Show keeps her on her toes

Lori Sbarra stops this ballet production from falling apart at the seams

December 11, 2005|By CASSANDRA A. FORTIN | CASSANDRA A. FORTIN,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

After spending months planning, designing and repairing more than 100 costumes for the Harford Ballet Company's production of The Nutcracker, the moment of truth arrives for Lori Sbarra.

As lead seamstress for the ballet company, Sbarra is confident that the dancer playing Clara's mother will look resplendent in a shiny silver and black party gown, and that the jacket worn by the performer portraying the prince will fit just right. She has no doubt that her latest creation, a pink peppermint costume for the lead Russian dancer, will dazzle.

But unpredictability rears its head as the Bel Air resident gears up for the second phase of her job: handling the wardrobe malfunctions that inevitably pop up during the shows.

Like the time a seamstress sewed an oversize hook-and-eye fastener onto the prince's jacket and it wouldn't stay closed (Sbarra sewed the jacket shut). Or the time she arrived on a performance night to find that only one of about a dozen costumes had the desired flower embellishments sewn onto it.

And dancers often come to her during a performances needing a button replaced or a hem repaired.

"I have to stay on the sidelines at all times during the performances with a needle and thread," Sbarra said.

After working on the costumes in the tranquillity of her home in the months leading up to the show, Sbarra shifts into high gear preparing for the more hectic role she plays backstage.

She finishes the costumes at least a week before the shows so that she has time to imagine and plan for whatever mischief the wardrobe gods might hand down.

"One of Lori's biggest attributes is her organization skills," said Pam Villeneuve, owner of the Dance Conservatory of Maryland, the home of the ballet company. "She's very savvy with people and always has everything done well before opening night."

In step with that timetable, Sbarra starts scheduling fitting sessions for the 54-member cast in October. She begins with the 25 dancers of the children's cast.

Over the years, she has honed strategies for working with the young dancers, including how to deal with complaints. The grumblings include such things as "My costume is too itchy," or "Mine is too tight," or "Mine is too big, it's going to fall down all night."

So Sbarra shows up in a T-shirt emblazoned with "No Whining" in bold letters. When a dancer complains, Sbarra replies, "If you don't want to wear your costume, someone else will."

After that, it's smooth sailing.

As she enters the final stretch before next weekend's performances at Aberdeen High School, Sbarra applies the finishing touches.

It's a familiar routine: She has been working with the company since its maiden performance of The Nutcracker in 1999, when her daughter, Alyssa, then 5, joined the company, which is in Joppa. Sbarra volunteered to help with the production and was assigned to assist the costume mistress with sewing buttons, mending, adding embellishments and other tasks.

Particularly useful was Sbarra's ability to sew using patterns, said Villeneuve. And when the company learned that it was losing its previous costume mistress, the volunteer position was offered to Sbarra in 2003.

"The costumes that we use do not always have patterns that fit the dancers, so they have to be re-engineered," Villeneuve said.

The key is starting early, Sbarra said.

She and Villeneuve meet in late summer to discuss the costumes. They go over the budget and discuss costume inventory and the condition of the pieces. They make a list of needed repairs and alterations, and brainstorm embellishments for costumes. And they decide what they need to make from scratch.

"We're trying to bring all the costumes into a Civil War time period," Villeneuve said. "The women have hoop skirts, and you can see flavorings of the period throughout the performance such as period sleeves worn with a tutu."

This year, Sbarra, a physical therapist, made vests for the men in the party scene in Act I and for the Russian dancers' costumes, while another volunteer made the jackets.

The Russian dancer costume exemplifies Sbarra's deftness, said Melanie Ortt, manager of the dance company.

"That material has a ribbon look weaved into it," Ortt said. "Lori sewed ribbon on a plain material to give it the same look. It turned out absolutely beautiful."

At times, Sbarra finds herself overwhelmed with costumes.

"Before the performance, I end up with every costume we use in my sewing room at my house," she said. "My husband got so frustrated because I had costumes all over the house that he asked me to create a room and put them in there."

Sbarra spends at least 10 hours each week working on costumes.

"A beautiful costume doesn't make a good dancer, but it helps," Sbarra said. "So I do my part to make them as beautiful as I can."

An example of the resourcefulness and teamwork typical of wardrobe preparation occurred in Sbarra's first year, with a dress she made for the character of Clara's mother. It was dubbed the "tinfoil dress" and was one of her biggest challenges.

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