George Balanchine’s “Jewels” has long had a trademark look but PNB’s version, opening Sept. 22, will feature new costumes and sets by French designer Jerome Kaplan.

Share story

It’s not unusual to get a new outfit for your 50th birthday. But George Balanchine’s “Jewels” is getting 66 of them.

The 1967 ballet, created by Balanchine as a plotless three-act work (inspired, so the story goes, by a visit to legendary New York jeweler Van Cleef and Arpels), has long had a trademark look: the glittering original costumes by Barbara Karinska, Balanchine’s longtime costume designer. Each of the ballet’s three acts has a distinctive look for its ballerinas: floaty, romantic-length green tutus for “Emeralds”; abbreviated, jazzy red numbers for “Rubies”; classical-length tutus in creamy white for “Diamonds” — all of them lit up, like a night sky, with sparkling gemstones.

But when Pacific Northwest Ballet opens its season with a special anniversary staging of “Jewels” on Sept. 22, things will look a little different, with new costumes and sets by French designer Jerome Kaplan. His work has previously been seen on PNB’s stage in “Romeo et Juliette,” “Cendrillon” and “Giselle.” For the costumes, he modestly describes himself as “in a way, the assistant” — taking Karinska’s iconic works and updating them, just a bit.

It’s no easy task to follow in the footsteps of ballet’s most celebrated designer, who created more than 9,000 costumes for New York City Ballet during a long career that also found her working in Europe, on Broadway and in Hollywood. (She was an Oscar winner, for the 1948 film “Joan of Arc,” with Ingrid Bergman.)

The “Jewels” designs, coming near the end of her career, encompass many of her trademarks: the innovative soft “powder-puff” tutu that she invented (before the 1950s, most tutus featured stiff hoops); the layering of multiple shades in the same tutu to create rich, shimmering color; the whimsical touch of fanciful tiaras; and an attention to elaborate detail that might not be entirely visible to an audience member, but which added to an overall sense of regal, ornate beauty.

Kaplan, in town earlier this summer to examine progress on the costumes, said that Karinska was “a fabulous designer,” and that tackling the “Jewels” costumes was initially a daunting prospect. “I was afraid to start,” he said.

Though not the first contemporary designer to take on the project (designer Christian Lacroix created new “Jewels” costumes for the Paris Opera Ballet in 2005), Kaplan knew that he couldn’t make drastic changes to the look of the piece.

“You have a small space to propose something different, something fresh,” he said, noting that the Balanchine Foundation’s approval is required for the costumes. The trademark green/red/cream colors remain, as do the skirt lengths. “It’s nice; people will expect it.”

But Kaplan’s costumes will be subtly different; not fashion-y, he said, but a little more contemporary, “more danceable.” Those gemlike sequins and stones will look less formally arranged than on Karinska’s bodices, as if the costumes were happily caught in a delicate shower of jewels. The men’s tunics will be more tailored. And those tiaras will be just as glittery, but will have a sleeker, more contemporary look.

Kaplan, as did Karinska, gives each act its own style, as fits its music. “Emeralds,” set to dreamy Gabriel Fauré compositions, has a soft, romantic mood; its costumes are “a bit medieval, a bit Middle Ages, a bit Pre-Raphaelite.” “Rubies,” set to angular Stravinsky, is meant to look “very American” — the headpieces are inspired by the Statue of Liberty; the dangling ribbon skirts look like dance-hall girls, with the men’s jackets inspired by those worn by jockeys. And “Diamonds,” danced to classic Tchaikovsky, will look “a little more abstract, more modern.”

They’ll be presented against relatively simple backdrops; “It would be a mistake,” said Kaplan, to do something too realistic for the sets. “Better to do three beautiful boxes,” so that the dancers — and the costumes — can be the jewels.

PNB’s costume shop has been working on the new designs for seven months now; employing some 32 people in all. It’s a project not quite on the scale of the newly designed “Nutcracker” a couple of years ago; “Jewels” has a much smaller cast, and most of its costumes are duplicates. But it still requires 79 complete garments (66 onstage roles, plus about a dozen more to accommodate for different body sizes within a cast) and 48 tiaras.

Making these has required about two football fields’ length of tulle, and literally thousands of rhinestones and crystal stones. (Each individual tutu has at least 100 sewn to its bodice, with more on the skirt.)

It’s still a massive undertaking, requiring many hours of impossible-to-automate handwork. Each gemstone on a tutu bodice, for example, has to be meticulously attached, following a diagram of Kaplan’s design. “They get sewn on,” said costume shop manager Larae Hascall, “then they have all the backs glued so the backs don’t come undone, and then those that are around the back where a man’s hands might go, they’re being reinforced with extra stitches.”

Karinska herself might nod approvingly at some of the details; Hascall notes that the “Emeralds” skirt have five layers, each in a different shade, to give the color “a little come and go.” And audiences might not specifically notice that the creamy “Diamonds” tutus have a layer of pink nestled in the middle “just to warm it up,” as well as some tiny pink stones in the bodice.

With needles flying furiously this month, all should be ready for opening night — both a sparkling homage to ballet history, and something entirely new.