Designer Sandra Woodall takes us on an exclusive tour of the creative processes that birthed her gorgeous costumes


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Acclaimed Oakland-born costume designer Sandra Woodall and her creative team have flawlessly executed costumes for more than 200 dance and theater productions. Accordingly, sublime and stellar garments are to be expected from Woodall, a five-time Isadora Duncan Award winner.

On Friday, The San Francisco Ballet opened “Space Between,” the sixth program of its 2019 season. In an interview with the Daily Californian, Woodall disclosed her experiences creating the lovely garments for “Die Toteninsel,” one of the three acts of “Space Between,” and working with British choreographer Liam Scarlett.

Woodall, a prolific designer for disciplines including ballet, opera and theater, explained that each art form requires her to approach costume design differently. “When you’re working in opera, it is so important not to make things tight around the ribs and to drape it beautifully as (the dancers) kind of glide across the stage,” she said. “Whereas, in ballet, everything is tight — you really want to show the body, the line. It is quite different.”

She stated that, at the same time, all of these disciplines have a shared goal in terms of costuming: to capture the essence of a character. This objective simply cannot be accomplished without harmonious cooperation between the creative team. Citing her work with Scarlett, who choreographed “Die Totensinel,” she said, “Liam has the most incredible dancers in the world to work with at SF Ballet. And I have had the most incredible people turning my drawings into real garments. (You can) do amazing drawings … (but they) fall flat when it is not a collaboration in terms of the execution of the drawings.” “The feeling and quality I want to express, these people look at my small drawings and just catch it and even bring more to it,” she continued.

Woodall elaborated on her conversations with Scarlett, explaining that he invited her to work with him on “Die Toteninsel” even before he started to develop the choreography. Even though the two artists have different areas of expertise, they are still able to unite to build a bigger project. “In a process like this, collaboration is so important.” Woodall said. She accentuated the importance of teamwork in the creative process, reiterating that it was the most magical part of the experience. In abstract art forms (such as, Woodall said, ballet) it is critical to comprehend the discipline’s unspoken language: “(Scarlett and I) have each been able to talk at the conceptual level and show each other physical examples because choreography isn’t words and neither is drawing.” The teamwork that Woodall mentioned embodies this tacit communication. “When I see his choreography, I really understand what his words mean. When he sees my drawings, the same.” Clicking with the people you work with is certainly a euphoric experience, one that drives artists such as Woodall to put forth their best efforts.

Woodall and Scarlett bonded over a shared interest in romanticism, a movement with ideals that Woodall feels are reflected in “Die Toteninsel.” “We totally met before he started (choreographing the dance) and we started talking and we have emails that have gone back and forth about the nature of romanticism and how we feel about it,” she said. “Die Toteninsel,” which translates to “Isle of the Dead,” gets its title from two works by the same name: an 1883 painting by Arnold Bӧcklin and a 1908 symphonic poem by composer Sergei Rachmaninoff, whose music is featured in “Space Between.”

As a painter with an educational background in fine arts, Woodall used Bӧcklin’s painting, along with selections from Romantic painter Francisco Goya, as the main point of reference for her costume designs. By designing a set of garments in response to the meticulous study of the paintings, she hopes to challenge romanticism and perception. She aims to establish “romanticism without sentimentality” and hopes that her costumes will challenge the audience’s perception by making them repeatedly look again after the first glance. When dealing with such abstract concepts and trying to materialize them into clothing, Woodall does not aim to transform these ideas into concrete beings: “For me, I don’t want it to be so concrete that it tells people something; I don’t want it to be an illustration. I want it to evoke a feeling and open the imagination. So that when somebody is looking at it, they fill in — in a good way. Not mysterious by being obscure, but evoking a quality.”

Woodall emphasized allowing herself the freedom to experiment during the creative process. She carries this work method with her to the other projects she is partaking in outside of SF Ballet. Woodall is currently collaborating with acclaimed playwright Stan Lai on a performance piece at UC Berkeley’s Department of Theater, Dance, and Performance Studies. The production places emphasis on organic design, a term that Woodall was happy to clarify: “The organic is the fact that it grows, we build it as we go. We don’t have a preconceived structure or idea or character types like media does. I think the term is also applicable for “Space Between” because Liam and I did this same kind of process through our productive conversations.”

From paper to life-sized costume, Woodall’s work ethic, flexible mindset and gracious attitude are the secret ingredients that permeate throughout her successful career. It would be nearly impossible not to excitedly anticipate her fabulous designs that will shine in “Space Between.”

Contact Sophie Kim at [email protected].

A previous version of this article may have implied that the show is being performed at BAMPFA. In fact, the show is being performed at UC Berkeley in conjunction with the department of theater, dance and performance studies.