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Dancewear’s ‘principal’ designer, on stage and off

From leotards to costumes,Yumiko Takeshima creates from her life

by Kris Kosaka

Special To The Japan Times

Growing up in the small town of Ebetsu outside of Sapporo, Yumiko Takeshima discovered ballet at the age of 4. By the time she reached 11, she knew she wanted to be a dancer, although she insists she had no special talent.

“I was never the teacher’s favorite, never awarded a scholarship,” she says. “I just knew I could dance, somehow.”

After encouragement from a visiting ballet teacher from California, Takeshima, then 13, headed to the U.S. West Coast with the aim of joining the San Francisco Ballet School. She was allowed to audition, and although there were no promises or scholarship, she was told she could try the school for six months. “My parents really believed in me,” she explained, “so I always thought of it (the tuition) as a scholarship from my parents.”

Since then, ballet has taken Takeshima all around the world. After training in San Francisco, she danced with the Universal Ballet in Seoul and the Alberta Ballet in Canada before moving to Europe in 1993 to join the Dutch National Ballet. In 2006, she joined the German Semperoper Ballet in Dresden as a principal dancer — the top rung on the ballet ladder.

As established as she is as a dancer, though, another form of creativity has pushed Takeshima even further into the limelight: leotard and costume design.

Coming from a kimono-making family with a history of three generations, it comes as no surprise that Takeshima understands fabrics and design so well. She has childhood memories of dyeing material in the kitchen sink with her father and admiring ornate, gold-shot fabrics in Kyoto alongside her mother. Using artistry gleaned from her heritage and her intimate knowledge of ballet, Takeshima founded YUMIKO, a popular line of tailor-made original dancewear. YUMIKO now boasts a global online store and has boutiques in New York City and Tokyo.

It was in Amsterdam that she first started making dancewear. After sewing curtains and cushions for her new flat, she stumbled upon some leotard material while browsing in a fabric store.

“Sewing-wise, I only knew how to make zokin (floor cloths) and how to thread a sewing machine. But I just kept testing, creating patterns — and I made my first leotard.”

The next day, Takeshima wore her creation to work, and its original design soon attracted the attention of other dancers. Designing and making leotards for her friends quickly became a hobby, but word about her creations spread within the dressing rooms of Europe’s many dance companies. Eventually, she could barely keep up with the demand. Even though she was a full time professional dancer, she often found herself sewing all night after rehearsals.

Takeshima officially started her company in 2002, letting the dancers themselves be her spokespersons. She created an ordering system using “YumiGirls” and “YumiGuys” — dancers enlisted to take custom orders for her leotards within their companies or schools in exchange for discounts on her dancewear.

“Almost all of my designs are inspired by the dancers I have worked with,” she says. “For example, the idea for one popular piece, the Veronique, came from a friend at the Dutch National Ballet. I designed a leotard with a big hole in the back to form a frame to show off her new tattoo.”

From designing dancewear, she naturally moved on to costuming. While she was still dancing with the Dutch National Ballet in 2000, a prominent young British choreographer, David Dawson, asked her to design the costumes for an upcoming production. Since then, Takeshima has worked extensively with Dawson and other choreographers from around the world.

“I learn so much from designing for the stage. Dawson always gives me a major theme, and I have to research and study it. It is very interesting work,” she explains. “The struggle to bring out a choreographer’s intention on stage can be difficult, but because I am a dancer, I know what is possible, and what is safe and what will not get in the way of the dancer — each part inspires the other.”

Though her work was successful in the ballet world, Takeshima’s costume and leotard designs were still, until recently, an insider secret. The release of Darren Aronofsky’s movie “Black Swan,” however, has now exposed her work to the wider public.

“Black Swan” costume designer Amy Westcott saw Takeshima’s designs when observing rehearsals of the American Ballet Theatre and New York City Ballet as part of her research. Dancers repeatedly named ‘Yumis,’ as Takeshima’s leotards are affectionately called in the ballet world, as their favorite dancewear, so in the film, Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis are both seen wearing Takeshima’s designs during the rehearsal scenes. Since the film was released, the ensuing publicity has led to a wider market for her dancewear.

Takeshima now has little time to think about where this boost in publicity could lead. She has just wrapped up performances of “La Bayadere”; her newest leotard design, “The Alicia,” a V-neck leotard inspired by the kimono, has recently premiered in the boutiques; she is starting a new coloring scheme of “dip-dyes” using the same techniques as her father did at the kitchen sink; and she has just finished designing wings for another production with Dawson, this summer’s “timelapse/(Mnemosyne)” in Holland. But the things that keeps her going are her inspirations: her heritage, ballet and, she says, “I feel very lucky to have such support from dancers themselves.”

For more information about YUMIKO, visit global.yumiko-online.com.