I had the privilege of chatting with Pennsylvania Ballet principal dancer, Martha Chamberlain, about ballet, dancewear, and the post stage life. After 21 seasons, she’ll be dancing her final performances with the company this weekend. Optimistic and light-hearted, she talked enthusiastically about her career and how her non-dance interests have kept her grounded.
SW – Tell me about your background: Where are you from originally? Did you begin your dance training there?
MC – I grew up in Media, PA, which is a suburb of Philadelphia. In the 11th grade, I began to train at the Pennsylvania Ballet School. After high school, I accepted an apprenticeship with the company.
SW – How long have you been with the Pennsylvania Ballet? What were some of your ‘defining’ moments?
MC – I’ve been with the company for 21 seasons. I joined in 1989 as an apprentice. The company has seen 3 different directors since I’ve joined: Robert Weiss, Christopher d’Amboise, and the current director Roy Kaiser.
It was a special time for me in the company under Roy’s direction because he promoted me twice, my promotion to principal being a big moment for me. I received the promotion after a performance of Juliet in John Cranko’s Romeo and Juliet. I was actually the understudy and ended up being called in to dance the role – a crazy and thrilling moment. The funny thing is, I decided to skip class the next day, when I received a call from Roy’s secretary. I came in to meet with Roy and he promoted me immediately to principal.
But, I was in the corps for a long time. So, I’ve always had a strong ‘corps connection’ within in the company, even after my promotions. The company feels like a big family to me, and I get a lot of energy from the other dancers, which helps my own performance.
Taming of the Shrew is one of my favorite ballets to dance. Yet, because I love the feeling of being onstage with my fellow dancers, I still enjoy some corps roles such as Balanchine’s Symphony in Three Movements and Butler’s Carmina Burana.
SW – Non-dance interests: When did you start making dancewear? What inspired it? What dancewear items do you make?
MC – I started taking classes in the University of the Arts Continuing Education Department. First, I tried a jewelry class, which I ended up taking several times. From there, I experimented with a variety of craft classes: non-adhesive bookbinding, pottery, woodwork, etc . . . Sewing and costume design were what stuck in the end. Christopher d’Amboise asked me to do some costumes for the company. It was a huge honor, but eventually I decided to take a break from costumes. It wasn’t until I got a new, fancy sewing machine that I got into making dancewear.
I make leotards, skirts, and legwarmers – my “pink tights legwarmers” got rather popular. They have become my biggest seller. I found this great material the same color as pink tights, making an ideal warm up for rehearsing rep such as Balanchine ballets.
SW – Do you have a ‘label’ name? Where/how can a dancer purchase a piece from your line?
MC – I do have a label name. I kept it simple and call it MCDancewear. With the help of a colleague, I recently came up with a new logo and a MCDancewear website is in the works. Up until now, most of my sales are done around the studio and through word of mouth. I have friends in Joffrey Ballet and Atlanta Ballet who help to sell my line.
I’ve gotten very efficient when it comes to producing certain products; I can make a skirt in 15 minutes and legwarmers in 10 minutes from start to finish (2 ½ minutes to sew).
SW – Your final PA Ballet shows are coming up. What will you be dancing? Do these roles have a particular significance to you?
MC – This weekend I will be dancing “The Man I Love” pas de deux and “Fascinating Rhythm” solo from Who Cares and the 2nd pas de trios from Agon. I rose through the ranks in each of these ballets and have danced every role: corps, soloist roles, and principal roles. I am not trying to sum up my career in one show, so dancing the principal role in a full length ballet felt all wrong. With these ballets I can feed off the energy of the other dancers. I can remember where I started and how I grew with these ballets.
SW – What are your post Pennsylvania Ballet plans?
MC – My post performance plans include MCDancewear, costume jobs, and teaching. It will be the first time I’ve been able to truly focus on MCDancewear. I’ll have a chance to be creative on my own terms and see how the line can grow. This differs from costume design, which is more of a collaboration of artistic visions. It will be purely my own creation. Currently, I am working on a new skirt and leotard designs, as well as expanding into men’s dancewear. (SW – this is an area of dancewear that doesn’t seem to get much attention) It’s really exciting to see how it all can grow. Someday, I might want to involve a manufacturer. But, for now, I prefer to maintain the quality control. Additionally, I am often working with a limited amount certain fabrics. Therefore, the idea of mass-producing anything is not appealing.
All of these endeavors will keep me in Philly. My husband of 6 years still dances with the company. Plus, my sewing studio is in the same building as the ballet. We’ll continue to get to go to work together each day. Philly is my home and that’s not going to change.
Martha’s final performances with the Pennsylvania Ballet are at the Merriam Theater, Thursday April 14th through Sunday April 17th. Tickets, show times, and additional information can be found on the Pennsylvania Ballet’s website. E-mail [email protected] for more information on MCDancewear.