Looking around Susan Roemer's San Francisco apartment, you'd never know she's a ballerina. There are no performance mementos on the walls, no basket of unsewn pointe shoes hinting at her role as one of Smuin Ballet's most versatile dancers. Hailed for the edgy sensibility she brings to contemporary work like Trey McIntyre's Oh, Inverted World, she's also beloved for the endearing charm she exudes in character-based pieces like Amy Seiwert's Dear Miss Cline.
What you do learn, pretty quickly, is that she's a costume designer. The hall closet is stacked floor to ceiling with storage tubs full of fabrics and patterns. Her studio consists of a clothing rack, a worktable and four sewing machines stationed a few feet from her bed. Roemer literally lives, sleeps and dreams costumes.
Roemer models her two-tone Slice Leotard in Mist/Pewter. Photo by Ben Needham-Wood, Courtesy Roemer.
She bought her first sewing machine on Craigslist on a whim three years ago. “I didn't even know how to thread it," she admits. After picking up the basics on YouTube, she sketched a few patterns on the back of Christmas wrap. Soon friends like San Francisco Ballet soloist Sasha De Sola were placing orders for her dancewear, prized for its impeccable fit and details like angular mesh inserts and bold blocks of color. S-Curve Apparel & Design was born.
Word spread quickly, and SFB corps member Myles Thatcher commissioned Roemer to make costumes for In the Passerine's Clutch, a piece he choreographed for the company's 2013 gala. It was only her third project. “I had to act like I knew what I was doing! I was way out of my league," she recalls. Thatcher disagrees. “She's amazing," he says. “She knows what dancers want to accentuate and what they want to hide." Her unitards in ombré shades of ivory, rust and russet made an earthy complement to Passerine's sinuous pas de deux and organic lifts. One of several repeat clients, Thatcher hired her again to create the watery-blue costumes for his piece Stone and Steel.
From left: Smuin Ballet dancers Ben Needham-Wood, Terez Dean and Christian Squires in Amy Seiwert's 2014 spring premiere in Susan Roemer's designs. Photo by Keith Sutter, Courtesy Smuin Ballet.
A lifetime of dancing has given Roemer an innate sense of what works on a dancer's body and onstage. Growing up in Milwaukee, she studied ballet, tap, jazz and Broadway before enrolling in the Milwaukee Ballet School at age 16. It turned out to be the perfect preparation for Smuin, where she performs everything from Jirí Kylián to the jazzy annual holiday cabaret.
Costuming also draws on Roemer's love of making things with her hands. “Before sewing I made my own beeswax candles. Before that it was acrylic painting and cake decorating," she says. But in 2013, while she recovered from knee surgery, sewing finally won out. Unable to dance for nine months, Roemer poured her creative energy into further developing her design and sewing skills.
“I had never taken a break from dance, and it scared me," she confesses. “Now, at 30, I know myself better, and that's elevated my dancing. I'm excited to transition to costuming full-time someday." With commissions from Ma Cong, Post:Ballet, Ballet San Jose and the TV series “Flesh and Bone" under her belt, “someday" doesn't seem very far away. But Roemer's double life suits her perfectly. “It's a beautiful marriage. I want to keep moving forward and see where it goes.
- Dream role: The girl in Lucas Crandall's Gimme. "She's in combat boots and a minidress. She looks like such a badass!"
- Earworm: "Most days I wake up with 'MMMBop' by Hanson in my head. I hum it at the theater without even noticing. When I get excited or nervous, 'MMMBop' comes out."
- Speed demon: She learned to drive from her dad, who races open-wheel cars.
- Hidden talent: Sculpts and hand-paints edible marzipan caricatures of her fellow Smuin dancers for their birthdays.