Versatile Nili Glazer designs and creates theater and show costumes for the Los Angeles Israeli Dance Ensemble Keshet Chaim, including several show groups in Copenhagen and in Israel, and the SIBA – Salzburg International Ballet Academy workshop. Her passion for her work and her ingenuity and natural talent, have led her to discover a world rich in color, texture, and visual and dramatic abundance. Daughter Of The Arts caught up with Nili in Salzburg in the midst of her busy schedule to bring you this exclusive interview.
DOTA: Where in Israel were you born and raised?
NG: I was born in Tel Aviv, 11th generation Israeli on my mother’s side; my parents divorced when I was 2. I was sick with polio, and my mother didn’t want a crippled child; my father was an officer in the army, so I was given to an adopting (foster care) family, who gave me the only warm loving home I ever had, and probably saved my life. My adoptive (foster) mother massaged me every day, and made me move.
When I was 7, my father remarried and took me back to his home. However, my new ‘mother’ used to beat me 3 times a day, and locked me in the bathroom for days. The only positive thing in my life there was an art teacher my father hired (he was never at home, away in the army) who taught me drawing and color. In short, when I was 13, I found out that I could get back at her, so I did, by leaving home forever.
DOTA: Are there other artists in your family?
NG: My aunt from Argentina was a painter and concert pianist; my father was very musical (sang Opera and taught me to love classical music and spoke 11 languages, (I am on my 8th only); and my maternal grandmother was very good with hand work, embroidery, knitting, creative stuff. Most of the members of my family are genius business people, including brainy professors, inventors, even a Noble prizewinner. My family goes way back 11 generations from Hebron and Jerusalem, They were known for their ability for business. They spread out to be a huge family by now. I don’t think I will recognize even 1/8th of them if I see them on the street.
DOTA: Describe the Avni Academy in Tel Aviv? What classes did you take?
NG: I was accepted to Avni when I was 16; all the other students were there after their army service (20 years and up). Avni was a small art school then but with great teachers. I studied drawing, oil painting, model figurative and sculpture for 4 years (with a break for the army in the middle).
DOTA: Describe your activities working with the Kameri Theater?
NG: My home those days in Tel Aviv was the Bohemia café Kassit, where all the artists, journalists, and writers were sitting. I was there every day in between work and Avni. One of them arranged for me to work at the Kameri at night. I was the little assistant to Adriana Neuman (za’l), the assistant of the stage designer those days. She taught me everything, and I mean EVERYTHING about theater, costumes, stage requisites, papièr- machè, how to use the same carpet for 40 different shows by spray painting it, and the main contribution was she taught me how to do Batik painting. It later became my door opening to the exhibition world. My first exhibition in Denmark was 90 batik paintings that were sold in one day!!!
“Daughter of Jerusalem” – Batik
DOTA: Where were some of the places you explored during your 12 years of traveling after working with Kameri? What did you experience?
NG: After a short marriage (2 years) in Israel, a divorce, and a baby boy (Michael) I decided that I had enough, and needed to get out of Israel, or I will end up in an institution. I sold everything I had for pennies, bought a one-way ticket for Michael and me to New York, with one suitcase and no regrets. Adriana was in Manhattan at that time and said she would help me get settled. After 2 days I found an apartment, a job as a travel agent, and a full day kindergarten for Michael. I stayed in New York City for 5 years, with a lot of travel in between, mostly to Europe. Old cities, history, and the old artists always fascinated me. Then, suddenly, a terrible thing happened. Adriana had an accident in Central park. While riding her bike, she fell down and died on the spot.
Since then, New York lost its charm and I needed to get out of there. I was still working as a travel agent and doing batik and art part time. I decided I wanted to get as far away from NY as possible, and found Hawaii. I stayed there for almost 3 years. Michael was about 10 years old and wanted to go to Israel, so we went back to Tel Aviv, for one year. I couldn’t find myself there anymore; I guess I had changed a lot since I left. Luckily I got an invitation to do a batik exhibition in Stockholm Sweden. I left Michael with his grandmother (not MY mother, God forbid….) and flew to London, (cheapest flight those days, 1980), then the ferryboat to Denmark, where I wanted to travel by train to Stockholm to see the country. On the ferryboat I met a Danish couple, who were very interested in art; they asked to see the roll of batiks I had with me. They invited me to stop at their home in Denmark, which was on the route to Stockholm, so I did. On the weekend that I was there, they invited about 50 friends to see my batiks, which they hung on the wall paper with sewing pins, and – – – – sold ALL my batiks at hysterical prices !!!
