Dancer Hilary Easton and Fashion Designer Cynthia Rowley Team Up For ‘The Heart is Like a Toboggan’

In the 1980s, NBA superstars Earvin “Magic” Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar teamed up to win five championships (1980, 1982, 1985, 1987, and 1988) as the Los Angeles Lakers reached the NBA Finals eight times in 10 seasons. The pairing — considered by many sportswriters as the greatest duo in the history of basketball — brought together two vastly different individuals who complemented each other perfectly. Johnson, a point guard, and Abdul-Jabbar, a center, thrived because they were able to blend their different skill sets so synchronously that opposing teams dreaded having to play them.

But as spectacular as that duo was, they have nothing on Hilary Easton and Cynthia Rowley, the legendary dancer and fashion designer who have been teaming up for more than 20 years and are again joining forces for a portion of The Constructors, debuting at New York’s Baryshnikov Arts Center May 17 to 20.

The Constructors kicks off the 20th anniversary season of Easton’s dance company, Hilary Easton + Company. Set to original music by Mike Rugnetta and with lighting designed by Kathy Kaufmann, The Constructors reflects upon the nature of collaborative experience chronicling the satisfactions and challenges in the act of “dancing together.” With an adroit choreographic structure, it presents a series of related kinetic tasks that lead to an increasingly layered and interrelated social fabric, continuing Easton’s career-long fascination with the open-ended conversation between performer, work of art, and viewer.

As part of the show, Easton will also perform a new solo dance; a showpiece entitled “The Heart is Like a Toboggan.” The piece, approximately five minutes in length, will showcase Easton’s versatility as a dancer that she’s developed over a decades-long career.

“I don’t want people to necessarily be impressed with me for standing on one leg, but with what an older dancer can do, her gravitas,” explains Easton, who has performed with a wide range of choreographers and companies including Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane and Company, Kinematic and XXY Dance/Music, and taught at schools such as Princeton University and New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts.

When it comes to gravitas, the dancer’s costume can make a powerful statement, serving as a complement to the movement itself that aids in the audience’s interpretation. While a costume can certainly wreak a piece, it can also add the extra flair needed to make it truly impressive.

Enter Cynthia Rowley.

Known for what The New York Times has called “flirty, vibrantly colored dresses and tops in wispy materials” that have “a whiff of the carefree, simple spirit” of Claire McCardell; Rowley is easily one of the biggest names in fashion. Her designs have appeared in nearly every major international publication — from Teen Vogue and Marie Claire to Elle and Cosmopolitan — and she’s appeared as a judge on reality TV shows like Project Runway, America’s Next Top Model, 24 Hour Catwalk, and Design Star. Along the way, she’s also been a guest on The Today Show, Good Morning America, The Oprah Winfrey Show, and The Late Show with David Letterman, among other programs, and has partnered with brands such as Target, Band-Aid, Roxy, and Half Gallery.

“The costumes shouldn’t overpower the movement and the dancing,” says Rowley, who maintains a regular celebrity clientele including Julia Roberts, Scarlett Johansson, Parker Posey, Kristen Wiig, Rebecca Romijn, Anne Hathaway, and Maggie Gyllenhaal. “That’s always the delicate balance.”

According to Rowley, designing for dancers presents special challenges, such as being capable of balancing their need to be able to move, unrestricted by the apparel, while at the same time having the costume maintain sufficient support for the performer. The garment also needs to be able to potentially withstand the rigors of multiple performances.

“Dancers,” explains Easton, “are hard on their clothes.”

Another challenge is agreeing on a unified vision for the performance and the garment. After more than 20 years of working together, it’s a challenge Easton and Rowley have little difficulty overcoming.

“I feel like it’s a huge honor to do this costume for Hilary,” says Rowley of designing Hilary’s costume for “The Heart is Like a Toboggan.” “It’s inspiring to have the openness but also the boundaries of working with someone else; it’s a series of checks and balances. It feels very comfortable working with her.”

The feeling is mutual.

“Working with Cynthia just feels incredibly comfortable,” says Easton. “She helps me understand my work differently.”

Rowley and Easton first worked together on “Social Function,” a four-minute piece that premiered at the Downtown Art Co. in March 1991 along with a 28-minute piece by Easton’s company that Rowley also designed costumes for entitled “Up.”

Two decades later, Rowley views it as the hardest of Easton’s performances she’s designed for.

“I wanted to go full-on, over-the-top,” she says. “It was a knit dress with sequin. The sleeves got stuck to Hilary’s body, and the hem got stuck too. It was like a sequin straitjacket.”

Critics seemed unconcerned. Praised by the Village Voice for “the cold-eyed formality of its structure,” the show was a smashing success.

“I was just so thrilled,” Easton says of working with Rowley for the first time.

Since that first performance, the two have teamed up more than 17 times, forging a relationship which Easton calls “a growing aesthetic experience.” Along the way, Easton’s company has performed at such notable venues as the Lincoln Center and St. Mark’s Church while earning rave reviews from publications like The New York Times and The New Yorker.

Despite the acclaim, Easton doesn’t feel any added pressure to impress notoriously fickle New York critics with her latest work.

“I don’t feel more pressured,” says Easton. “It just feels like a tremendous celebration [working with Rowley on “The Heart is Like a Toboggan”].”

While the costume Rowley has designed for Easton is being kept under wraps almost as tightly as the U.S. government keeps Area 51, Rowley says that “it won’t be too big or gaudy.” But ultimately, “it’ll be a surprise.”

What’s more certain is that Easton and Rowley will continue to work together.

“As long as Hilary keeps going, I’ll keep going,” says Rowley.

Audiences like the fans that saw Johnson and Abdul-Jabbar play together, wouldn’t have it any other way.

“The Constructors” will premiere May 17-20 at the Baryshnikov Arts Center, Howard Gilman Performance Space at 450 West 37th Street in New York City. “The Heart is Like a Toboggan” will be performed May 17 and 18 only. For more information on the performances visit or by calling 212-868-4444.

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