Monday, December 21, 2009

Q&A with Dance Program Costume Designer Cyndi Church

In September 2009, Cyndi Church joined Emory as Costume Designer and Coordinator for the Dance Program and Costume Assistant for Theater Emory. She answered a few questions for us about her background and about designing for dance. (image above: costumes designed by Cyndi for the November 2009 Emory Dance Company Concert)

What did you do in the costume design field before beginning your job at Emory?
Prior to Emory I was designing for a company, LEA Sports, that outfits color guards, percussion ensembles, competition dance teams, and ice skaters.

Tell me a little about your background - how did you decide to go into costume design as a career?
When I was a young girl I envisioned that some day I would design window store fronts. Of course being a dreamer I only envisioned doing this for huge fabulous stores in major downtown areas. I am not sure when or why I saw myself designing these store fronts but it seemed to be a good fit for me because I would be able to design and control the space.

I was involved in the color guard activity since a very young age and began to give my opinion on what the designers had us wear for performances. Later I began to choreograph for high school color guards so as a part of that I was able to be the one to design the garments for my own productions. Early on I had some really grand ideas and some big flops but it was all a great experience for me. After a few years I started getting asked by other directors to design for their groups. I worked on a project along with a company called LEA Sports and by the end of that collaboration I was hired by them to design for a national clientele.

Why did you choose to design for dance rather than theater?
I enjoy the freedom that designing for dance allows because most projects are about creating a whole new design rather than re-creating. How garments fit the moving body is always a fun challenge. I also believe that where costuming for dance is going is exciting right now. There is a real wave of innovation and creativity that seems to be elevating the whole dance concert experience for the audience.

Tell me a little about your work for color guard (and explain what color guard is for those who don¹t know). (image at left: color guard costumes designed by Cyndi)
Explaining color guard is always a challenge; many have the old military style with high boots girls marching in back of a band image in their head when they hear the term color guard. The color guard activity has really grown over the years and taken a much more dance based approach. What is now called "Winter Guard" are groups, either high school age or collegiate, performing/competing in indoor arenas across the country. There is an organization called Winter Guard International that hosts contests around the world and each year in the spring hosts the World Championships. Groups from all over compete over a week long competition. Most spectators not familiar with Winter Guard are amazed at the depth of creativity and excellence that these groups are producing.

I began at the age of 9 years old with a independent color guard group and stayed with it as a participant for 13 years. At age 21 the participants "age out" so I moved on to choreographing for groups. I have been doing this ever since. Currently I am the Director of the Color Guard program at Walton High School in Marietta. I have been there for 14 years. The group is competitive on a national level and back in 2001 won the WGI World Championships. When designing a production for the group I always start with the costume and set design; everything else comes after. I have to see the look of the production in my head first.

What are the challenges in working with choreographers and designing for dance?
Challenges are fun to work through for me; I get energized when the project requires a lot out of me. Many times a choreographer may not think they know what they want but in talking with them I can usually hear what they are wanting even if they don't actually realize it.

What inspires you when you are designing costumes? What do you try to convey to audiences through your designs?
So much inspires me that it is hard to really say, but fashion, all forms of the arts, environment, and architecture all come into play. When there is a piece of work that has my costume designs as a part of it I want it to be just that, a part of the whole aesthetic. In most cases I wouldn't want it to pull focus or disrupt unless that was the objective of the project, maybe intellectually. I have had opportunities where I was able to design the costumes first and then the body of work comes to life.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Olé! Q&A with Flamenco Instructor Julie Baggenstoss

Julie Baggenstoss is on our faculty this year, teaching a course called Dances and Dance Forms. This course features a different dance form each year (past forms include West African dance and Kuchipudi from India), and this year's form is Flamenco. Julie (pictured) answered a few questions for us about her experience and about Flamenco as a dance form.

