Tutus seamless for seamstress

Columbia Dance volunteer’s talent for making tutus earns honor

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About 75 hours of painstaking work, layers of tulle and netting, rows of hook-and-eye closures, appliqués, ribbons and Swarovski crystals go into each tutu Brenda Smith makes for Columbia Dance as a volunteer costumer.

“There’s a real art to it,” said Smith, a Columbia Dance board member.

Smith has made 16 or so classical tutus for the Vancouver nonprofit organization since she first took up the craft about five years ago. She’s also made many of the longer, simpler romantic tutus.

Her passion for costuming has been an inspiration for her daughter, Nicole Smith, a former Columbia Dance Company member who helps her mother with designs.

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Nicole, Columbia Dance and its students have long appreciated the fruits of Smith’s efforts, but recently the Vancouver resident received national recognition for her workmanship.

Smith’s Black Swan tutu was chosen out of 176 entries as one of two winners in tutu.com’s tutu-making competition. The contest comes in conjunction with the USA International Ballet Competition, an event that happens every four years and is likened to the Olympics of ballet.

Smith’s tutu will be modeled in two fashion shows at the dance competition this week. Columbia Dance has raised the money to send Smith to Jackson, Miss., to see her creation on the runway. She’ll also receive a tutu-making kit from tutu.com valued at $200.

Smith actually submitted three tutus for the contest. One that didn’t win, a lavender creation, is in fact her favorite. The judges, though, preferred a black tutu Smith made in 2008 for former Columbia Dance Company member Lia Mrazek. Mrazek wore the tutu when she performed the “Black Swan Pas de Deux” from the Tchaikovsky ballet “Swan Lake.”

The Black Swan design is a classical tutu with a flat, stiff, pancake-style skirt. It has a boned satin bodice embellished with appliqués, black feathers and at least 30 Swarovski crystals. No other crystals catch the light as well on stage, Smith has found.

“They sparkle,” she said. “Shopping for embellishments is like shopping for candy for me.”

Smith didn’t expect her tutu to win when she learned she was one of six finalists. Other entries were made by professional costume designers specifically for the contest, and therefore didn’t have the wear and tear hers did, Smith said.

But the judges, tutu designers from around the country, were drawn to the jet-black creation.

“I think that the dramatic elegance of Brenda’s tutu is what caught the judges’ eye,” said Claudia Folts. She wasn’t a judge in the contest but is a tutu designer and a co-founder of the Charlotte, N.C.-based online tutu and tutu supply company tutu.com. “I also liked the way she used the Swarovski crystals to accent her design.”

Finding inspiration

Tutu-making has been a journey for Smith, and she says her tutus now are much better than her earliest efforts.

Smith, who’s not a dancer herself, started making tutus after seeing the costumes Nicole would wear.

“She was my inspiration, more or less,” said Smith, 48, who works as a commercial mortgage closer for National Mortgage Co. in Portland. “When she started wearing all these pretty costumes, I thought, ‘I’ve got to learn how to make these.’”

Smith has been sewing since childhood and is a member of the American Sewing Guild. Even with all that expertise, she didn’t jump right in with tutus when she decided to try her hand at costuming.

“Tutus kind of scared me in the beginning,” she recalled, “because they’re so difficult.”

Smith started out in the early 2000s making party dresses for the opening scene of “The Nutcracker.” From 2004 to 2009, she was the costume mistress for Columbia Dance. She still makes a custom tutu for Columbia Dance’s auction each year.

Smith made her first tutu in the mid 2000s, but it wasn’t until she got laid off from a job in the mortgage industry that she really had the time to take her passion to the next level.

She and Nicole signed up for a weeklong Oregon Ballet Theatre tutu-making workshop in 2007 led by Pacific Northwest Ballet costume designer Victoria McFall. There, Smith made the lavender tutu she entered in the tutu.com contest and gained the instruction she needed to hone her craft.

“Now I really know how to make them,” she said. Before the workshop she’d relied largely on instructional books by Folts and tutu.com patterns.

The workshop was pivotal for Nicole, 20, as well. She decided that, rather than dance, she wanted to pursue costume designing as a career.

“I really like looking at the costumes from far away, under the lights, with the music,” she said. “It really makes the picture complete.”

Nicole created an emerald-green classical tutu for her junior project at the Vancouver School of Arts and Academics. It took her 100 hours to make. For her senior project, Nicole made more than a dozen costumes for female dancers and two vests for men for Columbia Dance Company’s 2008 spring gala.

Nicole recently completed her sophomore year at Washington State University in Pullman, where she is studying apparel design. She’s helping her mother with tutu designs and is able to offer her perspective as a dancer.

“She knows what they should feel like, what they should look like,” Brenda said.

Nicole entered her green tutu in the tutu.com contest, and though it wasn’t a finalist, she’s very happy for her mother.

“She works really hard on them,” Nicole said.

Jan Hurst, Columbia Dance artistic director, shared that sentiment.

“She’s a fabulous tutu maker, and I’m delighted she’s received recognition for her talent,” said Hurst. The tutus Smith has made for Columbia Dance are “priceless,” she added.

Part of that value comes from the pride the students take in wearing custom designs.

“If you feel really pretty and special, you tend to dance better,” Hurst said.

Working with the students and helping them look and feel beautiful is what Smith enjoys most about her work.

“It’s fun to see the final product on the dancers on stage,” she said. “They feel beautiful, and if (the tutus) are made well, they feel comfortable and can just concentrate on their dancing.”

Mary Ann Albright: maryann.albright@columbian.com, 360-735-4507.