Metro Weekly

Mark Zappone spins flowers and butterflies into surrealist costumes for The Washington Ballet

The designer's work for NEXTsteps is based on the art of Salvador Dalí

Kateryna Derechyna — Photo: Mena Brunette, xmbphotography

When you’re a globetrotting, in-demand costume designer for dance companies and choreographers worldwide, calls to collaborate might come from anywhere. Mark Zappone, who has designed “Ghosts” for Christopher Wheeldon and leaping ragamuffins for Twyla Tharpe, had of late relocated to Dublin, his home base for working on upcoming projects with the Pacific Northwest Ballet in Seattle and Ballet West in Salt Lake City.

Then he heard from Amsterdam-based choreographer Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, with whom he’d collaborated previously. Ochoa was calling to enlist him for a new project, the Washington Ballet’s season-opener NEXTsteps, an evening of debut works by emerging and acclaimed choreographers, including Ochoa, John Heginbotham, and Jessica Lang.

Delusional Beauty, Ochoa’s world-premiere ode to Salvador Dalí’s surrealist world takes its central inspiration from the artist’s spellbinding 1937 gouache and ink drawing, Woman with Flower Head. “It’s a picture of a woman standing there,” says Zappone, “and her head is actually an arrangement of flowers. Very austere.” Ochoa described to Zappone a vision that captured the woman’s floral visage and sinewy silhouette, as well as motifs of butterflies and shimmery gold. “So at that point, I ran out to my fabric store and just started looking for things,” the designer says.

Zappone and Ochoa eventually met up in Seattle, “and we talked things over. And I found some great fabrics in New York and then ended up finding a lot in Seattle. Whenever I’m at any place, especially in New York, I’ll just check out the fabric stores for everything. A lot of what my inspiration comes from is what you can find, because I make the costumes myself. Not all designers do that, but one of the things I enjoy is actually the process of creating them as you go along.”

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That process ultimately produced not just the stunning flower-and-butterfly headpiece, but also slender skirts that Zappone and his small team pleated by hand, and gilded pendants of scorpions and crickets worn by the male dancers.

Interpreting the choreographer’s golden vision of a surrealist world is one delicate undertaking, and the matter of fastening flowers, masks, and insects to dancers in motion is quite another challenge. “I listen to my experience, but also listen to what dancers will say during a fitting.” says Zappone. “Not only to make them look beautiful, but also comfortable. Because all they have out there when they’re performing is what they’re wearing. They’re not singing, they’re not talking, they’re just moving.”

Washington Ballet’s NEXTsteps runs October 23 through 27, at Sidney Harman Hall, 610 F St. NW. Tickets are $25 to $100. Visit

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