Off Pointe and Into the World – Costume Designer Alexis Doktor

by Susan Levi Wallach

Twelve weeks after dancing the role of Carabosse in Sleeping Beauty, the Columbia City Ballet’s season finale – which also is twelve weeks into her retirement as a ballet dancer – Alexis Doktor is thinking that the only thing better than being a dancer is not being a dancer. “I never liked ballet class,” she says over midmorning coffee. “I never liked the rehearsal process or anything in the studio. I’m not going to be one of those dancers who take class forever and ever. The only fulfillment in my dance career was actual performance. When you’re onstage, it’s your moment as an artist. That’s the only part that appealed to me.”

That and the costumes. Which is why the New York native, who for most of her years in Columbia lived a life split between onstage corps member and backstage costume designer/wardrobe mistress, is happily out of pointe shoes: from now on, she’s dealing with the dresses.

Depending on how you look at it, Doktor either nearly didn’t become a ballet dancer or nearly didn’t become a costume designer. She was a student at the School of American Ballet when, at 16, a stress fracture forced her to sit out the school’s summer program in Chautauqua. “I always plowed through and ignored pain,” Doktor recalls. “That was the first summer I had to stop. It was frustrating.” Because she knew how to sew, Doktor asked the resident costume designer, A. Christina Giannini, if she could volunteer in the costume shop. As these things go, a pastime became a passion: Doktor went back to dance and in 1999 came to South Carolina to join the Columbia City Ballet, but four years later she went back to New York and enrolled at the Fashion Institute of Technology. She got her degree in fashion design in 2005. In 2008, she went up to Chautauqua to work a full summer as Giannini’s assistant designer. “It taught me for the future,” Doktor says. “Christina is an amazing designer. If I were to claim a mentor, she’d be it.”

Still, she wasn’t ready to commit to one or the other. “While I was in school I really missed dancing,” Doktor recalls. “And I realized a dancer’s life is a short one – you can dance for only so many years. I came back to company in 2005, danced one season just as a dancer. In the season of 2006 I took over the costume shop and did both.”

If it stings to have gone through a creme de la creme program such as SAB’s only to never make it out of the corps in a small-town ballet troupe, Doktor isn’t saying. Even when she points out that “William [Starrett, the Columbia City Ballet’s artistic director] said he never promoted me to soloist because he thought it would be too much pressure to do soloist roles and be costume designer. Not at all. The thing that doesn’t make sense to me about the situation was he never said to me I think it would be too much, what do you think? I was doing soloist roles. I’ve been paired a lot with one of my good friends in the company, and she’s been soloist for going on four years. I don’t know what William had going on inside his head. But I am ready to be done. The fact that I got to do this role made it all work out for the best.”

The role was Carabosse. “Merrill Ashley was the reason I wanted to dance Carabosse,” she says. “I associated “Sleeping Beauty” with her. She captured me, created another level to that role. If I were to pick a dream role, Carabosse would be the only one. Part of it was knowing it was going to be my last show. Maybe a piece of it was wanting to revamp the Familiars and how they looked.”

The Familiars are animal-like characters who Doktor described as the “evil minions” and that presented an immediate design problem. She called on Gianinni for help. “I had to make a horned headpiece. Creating a headpiece for women is easy — women have long hair to pin a headpiece to. For a man it’s different. We have a couple of men with very short hair. We had to figure out how to fit the headpiece to a skullcap.”

If Doktor credits Giannini as being “very good at figuring things out on the fly,” she also credits the New York City Ballet’s legendary designer Barbara Karinska, known simply as Karinska, for her sense of theatrical style. “Every time us kids performed with the New York City Ballet we got to wear the Karinska costumes,” she says. “In one sense it’s a blessing that I got to see how amazing the costumes are. In another sense, it’s a curse, because they are so amazing. I try to do as much as I can on the budget I’m given. It’s been a slow process. You only have a certain number of dollars you can spend per show. I try to give the costumes a little new life and update them, spruce them up, as well as maintain then, which is a constant struggle.”

