work as a digital performance, then [Artistic Director Peter Boal] is going to want to do something else. And he’s going to want to film it in two-and-a-half weeks.

PS: Sometimes there’s those moments where you feel like, oh, we’ll just throw it to them and they’ll be able to do it because they crank out everything and it’s always perfect all the time. So they think we’re used to six weeks and now we can do it in two and a half. No big deal. Once we are back to some sort of semblance of normalcy, I do not welcome these short turnarounds as the new norm.

CJdL: And do we have designs? Where can we get the clothes? Are we going to build the clothes? How long will that take? Everything is really wrapped up.

PS: I actually have to go shopping for a show that has to film in a week and a half. I’m going to have the delight of going to Costco, H&M and all those other places during a pandemic.

CJdL: I think in general people are expending more energy in the management aspect of things. It’s a different way of communicating. Fittings are very strange when you’re Zooming a fitting. You’re not seeing something really up close and you can’t go in there with your hands and try to mold it into the body. It is just a challenge. It’s not impossible.

PS: It’s really teaching all of us what we can do in a short amount of time and what is possible.

CJdL: It is such a delightful thing to be able to work in a pandemic when everyone we know is without work. It’s bittersweet. It’s great to be able to show up to work, to actualize designs, to put your creative hat on. But at the same time there is the deep concern of so many people not having a job and possibly also making the decision that they are going to either move on to something else or retire because they either can’t handle it anymore or don’t have the sustenance to keep themselves going in the interim.

PS: I love the work. We’re not doing it right now, but I still love sitting in the house, every dress rehearsal, and seeing what I along with all of my colleagues put together. I love seeing it come to life. It just makes the hair on the back of my neck go up even after all these years.

CJdL: I would have to say at this point my brain space for how this is going to affect me moving to the future is not quite there.

PS: I live alone. I’ve been going a little bonkers with quarantine and to be able to be back doing not only what I love but being with other people is invigorating, inspiring and grounding.

CJdL: I think we’re going to learn a lot of interesting things out of this season and out of this year. It may or may not affect the way we work in the future. Not necessarily a bad thing.

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