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Designing for the Stage: an Interview with Yumiko Takeshima

by Emilia & Linda on March 31, 2011

Ballet costumes play a key role in the evolution of the art form. From the early days in the lavish court of Louis XIV – the Sun King – to the highly individual designs created by artists like Chanel, De Chirico and Bakst in the golden age of Ballets Russes, costumes have transitioned from bulky and restrictive garments into eye-catching creations that allow for individual expression and freedom of movement. Good costuming can immediately add another visual dimension to the most basic of ballets. No surprise that some of Balanchine’s simple yet elegant designs (think his collaborations with Barbara Karinska) kept coming up as all-time favorites in a poll taken by NYCB on Facebook this week.

Yumiko Takeshima. Photo Joris-Jan Bos ©

We recently caught up with Dresden Semperoper Ballett Principal Yumiko Takeshima. Yumiko divides her time between dancing and designing. Revered by dancers around the globe, her famous leotards (affectionately known in the industry as YumisBTW: lookout for an exclusive giveaway at the bottom of this feature) can be spotted on Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis in the movie Black Swan. Here Yumiko discusses all things costume design, including her collaborations with choreographer David Dawson, who first commissioned her work ten years ago and once said “ballet should be more about concept and theater and design than just about steps”.

Yumiko Takeshima was born in Asahikawa, Japan and has danced with Universal Ballet (Seoul), Alberta Ballet and Dutch National Ballet. A Principal Dancer with the Dresden Semperoper Ballett since 2006, Yumiko launched a brand of high quality and beautifully designed dancewear in 2002. She has also designed costumes for choreographers like David Dawson, Jorma Elo and William Forsythe. Her work is considered “elegant, simple and among the most beautiful dance costumes in the European dance scene.”

TBB: How did you get into designing leotards and ballet costumes?

Yumi: I joined Dutch National Ballet in 1993. When I moved to Holland from New York, I had nothing with me and I had to start making all my curtains, bed and cushion covers, so I started to sew a little bit. A friend lent me a sewing machine and because I grew up in a kimono-wearing family, I always liked checking out materials. I used to shop for fabrics all the time in Amsterdam and one day I found some leotard material. I bought it and tried to figure out how to make a leotard. It took me about three days as I had no idea of how to sew one. I put it on for work the next day and my friends liked it, so they started saying “can you make me the same one?” and that’s how it all began.

TBB: How does one make a leotard; how long does it take?

Yumi: You need to come up with a good pattern, I cut them myself and place them on a mannequin, to test it. Then I go back, adjust it, so everything goes by the pattern you cut first. Some models can be done in one hour – as I’ve been doing this since 1993 – but some can take up to four months as I have to keep developing and redoing them.

Yumiko Takeshima Costume for David Dawson's "The World According to Us". Inspired by the art of Gilbert & George. Photo: Costin Radu ©

TBB: How do you juggle your dancing career with designing?

Yumi: I’m still dancing. I know I should quit but I love dancing. Both activities help each other. It’s funny because while I do have a busy schedule when I am working on my leotards I think a lot about dancing and when I’m dancing I think a lot about my designs as well.

TBB: How did you go from designing your first leotard to starting your own company Yumiko?

Yumi: Step by step. My colleagues were always asking me “can you make me something that I look good in?” so from there I started to design. Then my friends from Japan and San Francisco started to put in orders too and that soon became the “Yumi girls” network. It all happened organically like that. Finally my husband Mark set up a business for me, as he saw that I was getting so busy with it; the first year I was taking turns at home with an assistant and when I was not performing I would be sewing all night long. One day my husband went “You know what? You need to get your life back, let me help you out with this”. So we opened a workshop in Cazalla de la Sierra in Spain (where my parents-in-law come from) and that’s where it all began officially.

Yumiko Boutique in New York. Photos: The Ballet Bag ©

TBB: Besides running Yumiko you also design ballet costumes. How did that come about?

