VERDA DAVENPORT-BOOHER is busy.
Her work as the Costume Director for Ballet Arkansas provides the most structured schedule of her three, four, or more jobs. She recently made time to chat over tea (her) and cocoa (me) at The Green Corner Store despite the unseasonal arctic blasts to discuss her career and calling, and some benefits of the neighborhood. “You can’t go wrong in SoMa,” she said.
From classic ballets to contemporary showcases, Verda outfits each Ballet Arkansas dancer, tailoring and altering to ensure a good fit for both the dancers’ safety and the audience’s enjoyment. This season’s performances required apparel ranging from streamlined, modern styles for Debut to the ornate and quintessential in Sleepy Hollow and forthcoming Cinderella. With each show, she enacts the values of Ballet Arkansas’s mission: innovating whenever possible, evolving fresh takes on time-honored and sometimes well-worn garments, collaborating with experts and volunteers, and making this fine art accessible to dancers, both professional and novice, and audiences alike. Though we don’t see Verda herself onstage, her work is present for every moment of each performance, helping tell the stories and entertain.
A Little Rock native and high school theater student, she chose Louisiana Tech for an undergrad degree, later studied at Penn State, and returned to Arkansas to stitch together a living through her passion and vocation in the arts. We discussed her unconventional agenda, making mice, and her efforts for the upcoming Nutcracker Spectacular.
What’s your favorite part of presenting this classic piece?
It doesn’t feel like Christmas without the first fittings for the littles. My holiday would not be complete without that—even though it starts in August! You get a little person who is brightened by the mouse suit. It makes them look so cute and fat, and they get to play! The littles are so eager and sweet. I get excited because they get an opportunity to do something they are really interested in, on the big stage with the big lights and, hopefully, people smiling at them. My son gave a performance in a newly reformed costume one year, and it took my breath away. It was beautiful. That’s why we do this. I keep chasing that dragon.
How did you get started with Ballet Arkansas?
The theater community here is really small. I started at The Rep when I came back from grad school, around 1994, working as an intern and designing. It was a golden time. Ylsa Hicks was the first designer I worked with there. I was so lucky to be able to work in the costume shop at The Rep. That’s when I was approached to work on The Nutcracker at Ballet Arkansas as a volunteer. I helped the one full-time person with costuming and making or fixing stuff.
One year, they hired a designer out of Ohio to redesign the Mother Ginger number. He built the actual Mother Ginger, then sent the patterns, fabric and drawings for all the little bon bons. My daughter’s big dream was to one day wear one of those costumes onstage. It was so exciting and fun because it was everything you learn in grad school. We rebuilt years later, and soon after, Ballet Arkansas approached me to say, “You can do this as an hourly paid position.” I feel very lucky to be doing something I love and am good at.
Have you always been interested in fashion and creating costumes?
Theater created my interest in fashion. In theater, you learn about becoming different people in cultures and time periods. You get the artistry and craft, how it all connects to character, and you work with different artists to see that the director’s vision is clear, that your work gels with others. The outcome is stunning and amazing when you’re working with great people. But my mom would always sew, back in the ‘70s. She made me “designer” jeans. She bought me a machine when I was young. I made Barbie clothes.
How do you decide what costumes a show needs? Where do they come from?
We mostly borrow or buy off the rack. There’s no costume that only one dancer wears—they share everything. I’ve altered pieces between shows on the same day. Catherine [Garratt Fothergill] and Michael [Fothergill] have great connections. Don Bolinger [University of Arkansas at Little Rock costume-shop manager] totally helped me figure things out. Sometimes I’m doing the work on my living room floor with my two dogs and kids at 3 in the morning. But we’re moving our costumes to our space on Main Street, constantly working and getting better.
Sounds like a whole network of interconnected working parts—and institutional memory.
Yes. When it all started, volunteering for The Nutcracker, it was two people doing it all. Donna McCarty and Jana Beard did most of the costuming before I did, as well as Stephanie Darker. It’s hard to do costuming work alone. Imagine these women choreographing, digging things out, borrowing. Still to this day, when I’m confused, I call them and go, Hey! What did we do? Who did we order from? Where did we get the soldiers? I find myself embodying Donna, channeling her. I said yes to volunteering because Jana is a goddess and deserves all the help.
I’m learning ballet costuming through Catherine and Michael now—they were dancers and know what works, what fits, how to make it safe—and from me, they learn construction. I’m excited to see artistically where it goes. Ballet Arkansas is trying to up the quality of things on a small budget. We have a whole Renaissance!
Don’t miss Verda’s handiwork when Ballet Arkansas performs their Nutcracker Spectacular Dec. 13-15. For more information, visit balletarkansas.org/nutcracker-spectacular