Christine Joly de Lotbiniere, lifts and dips a pair of men’s trousers from an 80-gallon stainless steel vat in the tiny hot dyeing room at Pacific Northwest Ballet.

The vat is the kind of big industrial cauldron used in soup kitchens. For the dyeing process, the water can reach  up to 250°. It is stirred with long wooden paddles.

Subtle iridescencec birdwing color, wink from her hair. Christine talks easily, quickly, and very articulately as she tints men’s pants for the premiere Friday night (Jan 14, 2011) of Annabelle Ochoa Lopez’s Cylindrical Shadows. The garments are dyed one at a time, three or four times each, every round adding a layer of color to bring them to the shades pinned up in the dyeing room, where each dancer has a palette of four related tones.

First a basic color is established. Then the piece is dipped again, first bottom up, then top down to get the desired gradations of shades. It’s different for every piece of clothing.


Before anything goes into the vat, it must be preshrunk and the fabric tested for how it takes the dye. (All the dyes used in this process are chemical ones.) Each piece has to be washed thoroughly in the machine after each tinting, to remove every bit of residual dye, and the vat has to be totally cleaned and rinsed out as well to avoid muddiness of color.

As garments to be used by dancers, they must fit beautifully, move in every possible direction, and have a certain amount of stretch so they will keep their shape. They will of course need to be washed again and again after use, as well. Normally, Christine likes to dye the fabric first, but the timing was such that only the women’s dress fabric for Shadows—gauzy with chiffon at the hem—could be done that way. The men’s shirts were to be dyed the morning after the day Kim Bamberg and I visited, so her pictures were of their pristine, undyed state.


Ideally, depending on resources available, Christine loves to assemble a different team to work on each dance piece. She worked on these costumes with a long-time associate, April McCoy, who built them over the holidays from her own workshop in Boston. The two women have known each other a long time and both know all the technical aspects of construction.

On Facebook last October, Christine wrote about her design process:

Choosing colors can be a difficult task, it relies as much on visual processing skills as it does on personal artistic license. So much is based on appearance . . . think of color in food, how it is often used to determine the ripeness of fruit and is one of the most visible characteristics of raw and/or cured meats. I find that in costume design work, color choice and particularly chromatic contrasts is the fundamental thing that drives attention.

“So today my task is to commit to a color palette then refine. Routine work that starts with chromatic arrangements. The exercise goes like this: I work through a chosen color palette chromatically, I then differentiate the shades of color, refine the color composition by discarding, and hopefully end up with a color palette that shares similar values and chroma. It sometimes works, and often doesn’t but ultimately the process reinforces the vocabulary (dark, light, comparative and superlative)”

But working on the costumes for Annabelle’s Shadows, she got a kind of block, “like a donkey digging in its heels.” This had never happened to her before. Cylindrical Shadows, she says, is so deep and layered, “so profound and so full” of levels of emotion, story, movement. What was already there felt complete. It seemed that everything was too much. She is quite allergic to the obvious, more interested in gestural movement and subtext than surface glitter. “I’ve always found that the simpler stuff underpromises and overdelivers,” she wrote. And she says, “Simplicity is very hard. You have to think about shape, color, form, the minutiae of what you put on the dancer—everything seemed to be gilding the lily.”Another complicating factor is the way the process was spread out over a number of months.

The palette was strong, primary.


Christine got over the blockage, but it all took time. “You also need to speak to the dancers, the choreographer and think of what the audience will see. There’s a selflessness needed to it—a putting oneself aside, in another’s shoes.” (A reason why dress designers who design dance costumes don’t necessarily have the right qualities, she adds in an aside, is that “it’s much less a question of a statement about themselves than a runway show is.”)

Throughout, Christine did not want the costumes for this piece to be “costumy.” Rather—I guess you might say—they must clothe the ideas danced out onstage. The palette somewhat muted, layered, though the colors perhaps still retain some of the rawness of loss? But in the unadorned and harmonious shapes of the garments the goal of design simplicity has been met.

Christine Joly de Lotbiniere has designed costumes for theatre, dance, opera, television and print advertising in Europe, the United States, Asia and Canada. Her extensive work in designing for dance include designs for Spectrum Dance Theater, The National Ballet of Canada, The Pacific Northwest Ballet, Ballet British Columbia, The Abai State Theatre of Opera and Ballet, Goteborgs Operan Ballet, The Joffrey Ballet, Seattle Dance Project, Atlanta Ballet, The Boston Ballet, Colorado Ballet, plus numerous companies and performance artists throughout the world. Her painted and dyed garment designs as well as her finished renderings are a notable feature of her work. She has experience across other platforms – she is a textile dyer and colorist as well as an artist, illustrator and graphic designer for print advertising and packaging. Her aesthetics reveal her Swiss and Canadian roots – on the Swiss side, Christine is a firm believer in clean, elegant design solutions – on the Canadian side, she advocates for design that is both passionate and grounded.

Above bio courtesy of Spectrum Dance Theater.

Photos by Kim & Adam Bamberg:

now a week or so off, then e whims will be back with more posts, profiles and photographs…