When Christen Heilman Runyon, who works in the costume shop for Nashville Ballet, sits back after a long session at the sewing machine, she sometimes notices red marks all along the inside of her arm.
“Tutu burn,” she says.
It’s an occupational hazard.
Yes, that bouncy, floaty cloud of fluff around a ballerina’s waist is far tougher than it looks. Tulle, the fabric used for the part of a ballet costume that distinguishes it from a mere fancy leotard, has a rough texture. A tutu-maker manipulates at least 22 yards of the material into tight little ruffles to create a tutu. It might be done on a machine, or it could be sewn by hand, but either way requires a great deal of handling and contact with that scratchy tulle.
Creating a tutu takes intense focus, but the finished product never fails to delight.
“Once you’ve done all of the work and you get to see a dancer put it on and you can see them fall in love, it’s a beautiful moment,” says Christen. “It’s magical.”
Sew very much
As Nashville Ballet prepares for the October 17-19 presentation of the classical ballet “Swan Lake,” Christen will see many a tutu pass through the costume shop.
“Feathers! There will be lots of feathers for ‘Swan Lake,’” she says with a laugh.
But since she first started working there, she’s had a hand in sewing a variety of costumes: kicky kid stuff, sexy body-huggers and dreamy, flowing dance frocks.
Many costumes get used over multiple seasons, so a good deal of her time is spent on alterations for dancers, repair and general maintenance. But she does get the chance to create some costumes from scratch.
“One very cool piece was ‘… but the flowers have yet to come’ and the costume shop got to work directly with the choreographer,” she says. “The shop supervisor at the time, Billy Ditty, designed the show, and I was his first hand, which meant that I was involved in a lot of the construction. It was the first time I got to watch a piece and say, ‘Wow, I’ve had a hand on everything on that stage.’ It was a really neat moment.”
Christen was also in charge of costuming the Lost Boys in “Peter Pan,” working closely with another shop manager and the costume designer from New York. She outfitted the adorably raggedy bunch in jagged knee-length cut-offs, furs and feathers and hats and belts.
“When they hit the stage on opening night — I don’t have children, but in some ways it was like my baby was up there,” she says.
A practical transition
Before she began creating ballet costumes, Christen was performing in them. Always attracted to theater and dance, she saw a performance by the Ballet Trocadero de Monte Carlo and felt inspired.
“They were fabulous and let me know that ballet could be well-done but funny at the same time,” she says. “I like the idea of taking something that you love so much and do so well and then play with that.”
She took dance lessons starting at 12, though not at the high level she aspired to. At 16, an advanced age to begin serious ballet study, she found the dance instructor she needed.
“I take everything I do seriously, so I was all in right away,” says the Toledo, Ohio, native. “At 17, I started attending a performing arts school. When I was 18, I moved to New York City to dance with the Ballet Hispanico training division.”
Eventually Christen decided to return to Ohio to attend college, where she naturally studied theater. One of her classes, Period Style and Form, offered students the option of submitting a project rather than writing a paper. She decided that she would reproduce part of the Bayeux Tapestry, a huge embroidered cloth that tells the story of the Norman conquest of England.
That’s when she discovered the joys of sewing, and there was no stopping her. She formed a historical performing group and made the costumes for it. About that time she met her husband, who also sews because he does historical interpretations. They began working on museum replicas together.
“There are a lot of places where historical clothing, particularly from the 19th century, overlaps with ballet construction,” she says. “The techniques are very similar for theater and civil war clothing. Back then they were very frugal and looked for ways to use the same piece of clothing over time, which is what we look at for theater and dance costumes, too. You have to construct it in a way that you can easily change the size for another actor or dancer. And it has to
Ultimately the sewing and dancing came together. Christen made her own dance costumes to save money, learning each step from a book by Claudia Folts, a dancer-turned-tutu construction expert. The tutu itself is a complex project, but the rest of the costume requires just as much creativity and attention to detail. A bodice and plate must be constructed and adorned with appliques, rhinestones, feathers, embroidery or more.
Just as she threw her full effort into succeeding in dance as a teenager, Christen now studied and sewed, learning from her mistakes and becoming proficient in the art of tutu construction.
When her husband got a job in Nashville, she immediately contacted Nashville Ballet.
“Why not start at the top?” she reasons.
Still learning, also teaching
In addition to her work as an independent contractor for the Ballet’s costume shop, Christen teaches at DancEast. Most of her classes are for children, but she’s instructed adults also. No matter the age, she revels in their enthusiasm for dance.
“Children have a sense of wonder, with no expectations, and are ready to do anything. Adults frequently begin with some trepidation but are also so excited to be there. They’ve donned what I call the ‘spandex superhero suit’ and made it out the door and into class, which is the hardest part. The adult classes are made up of different skill levels, from those who have never danced before to somebody who was a professional dancer years ago. But everyone comes at it with an open heart and open mind,” she says.
That mindset reflects Christen’s own approach to new experiences and opportunities. She knows that there is always something more to learn, and she makes the effort to master the next step.
“Tutus are very important to the craft of ballet and the construction has changed very little over time,” she says. “So it is a very particular skill set, and being my passion, it is one I’ve continued to learn more and more about.”
This summer, she traveled to Charlotte, North Carolina, to immerse herself in an Advanced Tutu course — taught by Claudia Folts.
“She has such a vast pool of knowledge. It was really special to take classes with her and to show her the tutu that I made following the instructions in her book,” she says. “I can say I got to study with the woman who literally wrote the book.”