Senior Ria Harju said she didn’t plan on being a theater major when she came to Hillsdale College. And although she has been involved in the theater department since her freshman year, her love for design, she said, was also accidental.
Yet audience members of the last Tower Dancers’ performance saw her design work — the end product of her senior project — in four of the eight dances.
Harju, a dancer herself, designed costumes for four different dances: “Impact,” “Navajo Creation Story,” “A Stirring (Ears Opened, Heart Changed),” and “Femininity.” She created 22 costumes in total.
“I loved designing for the ‘Navajo Creation Story’ because it was much more literal than all the other costumes because there was actually a storyline, not just a theme,” Harju said. “There were actual characters instead of dancers trying to embody an emotion.”
One of the greatest challenges throughout the project was timing, Harju said, especially scheduling fittings for the various dancers.
“You have to focus on so many things at once,” she said. “You really have to be able to take care all these little tiny pieces, all at once.”
Harju started the project last semester with “unrealized” designs, which are renderings done as if there were an unlimited budget and resources. Harju then used the renderings to create the actual pieces with the limited budget. Once she had the sketches, Harju ordered fabrics and began putting the pieces together.
“I was very excited because originally I thought my original renderings would have to be modified a lot for practical reasons,” she said. “I was very excited because by the time I got to the end of it, the costumes were actually very close to the original renderings. So that was encouraging because it meant that next time I could push myself even more.”
Harju’s journey to the costume shop started on the stage. Although she originally planned to major in English, Harju noticed she was spending increasing amounts of time in the theater department and eventually began working in the costume shop.
“Even though in my mind I thought it was just a hobby, I realized you shouldn’t be doing something you don’t have a passion for,” Harju said. “I very clearly through my actions said I had a much greater passion for theater than I did for English.”
Costume Designer and Lecturer in Theatre Bryan Simmons said he noticed this passion early.
“I could tell her eye for design was kicking in pretty strongly and her thoughts were about doing more than just being on stage,” Simmons said. “I could see she was interested in exploring that world of the backstage and design area. When I gave her little things in the shop to do, she would grab onto them and really explore ideas and possibilities.”
He added Harju’s experience as a dancer givers her a unique perspective on dance costume design.
Holly Hobbs, visiting assistant professor of dance and the director of Tower Dancers, added that as a dancer, Harju had more awareness of what a dancer needed.
“I think she did an extremely professional job,” she said. “Ria had a really good sensibility with matching the theme of the dance with the design.”
Harju also choreographed one of the dances she costumed.
“It was hard for me to completely step out of it and look at it as a third person,” she said. “I had to rely heavily on Bryan so I could get out of my own headspace.”
Harju said she wants to eventually make a career of costume design.
“My love for English transitioned to my love for theater,” she said. “I loved the stories, I loved the power of storytelling. With English, I was thinking about it from a very intellectual standpoint, and with theater, I realized I could let both my intellect and my creative side flourish at the same time.”