Yumi: It all started because of David Dawson who was choreographing his first piece for Dutch National Ballet in 2000. He asked very casually if I could do the costume design for him. “Why me?” I asked and he told me “Well, you are already designing leotards for a bunch of people and it is the same principle. You are creative and this is an extension of that”. So I started from there and now I design for all of David’s ballets and I’ve also started receiving commissions from other choreographers like Jorma Elo, who is such a great guy to work with and Krzysztof Pastor, who is now Artistic Director in Poland.

Yumiko Takeshima's Costume for David Dawson's "The World According to Us". Inspired by Louis XIV, The Sun King. Photo: Costin Radu ©

TBB: What inspires your designs? How do you work with these choreographers to come up with a concept?

Yumi: It really depends on the choreographer. Someone like David has a very clear vision from the beginning and he gives me plenty of information to read first. For instance there’s a new ballet coming up for Dutch National Ballet this June and he wanted to do a Greek-inspired story, so he asked me to research Greek history and mythology, to have a look at sculptures and to develop a very modern look from there. Some people give me a lot of information and my job is to work with these elements and then to make it all simpler.

TBB: Do you also have to communicate with the set designer?

Yumi: Yes, we are all in contact usually. Whenever the designer has decided or come up with a concept for lighting or set, they send it to me so I know what’s going on in the scene, what colour it is going to be lit. The only thing we don’t really know is the choreography, we have to imagine how that fits, but since I work with David Dawson so regularly I can guess, which is great.

Yumiko Takeshima's Costumes for David Dawson's "The World According to Us". Inspired by Monet's Water Lilies. Photo: Costin Radu ©

TBB: A few months ago we chatted to Amy Westcott about the process of creating the costumes for Black Swan, which of course included plenty of Yumikos. She described the same process for film: she sat with the director, the cinematographer and stage designers and this team would put together all the various visions. So we guess designing for ballet is not unlike designing costumes for movies!

Yumi: Yes. Well, all that coordination happens thanks to technology. I live in Dresden and the set designer lives in Berlin, the lighting designer is in Holland and we can all send the images to each other via email, which is great, so everyone has the same information real-time.

TBB: Have you ever designed tutus?

Yumi: Yes, I’ve done tutus for Jorma twice. He gives me lots of freedom and doesn’t brief me too much, the only thing he will say is something like “I want tutus”, very quietly, so I came up with some non-traditional, funky tutus for him.

Jorma Elo's Suite Murder with costumes by Yumiko Takeshima. Left: Terhi Räsänen and Eemu Äikiö. Right: Salla Eerola, Maki Kirjonen, Terhi Räsänen and Eun-Ji Ha. Photos: Sakari Viika / Finnish National Ballet ©

TBB: We have had some discussions about the relevance and the future of tutus. For us they look very strange. Romantic skirts, as in Giselle, might have a contemporary feel but tutus are somewhat anachronistic.

Yumi: I see what you mean. But they make such a statement and bring such strong focus to the body! They are actually like having an extra leg, in terms of propelling, they give you another kind of movement.

TBB: In the Jorma Elo piece, how did you give a “different spin” on the traditional tutu?

Yumi: They were based on a traditional look, but I made a bunch of small bags, gathered them and sewn onto the waist. They were made out of stiff material, like wire material so they did these interesting effects. I designed them for Elo’s Suite Murder which he choreographed for Finnish National Ballet in Helsinki.

Guillem Brull Bover, Yusuke Hikichi, Eun-Ji Ha, Eemu Äikiö, Maki Kirjonen, Terhi Räsänen and Salla Eerola in Jorma Elo's Suite Murder with costumes by Yumiko Takeshima. Photo: Sakari Viika / Finnish National Ballet ©

TBB: How do you see Yumiko growing as a company?

Yumi: It’s going better than I ever thought. It’s incredible, I would love it if I could spread it not only among professional dancers but also to a larger public, people who work out, who do yoga, etc.

TBB: Can you tell us a little bit about the “Alicia”, the new design you are launching?

Yumi: Over the years I have been asked for v-necks, because that’s something I’ve never done. I decided to work very hard not only on the v-neck but in bringing a touch of kimono to the look. It took me so long to come up with this pattern; over a year because I tested it, I wore it myself and initially it wasn’t good enough. The “Alicia” has this little crossing in the front and at the back, a nod to how you cross over a kimono. And it’s a two-color piece. I also wanted to do it with different sleeves and styles, so that people could choose non-sleeve or short, long, 3/4, semi-unitard or unitard. There are all these options.

