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The dancer is a designer

Photograph of Susan Roemer and her costumes by Leslie Irwin for Smuin Ballet


Susan Roemer’s second act began before she completed act one. A dancer for nine years with Smuin Ballet, she started designing and sewing costumes for dancers, collaborating with choreographers within and outside the group, even before she retired from the company in 2016.

This month her work is on view in two world premiere ballets: Val Caniparoli’s “If I Were a Sushi Roll,” in Smuin’s season finale program at the Yerba Buena Center from April 20 to 29; and David Dawson’s “Anima Animus,” in S.F. Ballet’s Unbound B program at the War Memorial Opera House from April 21 to May 4.

Which came first, designing or dancing?

Dancing, by far. I watched my mom sewing, but it was never a passion of mine. I started when we were performing the Christmas Ballet; it was a long run, and I wanted to do something creative to relax, but nothing too physical. A girl in the neighborhood was selling a sewing machine for $50. I went on YouTube and basically taught myself how to thread the machine and just enough to get started.

What did you create first?

I made plenty of terrible-looking things before I made my first leotard. I took apart one I liked — it was really basic, no sleeves — and sketched out a pattern. I used Christmas wrapping paper with penguins on it. After that, I would make a leotard for myself and the dancers would say: “Can you make one for me?”

And when did you begin designing costumes?

It wasn’t that much later. Smuin Ballet has a choreography workshop, when every dancer has the opportunity to choreograph a piece. One of the other dancers asked me if I would make costumes for his piece, which had three dancers — two men and a woman. I don’t know if I would call it ignorance or beginner’s luck, but I just went for it. It felt like a huge outlet I hadn’t tapped into before. That was around 2012. I must have worked on 50 projects since then.

What about the costumes for “If I Were a Sushi Roll?”

The dancers are basically wearing the same thing, so you get a sense of a community. Everything else has movement and color. It’s a bit random — the whole ballet is kind of a celebration of randomness. It’s about everything and nothing at all.

What about David Dawson’s dance for S.F. Ballet?

I generally design and build the costumes, but he works with another designer. I’m the one fabricating everything and helping her execute her vision. When I work with S.F. Ballet, there are always multiple casts. When I designed costumes for “Ghosts in the Machine,” in February, I made 17 costumes.

Where do you get your design ideas?

I find inspiration in architecture, small details and coloring. I like to peer into doorways and windows. I always include inspirational images for the choreographer from photos I take on my phone, and one of the pictures for Val’s piece was a Victorian house that’s completely black. It looks like it’s wearing a tuxedo. It feels so formal — not uptight, but classy and bold. I take a run from my place up to the top of Alta Plaza Park; for me, it is so good for gaining perspective. The house is between Lafayette and Alta Plaza parks. Every day I go for a walk, it’s different from the day before. Even if you look at the same house, it’s not the same. It could be the way the light is, or if I’m in a different mood.

So you get ideas while just walking or running in the neighborhood?

I totally get inspiration from my neighborhood. And out on Clement Street, there’s a little place called Fabrix I would call my back-pocket resource because they have such an unusual collection of fabrics; inevitably I’ll find something I need or want. Photo shoots with dance colleagues help take my designs to an entirely different place. I did one a few years ago at the Beauty Supply Warehouse on Fillmore. It has so many wigs and extensions; it gave me a good concept for displaying my work, and it’s always good to have something a little fancy for a model.

Your company, S-Curve Apparel, also sells athletic clothing. Do you sew every piece?

I make every piece, but I’m working on a manufacturer’s line. The name will be Tangent Fit. I want to be able to walk in during the week of production, so I’m looking at factories on Market Street or slightly below. It’s interesting to discover there’s still a lot of manufacturing going on in San Francisco without our knowing it.