It takes a big crew (and a lot of tulle and jewels) to make a ballet sparkle.
Before Pacific Northwest Ballet closed the curtain on its recent ”All Premiere” production, the costume shop was already hard at work on the company’s annual production of “The Nutcracker.” In fact, they hadn’t really stopped since preparations for the production began in 2014.
Though the show is only onstage for five weeks, PNB’s “Nutcracker” accounts for over half of the organization’s ticket revenue. The production needs to leave a lasting impression. Just as the dancers are constantly perfecting their craft in the studios, PNB’s costume shop does the same in their offices upstairs.
A peek inside PNB Costume Shop’s “Nutcracker bible” – a set of binders packed with information about PNB’s nearly 200 “Nutcracker” costumes – reveals just how intense it can be to create such a gigantic production.
A new “Nutcracker”
In 2014, Pacific Northwest Ballet announced its switch from the decades-long run of a “Nutcracker” production choreographed by Kent Stowell and designed by author/illustrator Maurice Sendak. Artistic Director Peter Boal swapped Seattle’s former “Nutcracker” for George Balanchine’s classic “Nutcracker,” inspired by the original ballet created by Lev Ivanov and Maurice Petipa in 1892. Costume and scenic design responsibility went to another author/illustrator – this time, Ian Falconer.
Costume production began with sketches from Falconer, whose award-winning “Olivia the Pig” books captured hearts in the 2000s. (See if you can spot Olivia herself in the scenery for PNB’s “Nutcracker.”)
The sketches were then approved (or sent back to the designer) by the George Balanchine Trust, an organization which facilitates the licensing of Balanchine’s works while protecting their integrity. You’ll notice their influence especially in the Waltz of the Flowers scene. While Falconer originally sketched green tights for the Dewdrop costume, the Trust required that they remain traditionally pink. And where Falconer envisioned short, pancake tutus for the Flowers, the Trust mandated that the tutus remained long and lush, like the original Romantic tutus.
Once sketches were approved, it was up to PNB to bring them to life.
From sketch to stage
Next, Falconer’s visions were presented to PNB’s costume shop. The costume shop determined how to build the costumes, keep them comfortable for the dancers and ensure their durability for nearly 40 performances per season.
Victoria McFall, a draper for the costume shop, recalls the initial idea for the Marzipan tutus: Falconer handed her team a Tupperware container with a vintage doily inside. Make it into a skirt, he told them. Falconer didn’t know how to make that happen; that was up to the costume shop. They rose to the occasion by finding a polyester material that hardened when heated, creating a mold to contour the polyester into a doily shape. They hand-cut 4,000 holes into the tutus and headpieces. The work took hundreds of hours, but the result was a tutu that looked exactly like Falconer’s vintage doily. (And the doily in the Tupperware container still sits on the shelf in the costume shop.)
Nearly everything worn onstage during PNB’s “Nutcracker” was created by hand. Fabrics for costumes like the Candy Canes, which Falconer sketched with diagonal green and red lines, just weren’t available in stores, so the costume shop sewed the lines on to white fabrics. And while some pieces – like the paisley cut-outs on the bodice of the Spanish Hot Chocolate women’s costumes – were laser-cut rather than hand-cut, they still needed to be sewn onto the dress, which also features hand-painted stripes.
That particular costume took 500 hours to complete. Seven dresses were made in total, amounting in 3,500 hours of labor. The women wearing the costumes are on stage fewer than three minutes.
The work continues
Costume Shop Manager Larae Theige Hascall, who announced her retirement earlier this year, led the “Nutcracker” costume build for 16 months before its 2015 premiere. But as time goes on, costumes get worn out, or threads come undone.
For example, PNB School students performing as Polichinelles consistently lost their pompoms throughout the first season’s run of “The Nutcracker.” The pompoms were held only by one single thread of yarn and could completely unravel onstage. After the curtain came down on “Nutcracker” that year, they removed every one of the 640 pompoms and replaced them with newer, sturdier puffs.
The wardrobe shop maintains the costumes with a strict laundry schedule. There are 15 dressers and 4-5 maintenance staff at each performance delivering costumes to and from the dressing rooms, collecting laundry, working on stage level for fast changes, machine and hand laundering, or treating the costumes with an odor-reducing spritz of vodka. The Prince, who wears four costumes throughout the show, has his own dedicated dresser backstage.
Only one dress was made for the role of Clara (performed by one of two girls who alternate the role), hand-painted with seven coats of red. Wendy Oberlin, PNB’s costume painter/dyer, used Seattle Opera’s dye booth to create the dress’s signature red and white stripes since PNB’s booth didn’t have the room to spread out the many yards of fabric.
Meanwhile, three separate costumes were made for the Sugar Plum Fairy – who wears two entirely separate tiaras, bodices and skirts. They were made in sizes A, B and C, with B being the most commonly used costume for the dozen-or-so women performing the role. After nearly 40 performances two years in a row, the costume shop realized they’d need another B costume, so they built a new one.
Each tutu took a minimum of 130 hours to complete, with each jewel hand-sewn into the skirt to ensure they’d be seen from any seat in the audience. Even more costumes will need to be created as performances continue. “Nutcracker” season doesn’t really end for PNB’s costume shop.
See “The Nutcracker,” with Tchaikovsky’s cherished score played live by the Pacific Northwest Ballet Orchestra, the brilliant dancing of PNB dancers, Ian Falconer’s scenery and costumes, and Seattle Center’s McCaw Hall all dressed up for the holidays.