Company dancer Hayley-Ann Vasco, took a visit to the wardrobe room to chat with the Wardrobe Mistress, Mershonda Berry, about her process for creating some of the costumes audiences will see in Ballet Virginia’s upcoming show Visions of Hope.
Shonda has been working on costumes for Ballet Virginia for close to 10 years. Along with fellow Wardrobe Misstress Judy Fortier, if you’ve been in any of our productions, Shonda has likely had a hand in decorating, altering, or creating those costumes!
Here’s what Mrs. Shonda had to say:
So, what does being Ballet Virginia’s wardrobe mistress entail?
It requires creativity. I try to bring across what the choreographer wants the dancers to look like and what material we have at hand to work with. I’m a little bit more flexible because I can manipulate and draft patterns to fit that vision.
On that same note- Do you have to make costumes from scratch or do you order costumes premade?
We very rarely order costumes. When I work with Lydia (main choreographer for “Visions of Hope”), it’s usually things that we can make. These costumes for her gospel piece are based on a 1950s look. The company women are supposed to look like church ladies. So, I had a whole box of vintage patterns at home that I brought in so she could choose some from there. And that’s where we started for this piece. So what I make really depends on what the choreographer is looking for.
How did you get into doing costumes?
Yeah? Your daughter?
Yes! Brianna used to do competition dancing but she started dancing here because she just wanted to focus on ballet. She came here and at the time Gina Coerse, one of the BV2 dancer’s mom was looking for someone to cut some pants out of a block of fabric. I was in the lobby at the time, altering a dress for a competition dancer from another studio when she came up and asked me if she thought that she had enough fabric to make the pants. Gina wasn’t completely sure how to do it so I taught her and that’s when she invited me to come help with the wardrobe. I’ve been doing it ever since.
And what is your favorite part of the job?
It’s that I’m almost always on the sewing machine. Even when I’m home I quilt, I have different hobbies all involving a sewing machine. People are always asking me to alter things. So I feel pretty comfortable with it. I’ve been sewing by hand since I was 7 and I’ve been sewing by machine since I was 9. So this is the perfect job.
That’s amazing! So you touched a little bit about the process of working with the choreographer’s vision and showing patterns to Lydia. But can you explain a little bit more about how that works for some of the other pieces?
Well sometimes, the costumes are already made and I just have to adjust them slightly by adding details or alter the sizes. Occasionally a choreographer will have a vision of a character and I get to find a way to make that happen with fabric. For example, with bluebirds one year we had them in plain leotards and skirts. The choreographers told me what they wanted and I took notes. Then I did a drawing of a dancer with wings and organza on a leotard with a beak headpiece. Then I made a prototype of the costume so they could get an idea of what the costume could look like.
So the process varies based on each choreographer’s ideas but I try my best to make them come to life.
How many costumes do you have to make for this production?
For this show, I’m making seven from scratch for the gospel piece, “Jesus Can Work It Out”. They are all identical, just different sizes. Some of these dances have already been performed in previous years so we already have the costumes. Other costumes you see are being repurposed from other shows. Judy Fortier, my wardrobe partner, is also creating costumes for “Visions of Hope”.
Which is your favorite costume in Visions of Hope?
Probably these here that I’m making now. They are my favorite because they are patterns from the 40s and 50s before I was even born, so it’s very neat to get to work with them. And my favorite detail is that these girls get to keep these custom embroidered name tags! But I’m excited for this show- it’s going to be a good one.
Much thanks to both Shonda and Judy Fortier for their amazing work and the endless hours they have spent making our dancers look beautiful on stage.
If you want to see these costumes in action, tickets to Visions of Hope are on sale now. In-person performances are on May 14th and 15th and a virtual viewing option is available as well.
Visit https://thez.org/show/visionsofhope/ for more information.