So now I am standing in a little town in Jutland, with no pictures, on the way to an exhibition. My host called the Stockholm gallery and told them the story and postponed my exhibition by 2 months. In the meantime I stayed in their summerhouse. They drove me to Germany to buy every thing I needed to paint a new exhibition, and fed me and took care of me for the whole time. And I thought, if I sell so good in Denmark, why not stay here? And so I did!!!! I moved to the ‘big’ city Copenhagen, found myself a studio, learned Danish in one month at a ‘sing-a-long’ piano bar, and brought Michael there also after a while.
DOTA: What was your first professional exhibit? Where? When? Content?
NG: My first show was in a little gallery in Sefad north Israel, I don’t remember the dates, sometime in the 60’s, and I sold some batik paintings. Most of my professional exhibitions later on were in Scandinavia, (Denmark, Sweden, Norway), England, and Germany. I stopped doing batik paintings and went back to oil and acrylic; they were a huge success. Later on, I opened my own summer gallery every year in Denmark’s artists’ town Skagen; I had this gallery for 15 years.
Figurative oil painting
DOTA: When and where was your first experience designing for dancers?
NG: I was asked to do some sketches for costumes for dancers and actors in Denmark for one of the minor theaters in town. A designer I knew in Copenhagen was drowning in work and could not finish, so we started working together. She was terrible in the practical work like cutting, sewing etc, but had good ideas. I, on the other hand, was very good and very fast in the actual work, so we started working as a team and did a lot of shows in different theaters in Copenhagen.
DOTA: What are the particular criteria, challenges, and processes involved in designing for dancers?
NG: There are some factors involved in designing for dancers, and they are not easy to combine. First you have to listen to what the artistic director wants, and convince him or her that what they want is not practical, or cannot be done (in most cases). Second, you have to present them with an idea that will be on the line of what they had in mind, but IS practical and CAN be done, (and make them think that it is actually THEY who came up with the idea). And third, the design has to be ‘dancers friendly.’ That means that the dancers will be able to move in the costumes you make for them. There are all kinds of professional little tricks when one does dance costumes, like extra triangles cut on the bias under the arms and crotch, use mostly flexible fabrics, cut a lot on the bias so the fabric has a movement of its own, etc. It is also important to get fabric that doesn’t make the dancers sweat even more then they have to.
DOTA: How did you meet Keshet Chaim ensemble and begin designing costumes for them?
NG: Michael moved to L.A. when he was 19 (his father lives there too) and I came to visit him. After about a week I got bored out of my skull (there were no computers in his house). So he suggested that I go visit a dance company which one of his friends’ wife was dancing with. They were having difficulties with their designers because Eytan, the artistic director, had ideas that they could not understand, and no communication, so I went there. From the first 10 minutes we got head to head on some ideas, and that was the beginning of my new family in L.A.
DOTA: What was the first Keshet Chaim commission? What elements were used in your designs and how decided upon?
NG: The first design I did for Keshet Chaim (KC) was later on when I came again to L.A., about half a year later. My son moved since to the mountains of Topanga, with about 10 dogs, 5 cats, birds and I don’t know what else. The house was impossible, and it just happened that a mobile home was for sale down the road from him. So I bought it and stayed there for a while. I put a table and sewing machine there, and a cutting table in the shed, and started working on some crazy shirts they wanted from bright multi-color satin; it was awful, and I don’t think they ever used it for anything.
The first full costumes I made for them were the Negev Cowboy, which was a combination of a Texas Ranger and a Maccabee’s spirit. I had to go back to Copenhagen before all the pants were finished, so I gave instructions to Genie [Genie Benson, Keshet Chaim Administrator] how to cut the fabric and sew it so they could finish it themselves. They had hysterics until it was finished, with phone calls back and forth, but they did finish it, (bravo Sue Avisar!!!) and they use it today.
DOTA: Please describe the particular challenges, research (if any), difficulties (if any) techniques and materials decided upon and used for each of the following:
BA – Creating Chassidic costumes
NG: Chassidics was not a big challenge, as we were using many ready-made elements, like the pants and shirt. I made the jackets to look like the original silk jackets, only from satin, and a lightweight design.
Creating masks and headdresses for dancers.
