Sara Bacon pulls out a nearly-finished tutu and lays it on her dining room table in the San Fernando Valley. She spent the last night working in front of her TV, carefully sewing on hooks and eyes. Zippers are not part of the process. For a dancer, a zipper could mean disaster onstage.
The ballet tutu is gorgeous, a "pancake" style skirt that will jut out from the dancer's body. There are ten rows of ruffles, some of which use multiple layers of net and tulle, puffing out from a waistband made of quilting material. Varying shades of blue, from navy to turquoise to teal, pile one on top of each other to look a bit like ocean waves. The cost of one can run into the thousands of dollars.
Bacon is making the costume for a dancer who will perform as an odalisque, or female slave, in the ballet Le Corsaire as part of a competition. Because the character is "supposed to be very alluring," says Bacon, she'll play with color and prints in this creation. "I'm so proud of this one," she says. "It's so different from all the others."
Every fall, as dance students get ready for the Youth American Grand Prix, Bacon sets to work. It starts with phone calls, maybe from the dancer's parent or teacher. She'll sketch out ideas, head to Downtown Los Angeles to look for fabrics, order more online and go through a lot of fittings with the young dancers.
Bacon only takes on a handful of commissions per season—this year, she has five in the works. They'll keep her busy until competition time rolls around early in 2015.
Bacon made her own clothes throughout her teens, but it wasn't until her own daughter got heavily involved in dance that she started making costumes for stage. "I was a dance mom," she says, "driving her to and from the studio."
A former gymnast, Bacon fell for dance. "I can relate to it from gymnastics," she says. Plus, it was her daughter's passion. "When you're a mom, for a certain amount of years, your life revolves around your kids," she says. "Dance has become a big part of my life, even though my daughter has moved on."
As her kids neared college age, Bacon thought about tuition costs. Going back to work as an executive secretary wasn't all that appealing. She remembered the adage, "do what you love" and she loves sewing. So she started making costumes for cruise ship performances, TV series, even Cher's Las Vegas show.
She creates them out of her Northridge home, listening to books on tape or watching Stephen Colbert if it's late.
"It's engineered," she says of the one-of-a-kind dresses. She begins by making a panty. From there, she builds tutus and makes bodices. Every costume must be a perfect fit. The dancers, she says, often want them as tight as possible. "I think they feel secure," she says.
Her process is the same one used by seamstresses for the New York City Ballet and Royal Ballet, a series of techniques in use since the 1800s. The bodices are of cotton coutil, the same fabric used for corsets. "It's very strong," says Bacon. "It's cotton, so it's comfortable. It absorbs the sweat. It's going to last a long time."
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She pulls out a few costumes in various stages of completion. There's one with a peasant, or romantic, tutu. Those are longer skirts with more movement. There's a lavender one that she started on spec during the off-season.
Photos of her finished costumes fill Bacon's portfolio. There's a male dancer dressed in white—that client is now with Joffrey Ballet, and she has noticed photos of her white costume online. Another confection she made for a female dancer glitters with gold embellishments. "They're like my kids!" Bacon says of her creations. "I miss that one."
When Bacon goes to the competitions, she sees more than just her recent work. Often, dancers will rent or loan their old costumes. She can sit in the audience and point to the ones she made. "It's very rewarding," she says.