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Designers bring 'haute couture' to dance


December 10, 2008

When Galina Mihaleva was a child in Bulgaria, she furtively drew pictures on the crisp white cloths that her mother’s friends put on their tables, using lipstick, pens, or whatever she could find to draw with.

Her mother was angry, of course, but ruined tablecloths were nothing compared to Mihaleva would do next.

Mihaleva’s grandmother had taught her to sew when she was 4, and lacking material to make doll dresses, Mihaleva would sneak into her mother’s closet and cut squares of cloth out of the skirts of her dresses.

It was only when her mother put on a dress to wear that she discovered the theft – and the ruination of the dress – Mihaleva said.

Mihaleva now is a designer for the Herberger College Dance Department, one of two talented artists who preside over a bustling costume studio tucked into Physical Education Building East.

Jacqueline Benard, the other designer, never ruined her mother’s dresses, but she did learn a great deal about decorating fabric from her father, a textile designer.

“It’s a part of me,” she said. “I’ve always been interested in the arts, and enjoyed making unique things.”

Both Mihaleva and Benard graduated from art schools – one in Bulgaria and the other in Italy -- and they met at the dance costume shop at ASU. They have worked here together for 10 years, and now Benard helps Mihaleva with her shop, Galina Couture, on Marshall Way in Scottsdale, on weekends.

At Galina Couture, Mihaleva shows one-of-a-kind gowns – she created the gown for Mrs. Arizona 1996 – while Benard sells hand-painted scarves and jewelry. Mihaleva’s nephew, Galin, who also studied fashion design, creates men’s clothing for the shop. Together, they participated in this year’s Scottsdale Fashion Week.

The costume shop, in PE East, on the Tempe campus, is filled with fabrics of every description, and racks and racks of costumes from past dance productions, which are available to current students to use.

Mihaleva and Benard don’t just sew fabric together. They dye it, burn it, embellish it, and print it, sometimes going to unusual lengths.

Benard remembers one August, when she was seven months pregnant, printing designs on chiffon using a children’s pool filled with marbleizing size, a thickened water made from a sea weed product, in her back yard.

“We begin the process of making costumes for a dance production with conversations with the choreographers. We then make sketches of possible costumes, then refine them, and finally, create them,” Benard said.

Many people think that all dancers wear leotards, or, they envision the productions of “The Nutcracker” that they’ve seen.

But many of the costumes, which are rich in color and texture, could be worn as evening gowns at the most elegant ball.

Creating costumes is a far cry from Benard’s original direction in art.

“I was a stone sculptor,” she said. “After studying at the Academy of Fine Arts in Paris, I went to Carrara, Italy, which is noted for its marble quarries, and its many academies of sculpture. I graduated from the Academia di Belle Arti in there, where I met a lot of interesting people, including my husband.”

Benard, still living in Italy, brought a portfolio of her work to a gallery in Scottsdale on a visit to Arizona, and sold a piece, which inspire Benard and her husband, sculptor Kenji Umeda, to move here permanently.

“At first I worked for a tile company, hand-painting tiles,” Benard said. “Then I began painting shower curtains to match the tiles. I also took classes in the fibers department at ASU.”

Though both are gifted and successful as individuals, Mihaleva and Benard make a formidable team, both in the design studio and out.

Their costumes – and their artworks – are one of a kind. They play off each other’s creativity, and each brings a special talent to the mix. “We try to create unique applications,” Benard said.

And though she doesn’t make doll clothes anymore, and has no need to steal fabric from her mother’s dresses, Mihaleva did get her just desert.

“When I was about 20, my nephew Galin cut holes in my clothes,” she said with a smile.