For its spring 2013 season, the Columbia City Ballet plans to premiere a new Starrett ballet based on the children’s story The Little Prince – which means that instead of revamping, Doktor will be designing costumes from scratch. “I’ll create everything. I believe we’re getting the rights to use the illustrations from the book and recreate them so it looks just like it was intended.”

The look will be a little different from the one Starrett prefers, which Doktor describes as “showing off skin and making his dancers appear sexy. He takes a lot of pride in having easy-to-look at dancers. He feels when people go out they want to escape their reality a little bit. He’s into the sex-sells approach when appropriate.” In keeping with the Antoine de Saint-Exupéry illustrations, presumably the look of The Little Prince ballet will be on the modest side.

And perhaps a little simpler than another one of her favorite productions: Willy Wonka two years ago at the Workshop Theatre, the first of a number of shows she’s designed in Columbia outside the ballet and probably the most technically challenging.

As with the role of Carabosse, Willy Wonka was a show she’d wanted to do for a long time. “I’m blessed to have a very good friend who has a mechanical mind,” says Doktor. “He owns an auto-repair shop called Automotive Tekniques, and whenever I have nontypical costume queries, he is the person I go to.” For Willy Wonka, the friend, Ken Oswald Jr., helped Doktor build a suit for the character Violet, who transforms into a big blueberry – a change that most live theatre productions accomplish by having Violet sneak behind a piece of scenery or offstage and re-emerge in a big pouf of blue.

“Ken helped me build a suit that allowed Violet to blow up into the blueberry onstage. It was one of those moments when I said, ‘Would it be possible. . . ?” and he said, ‘Anything is possible –  I just need to figure it out.’ And he did and it was pretty amazing.”

The two came up with a suit in two layers. The inner layer was just a straight sheath dress. Attached to it was an outer layer in the shape of a beach ball, made with an airtight fabric that is used for parachutes. “The outside had holes for her head, arms, and legs,” Doktor explained. “The character wore a backpack that had one little nozzle to shoot air in from a CO2 [carbon dioxide] tank, which is used in paintball guns.”

But a paintball gun needs to shoot only in quick bursts, quite different from inflating a costume in front of an audience. “We had to figure out how to get a steady stream of air in to the suit,” Doktor says. The solution was similar to the technology used in race cars that lets the driver shoot a stream of nitric oxide into the engine for additional speed. “The button the character had hidden in her hand was similar to the one you’d find in a car,” says Doktor. “As long as she held down the button, the air kept flowing.”

Fantasy and period productions are Doktor’s favorites, in part because she enjoys meshing the research with the creative. And, she points out, “Fantasy is period to come. You can create in your mind whatever you want it to be.” With historic shows, “I try to be historically accurate. I research what other people have done, though I don’t copy. I do a lot of research on the period itself. I already have a lot of knowledge, but I research the specifics. I just did a show set in the Victorian Era – In the Next Room, at Trustus. You can approach the Victorian Era in a number of ways. That one was very specific, because there was a specific year the vibrator was invented. Belle Epoque is what people who don’t know costume design associate with the Victorians. This was later, almost verging on Edwardian. As a costume designer, you have to know where it’s OK to blur lines and where you have to be exact.”

One place a costume designer has to be exact is fit, especially when the costume is going on a dancer. “Fit is most important, 100 percent all the way. If the costume doesn’t fit well and you’re being partnered or even if you’re sweating, it’s going to move around and hang wrong. It’s not always going to be a perfect fit. I try my damnedest with all the dancers in the major roles. Most of the time, they’re probably performing in a one-of-a-kind costume that was built on someone else with a different physique. I want to make sure the principals have as perfect a fit as possible. I am a team of one. It would  be wonderful to be able to twitch my nose and everything fall into place.”

It’s beginning to sound like she hasn’t given dancing much thought lately. “I figured I’d be really upset,” she said. “I was actually more emotional at the end of The Nutcracker. For now, Doktor is reveling in the freedom. Barely 31, she already has one career behind her and another under way. Doubts? None that she cares to voice. “I have a goal and I’m going to reach it, no matter who I have to crush along the way. I know that sounds horrible, but that’s life. If you’re not going to do anything to reach the goal you’ve set out to achieve, you’re not going to go anywhere. I have no patience for stupidity.”





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