On any given day, Pacific Northwest Ballet’s rehearsal studios are filled with ballerinas decked out in a rainbow of colorful, innovative leotards—many designed and hand-sewn by principal dancer Elizabeth Murphy.

Murphy didn’t grow up sewing. In fact, she didn’t even know how to run a sewing machine until she was 18. She didn’t want to sit still long enough.

The Chelmsford, Massachusetts, native started dance lessons as a child in her hometown, and by her early teens decided to pursue a dance career. She moved to Pennsylvania to train at The Rock School for Dance Education. While still a student, she danced supplementary roles at Pennsylvania Ballet. Murphy then landed a position with Ballet West II before entering its main company in 2007.

But she was miserable. “My first year in the company was the hardest of my career, as of yet,” she says. Murphy didn’t expect overnight success, but she also never imagined how tedious it would be to stand around for six hours every day, waiting to rehearse short walk-on roles. For the first time, she contemplated quitting.

Instead, she decided to look outside dance for a new creative outlet. She discovered it in sewing.

Murphy found a bargain sewing machine online, along with a few easy patterns. Every evening, she came home from the studio to learn something new. When a friend suggested she try her hand at leotards, she found a simple bathing suit pattern, and turned to YouTube videos for guidance.

“It was freeing to practice and master sewing techniques, whereas in dance I sometimes felt stuck, or limited,” Murphy says.

Murphy in one of her own designs (photo by Lindsay Thomas)

The sense of accomplishment she found in sewing motivated her out of her dance rut: In 2007 and 2008 she attended Pacific Northwest Ballet’s summer intensive. Impressed by artistic director Peter Boal, and by the dancers she met in Seattle, Murphy kept an eye on the company and joined the corps de ballet in 2011. She’s moved up the ranks very quickly, and last November, Boal promoted her to principal dancer. In a pre-show speech, he compared her to a young Meryl Streep. “When she’s onstage, the audience can’t take its eyes off of her,” he says.

At PNB, Murphy has danced everything from Sugar Plum Fairy to featured roles in contemporary works, like William Forsythe’s In the middle, somewhat elevated. “It feels so good to dance things that don’t put a limit to your range!” she enthuses.

You can say the same thing about her approach to designing dancewear. Murphy sews each leotard using soft spandex and mesh, with the aim of crafting lightweight, breathable garments. “I try to create simple lines that accentuate the beauty of the ballet body,” she says. She’s also developed a unique leg seam. “It keeps the leotard down better, without cutting into the leg,” she explains.

PNB corps member Emma Love Suddarth says she’s never worn such flattering, and comfortable, leotards before. “I get a little sad towards the end of the week when my Liz leotard supply runs out,” she says.

Last summer, Murphy started to market her eight leotard designs on Etsy, under her own brand, Label Dancewear. “My slogan is ‘Love Your Label,’ which is essentially ‘Love Yourself,’ ” she says. She wants to inspire younger dancers to accept themselves more than she did at her first job. “We’re so passionate about what we do,” she says. “But I think a lot of times, when we’re in it, we don’t see the beauty.”

Murphy still makes each leotard herself but plans to hire somebody to help her meet demand. She’s sold more than 300 leotards in the past six months and hasn’t had time to replenish her stock.

For now, Murphy is content to keep Label Dancewear fairly small. But someday, when she hangs up her pointe shoes, the goal-oriented ballerina may reinvent herself as a big-time entrepreneur.

News

Sterling Hyltin as The Princess in The Most Incredible Thing (photo by Nina Westervelt for WWD)

New York City Ballet resident choreographer Justin Peck has balletomanes everywhere on the edge of their seat, impatiently awaiting the premiere of his first narrative work, The Most Incredible Thing. Based on a Hans Christian Andersen fairytale, the ballet will feature dozens of NYCB dancers and students from SAB (the cast numbers more than 50!).

Until now, we've only had tantalizing peeks at the costumes, with designer Marcel Dzama and Peck posting a few shots on Instagram. And we haven't heard the music at all. But with the release of NYCB's The Most Incredible Thing trailer, we finally have a chance to see some of Dzama's wildly original designs in action, worn by Peck's usual muses as they dance to music by composer Bryce Dessner (of the band The National).

The trailer looks like something Wes Anderson might direct, which bodes well for a fairytale full of both wonder and destruction. Peck's aesthetic and vision have only grown more clear as he becomes more experienced, and it's exciting to think about how his stylistic preferences will play out on such a grand scale. Fingers crossed that this ballet is full of the heart and excitement that abound in his most successful works.

Tiler Peck as The Cuckoo in The Most Incredible Thing (photo by Nina Westervelt for WWD)

If you're curious how these outrageously ornate costumes came to life, check out this Women's Wear Daily interview with Dzama. Famous for his macabre sketches and masks, Dzama doesn't seem like an obvious choice as the designer of a ballet. But with the help of NYCB's costume shop, Dzama's ideas have ended up coming to life. They're reminiscent of work by Maurice Sendak—and keep in mind that the beloved picture book author/illustrator did indeed create the designs for Pacific Northwest Ballet's former version of  The Nutcracker. Maybe the minds of artists in touch with their inner child are perfect for creating a fantastical world onstage.

For more news on all things ballet, don’t miss a single issue.

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Zenaida Yanowsky in Will Tuckett’s Elizabeth (photo by Ilaria Martello)

There are tutus. And then there's everything else. How do you design period costumes that are 1) recognizable to the audience and 2) possible to dance in? For The Royal Ballet's Elizabeth, starring Carlos Acosta and RB principal Zenaida Yanowsky, the ROH costume department had to create iconic, Tudor-era clothing that could respond to a contemporary ballet.

Fortunately, nothing seems out of reach for intrepid designers and costumers. Fay Fullerton, head of costume for the entire ROH shop, used materials like chiffon and organza to replicate the look of Queen Elizabeth's coronation robes—minus the heavy, stifling fabric that was probably used at the time. The costumers also used technology like 3D printing to replicate Tudor-era patterns and the texture of armor.

With the ROH's dedication to educating the next generation of costume makers, this kind of innovation will just keep growing.

For more news on all things ballet, don’t miss a single issue.

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