How long have you been involved with flamenco dance and what drew you to it?
I have been involved with flamenco dance for 13 years. I was first drawn to flamenco by chance. After dancing all of my life, I wanted to try a different form when I was in my early 20s. I opened the Yellow Pages and saw a choice of belly dance or flamenco. I chose the latter, most likely because during my teenage years, I had been introduced to “Spanish tap,” the men's footwork portion of Mexican folkloric dance. The rhythms and use of the feet were interesting to me, initially.

Where and with whom did you study flamenco? Are you still studying?
My first teacher was Teresa Romero Torkanowsky, in New Orleans. I've also studied with Ulrika Frank in Atlanta, as well as a number of teachers in Spain. Some of my most influential teachers in Spain are Manuela Reyes, for her outstanding technique class, and Soraya Clavijo for her edgy style and instruction in improvisational dance. I currently study with teachers who offer workshops in the United States. I am studying flamenco singing now more than dance, but I am still studying dance. Most recently, I've been learning from New York-based dancer La Meira; Antonio Hidalgo, who does everything in flamenco, from dance to direct music to produce; and Marija Temo, who teaches singing, guitar, and dance as a whole flamenco package.

A few years ago, you were featured in People magazine as someone who made a career change to “follow your dream.” Tell me a little more about your life before your flamenco career and why you made the switch.
I was a television and Web writer, producer, and manager. The hours were long and often demanded my holidays. As I got older, I wanted more flexibility with my schedule. Trading full-time work for contract work gave me the opportunity to travel to Spain to develop my ability in flamenco. The more I learned, the more I realized that it would be possible to pursue a passion and make a living, albeit on a lower salary level then my previous career.

How does flamenco benefit your students—what do they gain from learning the art form?
Flamenco is beneficial on several levels, because it is deep and wide. There are the usual benefits, such as physical activity, mental exercise, and personal confidence. Much of flamenco takes place in the Spanish language, and students learn at least some Spanish vocabulary to communicate in class or understand song lyrics. Then, there is exposure to cultural differences. Flamenco is flamenco because of its influences: Spanish, Jewish, Indo-Pakistani, Moorish, and African cultures, all tied together by the gypsy lifestyle and its values, which are in opposition to many mores in the United States of America. Despite the cultural differences, many people who study flamenco realize that the emotional expression on which the art is based, transcends the gypsy experience that first gave rise to songs, dance, and music hundreds of years ago. Through this, students relate the experiences of people in another part of the world to their own lives. They learn about themselves, their own emotions, and perhaps get to express them through art.

How are you involved with flamenco in the Atlanta community (teaching, performances, etc.), and how can people interested in learning flamenco find classes or local performances?
I am involved in a number of projects and small businesses in Atlanta that produce and promote flamenco. I am a member of AIRE Flamenco, a live flamenco cuadro that performs throughout the Southeastern United States. I teach classes to the public at Several Dancers Core in downtown Decatur. And, I present national and international flamenco artists in workshops and performances in Atlanta. Information about the events that I organize and others can be found at Atlanta's flamenco website,

Are there any interesting facts/trivia about flamenco that you can share?
At its root, flamenco is an improvised art form. It began when gypsies sang out to express emotion hundreds of years ago when no one was recording history in a journal. It wasn't until the late 19th century that flamenco was presented on stage, and the public, non-gypsies that is, became introduced to this fascinating art form. Since then, flamenco has evolved and exists in two arenas: the original form of flamenco that is still improvised and takes place only at parties and private settings; and, the public presentation of flamenco on stage, with costumes, lights, and lightning-fast footwork. No matter in which setting you experience flamenco, you'll hear the performers and audience members shouting “Olé,” “Toma que toma,” “Vamos aya.” These are what we call a "jaleos," cheers of encouragement that are part of the exchange of emotional expression. So, when you're attending a flamenco performance, listen for these cheers. And, if they come from the person sitting next to you in the audience, don't worry; shouting at the performers is proper theater etiquette for flamenco.