Erica Johnston ’14
Dance Performance major
Costume Designer and Builder, NYC-based Freelancer
Past work includes: Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Jon Batiste, New York City Ballet, Dance Kaleidoscope, Peridance Company, Ballet Hispánico, Cirio Collective, Disney+, HBO
How did Butler prepare you for your career?
My time at Butler gave me tons of exposure to working in full-scale and small-scale dance productions, both on- and off-stage. The classes that I was able to take in Dance History, Costuming for Dance, and introductions to elements like lighting and scenic design were very influential for me, and gave me the chance for hands-on introductory experience in a controlled environment. I was able to start collaborating with my classmates on student productions as well. Butler gave me one of my first opportunities to network with people in the dance world outside of my hometown, and many of the connections I made there continue to bring me work to this day, both directly and indirectly.
What skills or knowledge gained at Butler have been most useful in your career?
The practical experience I gained working with Kathleen Egan in the Butler Ballet costume shop taught me a lot, not only about sewing and garment construction, but also about time management, balancing multiple projects, budgeting, working as part of a team, executing fittings and alterations, and managing a variety of personalities through a production process. I also have a unique perspective as a designer/builder who deeply understands the physical demands required of performers, and when I can go into a fitting and speak their language about the choreographic physical necessities of a garment I can immediately put my clients at ease. The productions I performed in at Butler gave me first hand physical knowledge of classical ballet as well as modern and contemporary dance, all of which have vastly different aesthetic and choreographic vocabularies (and therefore, different needs when it comes to what they wear).
What is the most important thing you learned at Butler?
Natural talent may get you in the door, but hard work, kindness, and professionalism are the only ways to stay there. Professor Rosanna Ruffo once told our class, “you will encounter many closed doors throughout your career—the most important thing is that you keep knocking. Eventually doors will open.” That one really stuck with me.
Who influenced you the most while you were a student?
When it comes to my career in the costume world, the person at Butler who influenced me most was Kathleen Egan (“Kegan”), the Director of Costumes for Butler Ballet. Kegan was one of the first people in my life to teach me proper technical sewing skills, and she gave me ample creative opportunities in addition to the necessary hands-on practice in the costume shop. Professor Susan McGuire also helped me experience New York City living; first by connecting me to the Taylor School for intensive study programs, and then later on by connecting me to Butler alumni in New York who provided me housing when I moved to the city after graduation. She encouraged me as a performer while I was dancing, and also never made me feel any less valid for ultimately transitioning to pursue a career behind-the-scenes.
What advice do you have for students who are interested in pursuing a career in this field?
Connect. Make friends. Introduce yourself. Own your mistakes and learn from them. Find people who know more than you, and ask them questions. Invite people out for dinner after working on a show together and get to know them as humans first and professional connections second. When people feel valued and appreciated, they will want to work with you again. If you are consistently good at your job, show up on time, meet your deadlines, and make a good impression on people, you will have every opportunity for a long career.