Yuka Silvera’s Candy Cane Couture

Yuka Silvera's Dancing Peppermints
Yuka Silvera’s Dancing Peppermints

By Annette Hinkle

This weekend, when the Hampton Ballet Theatre School presents its annual performance of the Nutcracker, all eyes in Guild Hall’s John Drew Theater will be on the 100 or so dancers — some as young as three — who will have their moment to shine in the spotlight.

But also having a starring role will be the spectacular costumes which the young dancers will wear. From Snow Queens and Spice Angels, to dancers with deliciously evocative names such as Spanish Chocolate, Russian Peppermint and Chinese Tea, the vast array of colorfully clever costumes are the vision of one very talented and imaginative costume designer — Yuka Silvera.

Over the course of the last seven years, Ms. Silvera, who lives in East Hampton, has worked with Sara Jo Strickland, founder of the Hampton Ballet Theatre School, to design and construct costumes for the production. It’s taken a years of hard work and lots of sewing, but HBTS now has a full wardrobe collection to work with when show time rolls around — not just for this production, but for the spring and summer ballets as well.

“I’m really grateful to Miss Sara,” says Ms. Silvera. “She has a great vision and we share the same taste. We don’t like glittery, cheap costumes. We can’t stand them.”

“Miss Sara is investing in my costumes. Mostly I design and make everything from scratch — people call it couture costumes,” she adds. “I think they’re happy because you don’t usually see that.”

As you might imagine, the weeks leading up to the Nutcracker are especially frantic for Ms. Silvera, who is not only busy adjusting costumes from previous years for the dancers who will be wearing them this time around, but is also hard at work making new costumes for the production.

“Because the school is expanding, we have to add costumes every year,” explains Ms. Silvera. “We have set costumes and sometimes Miss Sara will add characters according to the age of the level of the dancers.”

“This year we’re adding a Snow King, so I’m making that and also adding a Sugar Plum Fairy and a Cavalier Pair,” says Ms. Silvera.

design for Russian Candy Cane
design for Russian Candy Cane

It may be a lot of work, but Ms. Silvera, who began her career in fashion as a student at the Vantan Design Institute in Tokyo, wouldn’t have it any other way. When she arrived in New York more than two decades ago, Ms. Silvera studied fashion design and theatrical costume design at the Fashion Institute of Technology. Though she worked in New York as a pattern maker and dress designer at a bridal couture shop, it was always her dream to pursue a career in costume design.

Since moving to the East End in 2003 with her husband, Todd, Ms. Silvera has been able to make that dream a reality. In addition to HBTS, Ms. Silvera has designed costumes for Guild Hall, Round Table Theater Company, East Hampton Historical Society Repertoire at Mulford Theater, Neo Political Cowgirls, Young American Writers Projects at Stony Brook Southampton and the Ross School.

For Ms. Silvera, the most challenging part of designing costumes for the performing arts — particularly dance — is making something that is both beautiful and delicate, yet comfortable and durable enough to stand up to the demands of the movement.

“It has to be strong enough to hold up and they have to be able to dance comfortably,” says Ms. Silvera. “I think because of my fashion background, what I create is always fashion forward. I personally like edgy style and add it whenever I can and it’s appropriate. Miss Sara is such a fun person, we like to add some humor in it also. It’s classic, but I like humor.”

Moving up to the next level as a dancer in the Nutcracker is a rite of passage for HBTS dancers, and Ms. Silvera’s costumes are a big part of the excitement.

“I think they look forward to wearing the next level of costume,” says Ms. Silvera. “The great thing about HBTS, they give the dancers a big job and they work so hard and the parents have to commit so much. So I think they are so happy to wear the costumes they’ve been watching the older girls wearing.”

When it comes to costume design, one of the biggest considerations for a dance or theater group is budget — and the importance of keeping it in check. As challenging as it can be, Ms. Silvera finds it advantageous to have parameters to keep the vision — and the cost — in check.

“I think it’s actually a good thing so I can narrow down my ideas which I get from many places, such as Vogue magazine, characters in films or colors that I like at the time,” she says. “Sometimes, I can’t decide what I want and I take long time playing with the materials on a dress form.”

“But when my heart jumps, I know what is going to look great,” she adds.

Though in the early days, she used to stay up in the nights leading up to the first Nutcracker dress rehearsal, in recent years, Ms. Silvera has learned to let others involved in HBTS lend a hand.

“Now we’ve got so many dancers, we ask professional sewers to help sometimes and many wonderful volunteer moms are helping us with fittings, organizing small groups and hand sewing for size adjustments,” she explains. “I am so grateful for the moms and my kind friends. I couldn’t have done any shows without their generous help.”

Ms. Silvera is especially thankful to the woman who gave her the opportunity to pursue her dreams of costume design in the first place — Ms. Strickland, or Miss Sara as her young performers call her.

“I feel fortunate that Miss Sara trusted me from the start, giving me the opportunity to show my work to the world,” says Ms. Silvera. “She appreciates it. I wouldn’t be here if she didn’t love and invest in the costumes that I created.”

The Hampton Ballet Theatre School’s sixth annual production of Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker” is Friday, December 12, 2014  at 7 p.m., Saturday, December 13 at 1 p.m. and 7 p.m. and Sunday, December 14 at 2 p.m. at Guild Hall’s John Drew Theater, 158 Main Street, East Hampton. Advanced tickets are $25 and $20 for children under 12 ($30/$25 day of performance). To reserve tickets call 1-888-933-4287 or visit hamptonballettheatreschool.com. For information on HBTS call 237-4810.