It was a hectic scene last Wednesday morning at the USA International Ballet Competition in Jackson, Mississippi. Inside a conference room at Jackson's downtown Westin Hotel, strewn pieces of tulle, satin and other trimmings littered the floor, while the frenzied whirring of sewing machines and snipping scissors filled the air. While 100+ young ballet dancers were competing for medals and scholarships at the nearby Thalia Mara Hall, 11 costume designers from the U.S. and Canada were vying to win Project Tutu, a "Project Runway"-inspired contest hosted by USA IBC and Tutu.com. Their challenge? Create a perfectly constructed tutu with three assigned materials... in just three days.
In the real world, a single tutu can take weeks to construct. Bodices and basques must be perfectly measured, fit and sewn while appliques and trimmings are carefully hand-stitched into place. The Project Tutu designers were given a 12-piece bodice pattern, base materials and a package of three color-coordinated fabrics. They then had 30 hours to design, construct, fit and embellish a tutu based on a ballet character.
"The hard part is maintaining professional technique," says Project Tutu judge Arthur Oliver, a freelance costume designer who works with Moscow Ballet. (He designed the costumes for the company's The Great Russian Nutcracker, some of which were on display at the IBC). "You know, staying away from the hot glue gun when something should be hand-stitched. If you're using brocade on the bodice, do the patterns match up?" As for the tutu's construction, Oliver continues, "I'm looking for the things that you don't see right away—what does the inside look like? Which way did you press your seams? That may seem like it doesn't matter, but it's actually very important."
The short deadline made for some seriously late nights. And in "Project Runway" fashion, the bleary-eyed contestants were thrown a last-minute curve ball: to create a matching headpiece mere hours before their deadline. Their finished tutus were then given the runway treatment, modeled by dancers from Ballet Mississippi and Ballet Magnificat in front of an a panel of judges (which included Oliver, esteemed teacher and costume designer Angela Whitehill, and Master Ballet Academy directors Slawomir and Irina Wozniak). Despite the stress and the rush, the finished products were impressively gorgeous.
Judges Slawomir and Irina Wozniak pose with a Ballet Mississippi dancer wearing the winning tutu. Photo courtesy Claudia Folts.
The grand prize of $1,000 went to Samantha Austin for her stunning Sleeping Beauty Rose Adagio tutu. A former dancer with Ballet Tucson, Austin is now a teacher at Florida Ballet and owner of JBdesignS. "I really wanted to step out of my box and do something I've never done before," says Austin, who was given a kit of pink materials to work with. "The pink screams Sugar Plum, but the more I started working with it, Aurora came to me. Once I named her, I really started to feel attached to her."