NG: The masks were indeed a double challenge, since first they had to be symbolizing animals, and second, the dancers needed peripheral vision so they don’t fall on each other. The eyeholes had to be big, which doesn’t leave much for me to play with. I added a lot of soft elements like feathers and hanging stripes of the costume fabric to make the masks look more impressive. Since my days in the Kameri, I learned that almost everything for the stage can be made from Papièr Machè (newspaper and glue) and plaster of Paris, and that’s what the masks are made of, and as a matter of fact, all the jugs you see in NESHAMA are actually made of newspapers. I didn’t try to create an ‘ethnic’ mask or anything like that, just an atmosphere that will remind the audience that people became animals.
Masks for dancers
Creating Neshama costumes
NG: Creating the costumes (and big part of the stage design) was the biggest project I ever did for theater. After I got the story from Eytan and Genie, I was on a visit in Israel and spent days at King David’s museum in Jerusalem, drawing ideas for the costumes, the soldiers and getting inspired from the atmosphere there. After I’d been there for a whole week every day, they actually offered me a free entrance for the rest of the month. Getting into this museum is like stepping back in time, and being totally immersed in history. So I came back to LA with plenty of drawings and showed them to KC, and they loved it.
Neshama Fire Neshama water – fire
Now there was the question of finding the right fabrics for the costumes, and they were talking about a portable wardrobe that will be easy to carry around for shows all over the U.S. And, mind you, were talking at that time about creating 200 costumes, for the different scenes of the shows, which since grew to be over 300 pieces of costumes. I suggested we do the entire show in silk. Silk is a very strong fabric, as opposed to what one generally thinks of it, and which I will paint according to what we need. We stretched big frames outdoors by the pool, got one of the dancers to build for me a damp container to fix the silk paint, (and which needs 4 people to move it around). I think I painted about 50 roles of silk, each role over 50 yards. Even the soldiers’ uniforms were silk. I then created the animals on a net body suit which I made from curtains net, and tied on it remnants of silks stripes.
The Jugs, as mentioned before, were another story, Genie got the Israeli folk dance company Inbal to do a dance for her. Their artistic director Ilana Cohen came with a heavy metal jug, which we were supposed to duplicate. I thought that ready-made metal jugs would be too heavy for the entire ‘light silk’ effect, so I made a sample of a jug from Papièr Machè, using the metal jug as a mold, and the result was a half weight, easy to dance with jug. Again, in Eytan and Sue’s back yard, with plastic mats under me, and a paper shredder working full time, we started a water jugs factory. We then put them to dry in the sun, painted and lacquered, they look just like the original biblical earth – water jugs used in the Middle East.
Neshama water festival
Creating Israeli national costumes
NG: Keshet Chaim had an Israeli national costume made for them by one of my predecessors, which had a good dress for the girls, but a crazy big triangle of heavy decorated satin dangling in the front and getting tangled when they danced. It had to be re-enforced by Velcro from all directions. We had to either fix just a top for the existing dresses/and pants for the boys, OR, come up with a new brilliant idea. As we were all so taken by silk at that point, and the frames were ready in the back yard, AND the famous damper, I decided it will be silk again, hand painted blue with white, Israel colors. In order to give it a bit of ‘breaking the routine’ I added some kind of an inside apron with straight stripes of blue and white cotton, also on one sleeve, which gave it some a-symmetric look. The result amazed even the creator. Sue was worried all the time, “How are we going to wash this thing, with white sleeves, and blue hand painted, Oy Vey.” I have separated the white half sleeves from the dresses, and the aprons, and re-connected them with tucks, got everyone who came by to sit and sew a few of those little devils whenever they could. I don’t know how many hands actually sewed those little transparent tucks, but they keep holding the sleeves and aprons together.
Israel National costumes
DOTA: Describe your work with the SIBA Ballet Workshop?
NG: One of my close and oldest friends is Yehuda Maor (previously from Bat Dor Ballet). He was working with Peter Breuer, the artistic director of the Salzburg Ballet. Very quickly he realized that things were running in a chaos, No one knew where anything was, and that they need someone to put an order in the ‘Balagan’. So he called me. I was in Copenhagen at the time, and he invited me to Salzburg to ‘take a look’. While I was taking a look, we came up with the idea to create a summer workshop for ‘finishing’ ballet dancers, who actually finished their study, but had not yet had any stage experience. They’d therefore find it difficult to be accepted at any ballet company (it’s a catch 22). From talk to doing, which is my specialty, we put together SIBA – Salzburg International Ballet Academy, and had a fantastic success last year with 57 international dancers. We found an old beautiful boarding school on top of a mountain in the middle of the city, which was closed for the summer vacation, and rented the entire estate there. This year, I am happy to say that we already have over a 100 international students from 18 different countries, (we gave scholarship to 5 ballerinas from Israel). We have planned 4 Gala shows at the end of the workshop in Salzburg, Munich and St. Johann, and look forward to an amazing summer with very famous teachers, and coach star Cynthia Gregory. We still have a few beds for a few ‘late arrivals.’
