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Nureyev's broken zipper

Matt Schudel

For the past few days, I've been working on a Sunday Local Life feature of May Ishimoto, who died in November at 90. For 17 years, she was the wardrobe mistress of the American Ballet Theatre, commuting to New York from her home in the Maryland suburbs of Washington.

I met May twice because her daughter Mary Morris worked here at The Washington Post for many years as the editorial assistant in Book World. Mary may be the nicest person in the world, and after meeting her mother, it was easy to see where she got her kindness and warmth.

As I point out in the Local Life, May Ishimoto was born and raised in the United States, but during World War II she and her entire family -- except for a brother serving in the U.S. Army -- were shipped off to an internment camp for Japanese Americans. She was held there for two years. Her mother died within six months, and her father survived only a year or two after he was release. This historical reality -- the imprisonment of law-abiding U.S. citizens just because of their race -- remains one of the most shameful episodes in our history.

In any case, May Ishimoto emerged from her ordeal with a new husband and without apparent rancor. She had always been a skilled seamstress and, when her daughter Mary was taking ballet lessons as a girl, volunteered to make costumes for the class. Well, as often happens, one thing led to another, and May soon found herself making costumes for the new National Ballet in Washington in the early 1960s. When ballet stars came through town, she was enlisted to help with the costumes and sometimes made complete outfits for the likes of Dame Margot Fonteyn and other dancers.

In time, May worked for the New York City Ballet under George Balanchine and, in 1973, joined the American Ballet Theatre, where she became wardrobe mistress.

Not long before her death, May finished a 330-page autobiography, which is alternately painful (the early years) entertaining and gossipy (the dance years). She was close to many dancers and had to act as a second mother to some. The rules she established for the ABT wardrobe room -- always use hangers, never sit down in a tutu, never use hairspray on rhinestones -- not only kept the costumes in order but, I suspect, helped bring some sense of order to the high-strung lives of young dancers.

The most temperamental, self-centered and erratic dancer May ever worked with -- and that's saying something -- was Gelsey Kirkland. "When she finally left the company it was a great relief for me," May wrote. "No one else came close to giving me so much grief."

May was close to many others, including Dame Margot Fonteyn, Peter Martins, Natalia Markova, Martine Van Hamel and Mikhail Baryshnikov, who sent a lovely condolence note to May's daughter.

She had also known Rudolf Nureyev since he was in his 20s, and she got along very well with the temperamental star. In her memoir, she relates the story of how Nureyev, upset over his costume at a theater in Chicago, threw everything out a window into a river below. Not true, she said: He only threw the boots out the window.

Once, after a performance at New York's Metropolitan Opera house, May was called to Nureyev's dressing to repair a broken zipper on his trousers. Normally, it would not have been a problem to replace a zipper -- it's one of many emergencies a wardrobe mistress deals with every day -- but Nureyev was late to a gala he had to attend after the ballet.

May decided that she had no choice but to sew Nureyev's fly shut and asked a young female dresser to take care of it. But she panicked and grew nervous, leaving May to do the sewing operation herself. It was particularly delicate because she knew that Nureyev didn't wear underwear.

" 'Well,' I told myself," May wrote in her memoir, " 'just pretend he just came off stage in his tights with a split seam. I asked [my assistant] to get two large needles and strong thread and headed back to his dressing room."

By Matt Schudel  |  January 17, 2010; 6:50 AM ET
Categories:  Matt Schudel  
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