Tiaras, like ballerinas, seem to defy gravity. Made of what appear to be tiny wisps of metal, sparkle and dreams, they float above the heads of their graceful wearers. From the audience, we can’t see the details, but we sense their texture and their presence; a delicately curlicued punctuation mark on the costume’s artful statement.
For years, milliner and craftsperson Terry Frank has been responsible for the tiaras we see onstage at Pacific Northwest Ballet, working directly with costume designers and sometimes, on larger projects, with a small crew. While his duties include other costume elements as well — hats, boots, hairpieces, large crafted pieces such as Mother Ginger’s skirt in “Nutcracker” — the intricate assembling of tiaras is his favorite task. He loves the challenge of creating something of gossamer beauty that’s nonetheless strong enough to endure for many years of wear, and light enough so that a ballerina’s head isn’t weighed down by its presence.
“It’s really fun,” he said, showing visitors around his tight workspace at PNB’s Phelps Center costume shop recently. “I like working with bling.”
Fascinated by costume art since childhood — he taught himself to sew at age 10, on his grandmother’s foot-pedal sewing machine — Frank found his way to PNB’s costume shop via a wandering path: After arriving in Seattle in the 1970s, he spent 18 years working for the phone company (specializing, he said, in fraud management), then 12 years as general manager of SoundWinds AirArts, a company that made high-end banners, kites and wind socks.
But he kept a hand in the dance and theater realm as a member of the local artists collective Risk of Change — and when a friend from that group told him in 2007 that PNB’s costume shop might need temporary help, he jumped at the opportunity. Working closely with PNB’s then-milliner Jennifer Stone, Frank found “this is the thing I love to do.” When Stone — “a great mentor” — left after the 2011 season, Frank moved into her position.
Thousands of sequins and hatpins and crystals later, he’s now retiring after PNB’s upcoming production of “Cinderella.” He hopes to have some time to relax and travel — but also perhaps visit ballet companies around the world, doing workshops and sharing the meticulous art he’s learned. Frank said Jerome Kaplan, the French designer of PNB’s productions of “Jewels” and “Giselle,” told him that his skills are a rarity — “that there wasn’t really anyone that [Kaplan] knew of that was doing this kind of work anymore” — and he’s hoping that by sharing what he knows, he can help his art form continue.
Before his departure, Frank revisited a few of his favorite projects — giving visitors the luxury of seeing his work up close. It’s magical, from any range.
A Kaplan design, these richly colorful garlands of silk flowers and velvet leaves were made for the female corps de ballet in Act I of “Giselle.” Each of these, said Frank — 27 in total — was specifically designed to coordinate with the bodices of the costumes. Working side by side with Kaplan, “we sat at a table with the fabric and played with the flowers together to come up with them — each one of them is unique.”
A nod from designer Ian Falconer to the Maurice Sendak-designed peacock of PNB’s previous production of “Nutcracker,” this glittering topper is less tiara than whimsical veiled hat. Its look changed during creation. Falconer wanted it encrusted with sequins, but “I did a mock-up and it wasn’t looking so elegant,” Frank recalled. Falconer changed his mind when he saw these blue-green gemstones, found by former PNB costume shop manager Larae Theige Hascall on a trip to New York. “As soon as Ian saw them, he said, no, this is what I want.” The delicately filigreed beak is a flat jewelry finding that Frank bent into a conical shape.
Festooned with dangling crystal drops that catch the light, the tiaras for the Falconer-designed “Waltz of the Snowflakes” in George Balanchine’s “The Nutcracker” are in a full circular shape that sits on top of the head, rather than the more typical half-circlets that perch at an angle. They are quite tall, as tiaras go, but could have been even taller. “It was a little bigger when we started, but we decided that was just too much,” Frank said. “We bent them out a bit, which changes the height a little and gives them more dimension.” He loves “dangly bits” (apparently that’s a millinery term), and puts them into tiaras “whenever I have a chance.”
Not everything Frank works on is tiny and intricate: One of his early projects with PNB involved these dashing steeds, originally created for the 1983 premiere of the Sendak-designed “Nutcracker.” After a few decades of service, they were in disrepair and needed to be rebuilt. It was a project that took months, Frank said, most of which involved researching what materials to use and how best to rebuild the frame (formerly plastic, it was remade in aluminum). Each horse is named and labeled for the PNB student who originally danced the role (this one’s “Heather”); each has its ears and eyes — the latter made of painted table-tennis balls — set at slightly different angles, to convey a bit of personality.
In 2017, PNB celebrated the 50th anniversary of George Balanchine’s three-part ballet masterpiece “Jewels” by redesigning its costumes — which included 49 sparkling new tiaras, in six different designs. (Each section of the ballet — “Emeralds,” “Rubies” and “Diamonds” — has a tiara fashioned for its primary ballerina, and slightly different, smaller versions for the corps dancers in that section.) Working again with Kaplan, Frank first created a paper mock-up that he pinned to a head form, tinkering with it until the scale and shape was right. Then construction began, using metallic braid into which Frank inserted a wire core — “that lets you have a decorative element but still the structure.” When the outline was complete, jewels and sequins were added. For these tiaras, Frank used jeweled hatpins, which have a nailhead end that makes it less likely for the beads to fall off.
“Petite Mort” dress on wheels
When PNB first presented Jiri Kylian’s “Petite Mort” in 2009, the costumes were rented; later, when the company decided to add the ballet to its repertory, Frank was called upon to help duplicate the work’s signature black baroque dresses. Or, rather, half-dresses: the dancers stand behind the garment, which is elaborately draped on a rigid frame and has attached wheels. “We saw the originals and took lots of notes,” said Frank, of the meticulous process of re-creation, right down to a protective covering on the wheels “so the dancers don’t hurt their toes.” The different fabrics used are all black, but in varying textures: satin, lace, matte, brocade. Look closely in the dance’s final moments, as the women push the dresses onstage as they exit, and you just might see a secret: the skirt’s vivid red lining. “Often there’s one that will just turn around so you get a peek of the red — that’s the only time you see that,” said Frank. “A nice little detail.”
“Cinderella,” Jan. 31-Feb. 9; Pacific Northwest Ballet at McCaw Hall, 321 Mercer St., Seattle; $30-$190; 206-441-2424, pnb.org