If anyone has ever attended any production by Company XIV, you are immediately dumbstruck by the seamless melding of dance, music, costumes, and set design. Though artistic director Austin McCormick is solely responsible for brilliant choreography that incorporates movement elements from Baroque dance, classical ballet, modern dance, and burlesque, Zane Pihlstrom is the guiding force behind the set design and costumes that helps brings Austin McCormick’s concepts to life on stage.
And he has a tough job. McCormick’s choreography though grounded in the Baroque dance necessities of grande rond de jambe parterre, petit allegro, and quick petit batterie is also injected with hard Graham falls and recoveries, angular grande battement, and sizzle and pop Burlesque disrobing. Zane Pihlstrom has to design and maintain costumes that stand up to this activity. An arduous tasks indeed, but Philstrom is more than up for the challenge.
While Company XIV was in season with their controversial and titillating “Nutcracker Rouge,” Zane Pihlstrom spoke with Fashion Reverie about his love of dance, costume design and the melding of beauty with the absurd.
Fashion Reverie: How did you first become involved in fashion and set design?
Zane Pihlstrom: When I was a little kid I would stage productions with my dolls and toys. I would make up lives for imaginary people. When I was nine or ten I converted my family’s barn into a little baroque theater or what I thought a baroque theater looked like at that age. My friends and I would make plays and design costumes. I just of kind of always knew what I wanted to do as an adult.
FR: Do you any formal training in set and costume design?
Zane Pihlstrom: I attended McGill University in Toronto where I studied set design ,and for graduate school I attended the Yale School of Drama.
FR: Who are your favorite costume/fashion designers?
Zane Pihlstrom: I love Vivienne Westwood and Alexander McQueen. Everything that they do looks like you could pluck it off the runway and put it into a Greek tragedy. I am also inspired by the photography of Ken Blocker. With one image, he can capture and detail an entire story.
FR: How would you describe your design aesthetic?
Zane Pihlstrom: My design aesthetic is different depending of the production. When it comes to Company XIV, I draw on vintage burlesque. The aesthetic of Company XIV really comes from the artistic and creative director Austin McCormick, and I just kind of build from his perspective and point of view. There is a lot of burlesque and Austin’s choreography is influenced by French baroque court dance, as well as classical ballet, modern dance, and jazz. So, I always look at the shape and silhouettes of French baroque dance and that era and incorporate it into the costumes.
FR: How did you first become affiliated with Company XIV?
Zane Pihlstrom: About seven or eight years ago when Company XIV was still located in Brooklyn, Austin McCormick asked me if I would work with him. I was suggested to Austin through a mutual friend. He asked me if I would work on Company XIV’s production of “The Judgment of Paris.” We worked really well together and Company XIV is my favorite company to work with.
FR: You have seen Company XIV’s design aesthetic evolve from “The Judgment of Paris” to “Le Serpent Rouge” to “Nutcracker Rouge.” How has your design aesthetic evolved with the company?
Zane Pihlstrom: I work with the company so frequently so that even I work with other companies I am drawn to the same principles found at Company XIV. We started off imitating what we thought European costume and set designers were doing.
We were looking for more experimental ways of telling stories that was seen in our earlier work. Now, we pretty much know the tools that we need to tell a story, and we are probably a little less experimental now.
FR: There seems to be this seamless melding of music, sets, costume and design in Company XIV’s productions. How do you achieve this?
Zane Pihlstrom: I work very closely with Austin and he is also very flexible. If there’s something within the design that isn’t working, Austin will often find a way to adjust things. It seems that he can accommodate any design idea.
FR: What was the design concept behind “Nutcracker Rouge”?
Zane Pihlstrom: We wanted a “Nutcracker” that was fresh and current so we used a light of neon and special effects. We also wanted a dance hall vibe from the turn of the century. So, in this production of the “Nutcracker” you get a marriage of those two disparate points of view.
FR: This revamped production of “Nutcracker Rouge” has evolved. Why did you make some changes?
Zane Pihlstrom: There were some practical reasons. We are now in a smaller, more permanent space. And with this new permanent space, we have the opportunity to evolve several of our older productions.
FR: How many productions have you worked on with Company XIV and which one is your favorite?
Zane Pihlstrom: I have worked with Company XIV for over eight years and I worked on about 15 productions from children’s shows to productions with adult themes to operatic productions. Our early productions were in a warehouse in Brooklyn right off the Gowanus Canal. So, from those early productions we have figured out what works.
My favorite shows are the ones that combine beauty and decadence. That said; “Le Serpent Rouge” was my favorite production because there is a wonderful synergy of decadence and beauty.
FR: What is the challenge of making costumes for a dance company that incorporates such a variety of movement forms?
Zane Pihlstrom: This is perhaps the most challenging kind of work I will ever do. The combination of graceful movement combined with forceful, frenzied movement is difficult because we use a lot of period costumes that in its construction and form be quite fragile. But, the beauty in this assemblage of different movement forms is that juxtaposition of grace married with violent, chaotic movement and having costumes that support that.
It is tricky to keep the clothing in its period shape and then add in the element of Burlesque where you are seductively taking clothes off. Over the years, we have learned all the tricks of Velcro and fake zippers it!!
FR: What’s next for you?
Zane Pihlstrom: I am worked next with Yana Ross on a Russian political play that will have 100 live dogs on stage. Imagine that!!
—William S. Gooch