May 17, 2021
By Dallas Guill
Venture far enough into Texas Ballet Theater’s Fort Worth building and you will stumble across racks upon racks of handmade, intricately designed costumes that clothe Cinderella, Cleopatra, Dracula, and many others. A closer inspection of any TBT costume reveals details that require numerous hours of patience and precision. Since the early ‘80s, one woman has managed this domain, overseeing the creation and maintenance of thousands of costumes, which elevate the art form on stage and add to the magic of ballet.
Masako Parshall first learned tailoring work from her father in Japan. After moving to the U.S. with her family, it was only a matter of time before her work caught the attention of local arts organizations.
“When Texas Ballet Theater (then called Fort Worth Ballet) restructured in 1982, Jean Tant recommended my mom for wardrobe,” says Masako’s daughter and TBT instructor, Martha Parshall. “My mom had been sewing for and doing alterations for various people and Jean was one of them. Jean was also on the ballet board at the time.”
Parshall, who also danced for Fort Worth Ballet, says that her mother’s education and personality traits helped establish her reputation and lead to success in the trade.
“In Japan, she got a degree in business. She is extremely organized with a keen eye for details. She wants to do her best for her own pride and to help the dancers feel and look their best. She takes pride in creating things that will last for years, not just for a few performances; not everyone cares if they make a costume that can stand the test of time.”
Masako has a few assistants in her department, including Erin Williamson.
“I first started helping with school costumes nine years ago,” says Williamson. “After Masako’s co-worker of many years fell ill, Masako asked that I help her more directly in wardrobe and that is when I transitioned to be her assistant. She has taught me about all aspects of handling costumes. Masako has a huge wealth of knowledge about costume and theater work, having worked in wardrobe for several decades.”
Williamson recalls one story in particular that still stands out in her mind. “Not long after I started helping with the school costumes, Masako was making the new Madame Bonbonaire dress that fits over a very large skirt cage for The Nutcracker. She had created a design on a piece of paper – a few sketches. When I saw her, she was cutting out the skirt freehand based on those simple sketches without creating any pattern. She knew what she wanted and was able to create a very complicated, unique costume without it looking like it was difficult to do.”
Cristian Jimenez is a Character Dancer with Texas Ballet Theater. “I have developed great respect and admiration for her professionally,” he says. “Masako is a person with extensive experience in the wardrobe area. Being an excellent tailor, she can make or transform any costume.”
Over the years, Masako has worked with numerous Company Dancers and played a key role in their professional careers, making sure their costumes fit just right, which is crucial for dance.
Company Dancer Cara Shipman recalls her first encounter with Masako. “I have been working at TBT for eight years now and I am pretty sure one of the first people I met was actually Masako! My first day with the company I needed to go back and get my measurements done and her personality was energetic.”
When asked if any particular costumes stand out from over the years, Shipman was quick to mention Masako’s work on TBT’s annual production of The Nutcracker. “The costumes are so iconic for me personally,” Shipman says. “Especially the Sugar Plum Fairy tutu – the rich burgundy color just exudes a regal quality and truly adds to the ambiance and aesthetic of that role.”
“What makes Masako so vital for TBT is her experience in the dance industry,” says Company Dancer Andre Silva. “Her excellence is reflected in her craft, her strength and discipline, and the care she has for TBT and its dancers.”
“TBT is one giant family,” says Shipman, “and every family needs a matriarch – that is Masako. She is caring, funny, and does everything in her power to make sure each of us feels comfortable in our costumes and ready to go on stage.”
At 85, Masako and her work continue to leave a lasting impression on those around her, along with a wide assortment of impeccable work that adds to the beauty of TBT’s Company performances and Texas Ballet Theater School student showcases.
“Masako is a living treasure for TBT,” says Jimenez. “We all appreciate and love her tireless work. Her contributions to TBT are invaluable.”
“Masako is truly one of the most caring people I have ever met,” says Shipman. “She is always uplifting and I know when I go back to visit her during the day, I’ll leave feeling more confident and beautiful.”
Three of Masako’s tutus will be on display until June 5 at Neiman Marcus Fort Worth, 5200 Monahans Ave., Fort Worth, Texas 76109.