DOTA: Are you designing costumes for them?
NG: Yes, I have designed all the costumes that did not require tutus, or traditional costume, sewing until late at night on my computer desk in the office, cutting the fabric on the floors…. fun! One of the problems was to find a fabric store in Salzburg. There is actually only ONE, and you have to drive miles to find it, but we did…this photo is from Tarantella… yards of colored ribbons served instead of a lot of sewing.
SIBA Ballet Workshop
DOTA: How do other types of costume design differ from designing costumes for dancers?
NG: The dancers need a lot more movement room within the costume.
DOTA: Do you have any dance background yourself?
NG: As a result of being ill with polio as a child, my right arm and shoulder never really got ‘normal power’ ever. So, I was always the lousiest in athletics, dance, or anything physical. I like to go sightseeing a lot, mostly by car, or walking. I did some swimming aerobics in Copenhagen, but that’s really the extent of my dancing. However, I know by now everything one can know about ballet dancers, dancers in general, their behaviors, their needs, their temperament (which actually equals my own) and they seem to like me.
DOTA: What inspires you in your creations whether textiles or other?
NG: LIFE, people, bodies, movements, atmosphere, talk, anything and everything! My paintings are always a mix of life; things happen there. You can actually read the story in the paintings. Textiles and colors come very naturally to me, my hand always reaches the right color mix somehow.
DOTA: How would you describe the essence of your work?
NG: Some professor once explained to me that my creativity comes from a perfect balance between brain and hands, mathematics and musical talent. I didn’t really understand what he meant. Later in life I found out that I am actually also very good in numbers, budgets, organizing etc., which SIBA is the proof. I do the entire workshop business side all by myself, from contacting the students, building the organization, budgeting, bookings, everything, except the teaching and performance side which is done by Peter Breuer.
DOTA: Do you have a favorite medium to work in?
NG: My little sister always says: “Nili got all the talents in the family and didn’t leave us anything.” When I was young, I had a lot of conflicts between all those God given talents, which for me were “my compensation” for being a little crippled, plain looking, always too tall, not attractive. But I was painting like a professional already at 16, sang with the Israeli Philharmonic choir, could make something out of any piece of garbage I found in the street, made my own clothes, and could run an office already at 15. I had my own computer already in 1982, and did graphic works for big companies. Already then, I was one of the first 50 clients in Denmark to get on the Internet, because I could see what it would bring to us in the future. So I really don’t have a ‘favorite medium.’ I love everything I do with a passion and enjoy every minute of it. The only medium I can’t stand is boredom, never enjoyed a vacation that didn’t involve working. I got so fascinated by the Internet possibilities, that I taught myself how to build websites and web graphics, and create real artistic websites for my clients. I love doing that, just as much as I love to be completely deep in a new painting, or a new costume design for a show. Anything that is new and challenging is my media… just give me something new all the time and I’m happy.
DOTA: What have been the most significant factors that have shaped your creations?
NG: Mostly communication between people who were involved in the project I was creating. It’s the people in it that give the inspiration and motivation. It is all a team work to start it going, but when it comes to the work itself, I have to be alone, I can’t work very well with people watching over me or telling me what to do.
DOTA: Was anyone an inspiration to you such as a mentor or other artist?
NG: As I wrote above, Adrianna Neuman, was my biggest inspiration, I still think of her as my mentor, she was the first person I met in my life who could do absolutely everything, and find a solution to any problem on stage or costumes. I would like to think that I learned a lot from her, and can do almost the same.
DOTA: What would you like to add that hasn’t been explored in this Q & A?
NG: I would like to thank Keshet Chaim, Eytan Avisar, Genie Benson, Sue Avisar and the dancers, for their love, trust and being my loving family all those years we have been together and hopefully will be for a long time.
Nili’s portrait photo and the Neshama photos are by Jerry Sanders.
To read more about Nili and her work, check out these links: