Most people in the ballet world know the iconic green, pancake-flat tutus of William Forsythe's The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude (1996). But they might not know that it was principal dancer Stephen Galloway who designed them. For much of his career at Ballett Frankfurt, he was also the company's head costume designer and style coordinator.
Galloway—whose grandmother and great-grandmother were both seamstresses—was always interested in fashion. At 17, the Pennsylvania native headed to Europe for auditions and tried out for Ballett Frankfurt's new director, William Forsythe. It was the perfect match.
Forsythe picked up on his talent for design early on. "I always had an opinion," Galloway recalls. "With Enemy in the Figure, I was the one to say I should only be wearing a pair of white underwear. Or I only want to wear fringes."
Starting in 1990, he began to play an active role in creating costumes for the company, which soon led to becoming head of costume design, at times tasked with creating up to 300 costumes for a performance. "I'd walk into the studio and see a new section being choreographed, have an idea and immediately go upstairs to the costume atelier," he says.
Just like Forsythe's philosophy with movement, Galloway believes in infinite possibilities of design. No fabric and no shape are off-limits. "I never make things thinking this is going to make the dance easier," he says. "That conclusion comes later when, after experimenting, you realize what's not possible."
Once, when making a costume for Alan Barnes, he spotted some wooden planks in the set department and wondered if he could make pants out of them to see how they would either motivate or restrict the movement. They ended up appearing for a brief moment of comic relief during a tense choreographic segment in the ballet Endless House.
When he noticed H&M's colorful T-shirts in 1992, while designing costumes for ALIEN:A(C)TION, he thought, Why not use them? Today, Forsythe and Galloway joke that they were pioneers of putting the streetwear on the ballet stage. "But, if you're gonna buy it you have to change it because otherwise it looks store-bought, and that's a whole other scenario," says Galloway. "If there was a scoop neck, I would scoop it further. I might add a trim or change the sleeves."
When companies around the world restage Forsythe's works, they sometimes expect their production to look exactly like one they've seen before, but Galloway explains they are almost never the same. The essential elements remain, but Galloway redesigns costumes for the dancers in front of him. He doesn't believe in making Xerox copies out of the dancers, but respecting their individuality. "I'm dressing incredible people, and they should be respected as that."
Today, Galloway has expanded his skill set from costume design to choreography. Galloway recently choreographed Christina Aguilera's Hollywood Bowl performance with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, for which he also designed the dancers' costumes. He is now working on a new commission for Boston Ballet to premiere in March 2022. For this, he is also creating both the costume design and choreography—and loving the pressure of full responsibility.
"Every time I go into a studio or a costume department, I am reminded of the rules of curiosity that have been so deeply instilled in me," he says. "Always ask questions. Know everything and nothing at the same time. That's where my happy spot is: right in the middle."