Dress forms draped in soft white poly mesh material take up the floor in the center of designer Bradon McDonald's home studio, next to a vintage Juki sewing machine and another portable Kenmore in a plastic case tucked on a back shelf.
It was the latter machine -- given to McDonald by his husband in 1996, before McDonald became a dancer touring with Mark Morris Dance Group -- that sparked his interest in sewing as an art form. That led him to get a degree from the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising in Los Angeles, landed him as a finalist in Season 12 of "Project Runway" and eventually culminated in this: his role as the go-to costume designer for choreographer Jessica Lang and her dance company, which will perform this weekend at the Ahmanson Theatre as part of the Glorya Kaufman Presents Dance at the Music Center series.
"He has a true artistic sensibility that is genuine and intelligent," Lang says of McDonald, whom she met in college when both were studying at the Juilliard School. "As a dancer, he knows how to fit a garment, and he knows I'm a small company that doesn't have a dry-cleaning line on my budget."
Lang made a name for herself as a freelance choreographer long before she started her own company. She wanted total artistic control over every aspect of her vision. Her work blends contemporary dance and ballet to great modern effect, and she is meticulous: Everything onstage, from the lighting to the costumes, must have purpose. In McDonald she has found a kindred spirit.
Both approach craft from a metaphysical vantage point, channeling the abstraction of feeling into dramatic, physical form. The results will be on full display at the Ahmanson, first in a piece called "Thousand Yard Stare." The second, a West Coast premiere, is "Tesseracts of Time."
"Thousand Yard Stare" is about the psychological ravages of war in veterans. A member of Lang's board asked her to tackle the subject, but she was hesitant. The potential to get it wrong seemed too great. Once she accepted the challenge, she and McDonald reached out to friends and family members who served in the military and slowly encouraged them to open up about their experiences.
The culmination of this process was asking the veterans to listen to Beethoven's String Quartet No. 15, Op. 132, third movement -- the same music used in Lang's ballet -- in order to create a drawing of how it made them feel.
The striking black-and-white images were taken by McDonald and turned into costumes. A single drawing is printed on the back of each dancer's simple, fatigue-like shirt.
"We thought it was beautiful and poetic that all the dancers would be dressed the same, but when they turned around they would have these images that the veterans drew, in order to create their own camouflage," Lang says.
The process had added layers of meaning for McDonald, who recruited his brother -- a veteran of three Army tours of Afghanistan -- to be a part of the group. McDonald had never really discussed his brother's experiences with him because his brother didn't seem to want to talk about them, and he respected that.