Alicia Leotard by Yumiko. Photos: Frank Leusner / Yumiko ©

TBB: Incidentally Daniil Simkin told us a while ago that there was a Yumiko design after him!

Yumi: That’s right, we’ve introduced it in the NY shop, it is not in the catalogue yet, but it’s one of my favourites. It took me about 8 months to come up with a good pattern. It is made of two-colour pieces, you can choose different colours for the top and bottom, it has a triangle shape at the back, a little bit hard to sew but it comes out very nice!

TBB: As a dancer, what are your plans for the future?

Yumi: I am trying to not tell anyone my age but I am quite up there…I was hesitating if I should do another season but I decided to continue because it gives me such pleasure to be on stage, plus the older I get, it becomes easier to dance and I can do so much more research in dance. I don’t know exactly for how long, but I just want to keep doing it for a little bit.

TBB: Are you very selective as you approach this different phase in your career? Do you focus on certain styles in the company’s repertory?

Yumi: Actually my director Aaron [Watkin] has given me options. For instance I don’t dance Sleeping Beauty anymore, nor Coppélia. In Dresden we have lots of choreographers coming in, making new work so there are still different challenges that I get to experience. If I can keep researching new movements and working with different choreographers, that would be great!

Yumiko Takeshima in David Dawson's Giselle. Photo: Costin Radu ©

TBB: Your designs and David Dawson’s ballets look very unique, they are minimalist and modern. How do you see the future of ballet generally, do you see it going the minimalist route or will the past still play a big role?

Yumi: Ballet has developed so much, especially technically and physically, in terms of what people can do these days. So it seems body has taken over the costume bit more, the way I see it. Before this evolution, sets, designs and costumes were a very important part of dancing but now more and more people have started to focus on physical expression and that means the costume has to be simpler in order to suit the individual dancer’s physicality and expression. I think it is helping the movement to come up more, when you do simpler designs.

It also seems that when dancers are more exposed they naturally tend to work harder with their muscles and every part of their body. They know nothing is hidden under a costume so they also discover more movement within themselves, you can see every contour, which is interesting. For instance, Russian dancers, when they join Western companies and they start to do more contemporary choreography they are very exposed, I can see them develop so fast, they really change the approach to their dance, it is incredible to see that.

Yumiko Takeshima's costumes for David Dawson's Giselle, Act 2. Photos: Costin Radu ©

TBB: How do you feel about big stage productions and lavish costumes in ballet?

Yumi: Well you know what, I really like it, personally, I love big productions and costumes in general, like the Swan Lake costumes, I love them. I think they should stay, there should be options…

TBB: Would you ever design a full Swan Lake?

Yumi: I’d love to design for those grand ballets one day.


Yumiko is giving away TWO exclusive Alicia leotards to celebrate the new model launch, in stores from Friday 1 April. Lucky winners will receive made to order pieces in the size they wear.

How to enter:

Use comment form below or email us at theballetbag [at] gmail.com by 21 April and let us know:

What is your favorite ballet costume and why? (add image links if you like)

You can pick any ballet costume, from traditional glitzy tutus to the Forsythe look. Just tell us why that one catches your eye. Entries from all over the globe are welcome. Be creative & good luck!

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Best of Costumes – Our Readers Pick Their Favorites
May 7, 2011 at 1:13 pm

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Katie S. March 27, 2013 at 3:23 am

I’d have to say my favorite costumes are the costumes from Balanchine’s Jewels. All of them are absolutely beautiful! If I had to choose a favorite out of all of them, it would be the Diamonds costumes! The tutus are an exquisite white-cream color, and the bodice is sewn with “diamonds”. The link to the page of costumes is here:

http://oberon481.typepad.com/oberons_grove/2011/06/nycb-jewels-2011-3.html

It was hard to choose a favorite! I also liked the costumes from Houston Ballet’s La Bayadere, as well as any Swanilda costume from Coppelia! It’s so hard to chose!

But in the end, I love all costumes, especially Yumikos! I would love to win one!

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