Nighthawks costume designs take inspiration from Atlanta street art

Abigail Dupree-Polston

Abigail Dupree-Polston, costume designer for world premiere, Nighthawks, has come a long way since making her first wearable garment when she was just eight years old. Having worked in both ballet and opera, designing for works such as Kin for the San Francisco Ballet and The Source for the Miami City Ballet, Abigail is delighted to be creating once again with Atlanta Ballet Choreographer-in-Residence Claudia Schreier. In the second of our three-part series focusing on the artistic collaboration for Nighthawks, Abigail talks about her costume design vision and creative process, the delight of collaborating with Atlanta muralist Charity Hamidullah, and the special creative relationship she shares with Claudia Schreier.

Did you always want to become a costume designer?

I loved costumes from a very early age, in fact I was fascinated by them and spent a lot of time sewing and researching historical clothing, materials and construction. I studied fashion design at the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) and got my first taste of designing for the arts as an intern for the costume shop at the Alliance Theatre. While that planted a seed for the future, I did take an early detour, designing children’s wear for Carter’s, womenswear for a smaller gift company, and tailoring, children’s wear, and professional cycling apparel for a number of small companies.

I didn’t realize the possibilities of a costume career until a little later in life. One day, a friend mentioned to me that the Atlanta Opera was looking for a cutter/draper – effectively a patternmaker who also runs the construction side of a costume shop – and I was delighted to get the job. I immediately fell in love with the role; working on new designs every couple of months, collaborating with talented stitchers and makers, and seeing all the work culminate in beautiful, moving stage productions was addictive. I ultimately joined Atlanta Ballet as a patternmaker in 2019.

You often work closely with Claudia Schreier on costume designs for her world premieres – Pleiades Dances, Fauna and Carnivale at Atlanta Ballet to-date - and appear to share a special creative relationship. Can you tell us more?

In 2020, after the world shut down and we spent a summer making masks and hospital gowns, the costume shop was given the opportunity to handle the designs for some of the pieces that Atlanta Ballet was producing to be filmed during the 2020-2021 season. At that point, Colleen McGonegle, head of the Atlanta Ballet costume shop, looped me in to work with her on Claudia’s world premiere, Pleiades Dances. I was able to help design the unitards which Colleen then painted for that piece and will forever be grateful for that opportunity. The next season, as theaters were opening again, Claudia asked me to design costumes for The Source, a piece she was developing for the Miami City Ballet. I had just discovered I was expecting my first child with a due date of opening night, but Claudia wasn’t fazed at all by this news. She was game and off we went. We soon discovered a joy of working together and haven’t looked back since.

And here we are again with Nighthawks! How did your visual art collaboration with Charity Hamidullah come about?

Claudia had a few specifics in mind when we first started talking about Nighthawks. She was creating a piece that spoke to the nature of the city in general, and Atlanta in particular. She knew she wanted the costumes to feel more like street clothes rather than traditional ballet costumes, and for there to be a certain amount of visual texture to complement the music of Wynton Marsalis’ The Jungle. As we were debating print and pattern, I floated the idea of using a local Atlanta street artist as a literal way to bring the city walls into the piece. The idea really resonated, so I started searching for a local artist, in particular one with a bold, graphic style who could also be stylistically flexible, as we would be adapting the art into garments. Charity Hamidullah’s work immediately stood out so we were incredibly excited when she said yes!

What was your design vision and creative process for the costumes, from concept to delivery?

The clothes needed to feel eminently wearable; a look that you might see walking down the street, but elevated and coordinated for a company on stage. The design lines I arrived at were sporty and fun, with simplified construction details. These then became an uncluttered canvas for the artwork that Charity was working on at the same time in this process.

As soon as we knew that we were going to collaborate with an artist and have the art printed on fabric, Colleen joined me in hunting for fabric printers. We have printed custom fabrics for ballets in the past, but this time engaged a new company, Contrado, based in the UK. We were impressed with the vibrancy and clarity of the company’s fabric swatches and the print readiness of a wide range of fabric types.

Once Charity had completed her artwork, we met to talk about how they worked within the costumes. After a few minor adjustments, the files were sent to the printer for a color test. We created a costume mock-up out of the test material to confirm the mechanical qualities (amount of stretch, etc.) of the fabric and how they worked with the fit of the garment. Once that was completed, we were able to see it on a body, and ultimately send the finalized files for the printer to make into yardage. The material arrived in-house last week and looks and feels incredible. I’m now working on the construction, which should be a speedy process at this point as we had worked everything out in the mock-up phase. After that, final fittings, and then they hit the stage for the first dress rehearsal!

Nighthawks costume material. Artwork by Charity Hamidullah. Photo by Amber Times.

You had a number of art pieces to choose from, all very diverse. How did you select them and visualize them on the body?

We used all twelve of Charity’s bespoke art pieces on the dancers, so they are all represented on stage. My goal, when translating Charity’s artworks into the costumes, was to try to maintain the integrity and intention she put in her work, while applying the 2D artwork onto the garment shapes. You can immediately see the inspiration of sound and movement in the way Charity composed each artwork, with her use of line and color. She incorporated a lot of beautiful elements, such as the contrast of light and dark present in all human lives, lines indicating pathways and journeys, and marks indicating movement and flow, into her artwork. I tried to make sure all of those elements flowed on the body as well as they did in her flat pieces.

Thanks to my career start in fashion, I was able to use programs like Adobe Illustrator to make my design illustrations. This enabled me to digitally draw the actual garment pattern and place it on Charity’s digital artwork in a very careful and intentional way, ultimately allowing me to control, very minutely, where each element of the artwork would lay on the body.

Claudia has talked about the costumes telling a narrative. What narrative do you see in these artwork designs and ultimately, your costumes?

What these designs distill down to, for me, is the narrative that in our humanity we all carry similarities, while simultaneously holding the variety of expression and perspective every person brings to the world (and to the vibrant chaos of the city). I kept the style lines of the dancers similar across the women, and similar across the men, to slightly counterbalance the energy and color in the printed artwork. This consistency across styles emphasizes the shared humanity of all of us, while the beautiful chaos of color and lines within each look is a window into the precious individuality, we all carry within ourselves.

You can see Abigail's designs in Nighthawks, on stage at Cobb Energy Centre from May 10-12, 2024, as part of the Liquid Motion program.