Media’s Martha Chamberlain transitions from ballet dancer to costume designer
For its current summer program, Ballet X, which specializes in contemporary ballet, presents three world premieres by award-winning choreographers. Performances at the Wilma Theater in Center City starts July 11 and continues through July 22.
One of the premieres is a piece by choreographer Penny Saunders with original music by composer Rosie Langabeer.
Media native Martha Chamberlain also had a key role. She designed the costumes for the 10 dancers and three musicians who will also be onstage. .
A former ballerina with the Pennsylvania Ballet who rose to the rank of principal dancer, Chamberlain retired in 2011 and landed on her feet as a costume designer for dancers. She’s worked with a number of prominent choreographers.
A world premiere is especially challenging, because there is no previous context. Chamberlain created the costumes from scratch, starting with a sketch pad which led to mock-ups of costumes she envisioned.
She had consultations with both choreographer Saunders and composer Langabeer because she was designing costumes not only for the dancers, but for the three musicians, including Langabeer, who will be onstage.
One important step in designing costumes for dancers is selecting the right fabrics. Chamberlain’s background in ballet is quite relevant. .
“Because of my own experience, I always think about the comfort level of fabrics,” she said. “ I’ve had costumes that were uncomfortable and that meant I couldn’t enjoy my performance as much.”
The stretch aspect of the fabric is especially important so dancers can move easily, lifting both arms and legs.
“It’s important to find fabrics that have four way stretch,” Chamberlain said. .
After she finds the best fabrics and decides on the design, the next step, of course, is sewing the garments. Then come the fittings.
“Usually I have two fittings for each dancer,” said Chamberlain. “That’s to make sure that any revisions I made worked out.”
When fittings are complete, there’s a run-through in the studio, with the dancers wearing their costumes for the first time.
“Usually it’s quite terrifying,” Chamberlain said. “But it’s also truth-telling. It gives me a chance to revise as needed.”
Tech rehearsals are next. These take place on the stage, and it’s when all the technical details are worked out, including how the lighting affects the appearance of the costumes.
Finally, there’s opening night, when her work is really over. Chamberlain always attends these, with one exception, when her daughter was born five years ago.
She’s not the only former dancer in the family. Husband Jonathan Stiles was also a dancer with the Pennsylvania Ballet. Now retired, he’s the marketing manager for the company.
There may be a future dancer in the family, too. Daughter Molly, now five, has been taking pre-ballet lessons since she was three. She also enjoys hip hop. Movement always came easily to this daughter of dancers.
“She’s always prancing instead of walking,” said Chamberlain. “She’s quite the young mover.”
Molly’s mother also started young with ballet lessons.
Chamberlain began dance lessons at the Fellowship House in Media when she was five. By age 17, she was offered a coveted apprenticeship with the Pennsylvania Ballet, and accepted eagerly.
It was the start of a 21-year career that led to promotions from corps dancer to soloist to principal dancer, the highest rank.
But a dancer’s career does not last indefinitely. In 2011, at age 39, Chamberlain retired. That was relatively “old” to retire. More typically, she said, ballet dancers retire at 35. Also, some dancers have injuries that force them to retire even sooner.
“I was in pretty good shape,” she said. “So, I felt lucky that I was able to make a choice about when to retire.”
Well before she retired, the versatile dancer had already tapped into her talent for costume design. She’d began deisgning in the early l990s and continued throughout her dancing career. So when she retired, it was an easy pivot from ballerina to costume designer for ballet. .
She’s also the founder of Chamberlain Goods, a dancewear company specializing in custom made leotards, tights and warm-ups.
Then, too, she runs the costume shop at University of the Arts, which presents two shows each year. Chamberlain is in charge of all the costumes for both productions.
The busy former ballerina also teaches costume design for dance at University of the Arts.
“It’s a wonderful experience,” Chamberlain said. “A lot of seniors have to create a dance piece, and some design their own costumes This course helps with that.”
But lately, she’s been especially focused on her work with the Ballet X world premiere by Penny Saunders. She has especially enjoyed the collaboration with choreographer Saunders and composer Langabeer.
“It’s been very enjoyable working with them,” she said. “They are both wonderful creators. We became an all-female team of three.”
Overall, she finds her life offstage to be very satisfying. “I don’t miss performing,” she said. “I’m happy with how I’ve transitioned into other activities. I go from designing costumes to teaching to working on my own dancewear. I’m never doing the same thing, and I really enjoy the variety.”