|| The Phoenix
|| November 19 2012
|| Renata Certo-Ware
From November 23 through December 30, an expected 90,000 audience members will slide into seats at the Boston Opera House to take in The Nutcracker, a 42-year tradition for Boston Ballet and the result of countless hours of preparation — and not just for the dancers perfecting their moves in rehearsal rooms. Charles Heightchew, the Ballet's costumes and wardrobe manager, has been in overdrive for the last year. And no wonder: he'd been tasked with overseeing the production of a staggering 350 new costumes, the first new Nutcracker looks in 17 years. Last month, as his team finished hems and affixed the final Swarovski crystals, he let us into the workshop for a closer look.
"Mikko [artistic director Mikko Nissinen], who joined the Boston Ballet in 2001, has wanted to have his own costume production since he came here, but at the time, the costumes were fairly new and in good shape," says Heightchew, surrounded by mountains of tulle at the Ballet's South End headquarters. "We are going into our 50th-anniversary season this year, so it was an appropriate time to really launch this next project and have our new production of costumes for Mikko's new choreography."
"It's a whole new ballgame, because I get to do it exactly how I envisioned the whole production," adds Nissinen. "I've been like a kid in a candystore."
The overhaul comes at a time of renewed energy for the Ballet, which has staged a number of modern —and noticeably tutu-free — productions in recent years. Take this season's opener, a program that included Christopher Bruce's Rooster, set to a soundtrack by the Rolling Stones and featuring enough strutting and thrusting to make Mick Jagger feel like a Monkee. (As one industry insider put it, "This is not your grandmother's ballet.") Other works, though, remain deeply rooted in tradition, none more so than its annual production of The Nutcracker, a treasured holiday chestnut and, for many, a gateway drug to the art form. But after many years with same look, it was high time for an update.
Enter designer Robert Perdziola. Tapped by Heightchew, Nissinen, and production manager Ben Phillips to put a fresh spin on the costumes and set, Perdziola is no stranger to major productions. Although this is his first Nutcracker, he has designed for companies around the world, including Opera Boston, the Metropolitan Opera, and Opera Australia, for which he was nominated for a Helpmann Award — the Aussie answer to the Tony — in 2008.
Perdziola and company began with in-depth discussions of the period, style, story, and characters, and he attended several performances with Nissinen to see the existing costumes in action. "It's one thing to see the clothes on a dress form, but it's another to see how it's going to come together on a human," says Heightchew.
Perdziola worked out his first round of sketches last summer. His challenge? To balance the fresh with the familiar, to update the look while staying true to the ballet's traditional historical context. "No 1920s folklore or 1930s futuristic," jokes Heightchew. The previous costumes were based on the showier silhouettes of the mid-1830s; this production dials everything back to the early 1820s. Yet by going back in time just 15 years, the vibe of the costumes changes markedly — think more muted colors and streamlined silhouettes.
"Our previous costumes were set in 1835, and in that period the silhouettes were quite large— the skirts took up a lot of room, the girls' costumes took up a lot of room," Heightchew explains. "But by going backwards to around 1820, we now have a silhouette that is much slimmer. What that means is that you can get more people on the stage: there's definitely more room and more air around the dancers."
The added elbow room is key. "The previous costumes were made for the Wang Theatre, where dancers had plenty of room on a large stage," Heightchew continues. "But then when the Ballet moved to the Colonial, and then the Boston Opera House, it was quite crowded on stage, so the earlier, slimmer silhouettes will allow more room for the dancers to breathe." The lack of extravagant layers also allows a better view of all that fancy footwork.
While every costume is new, the most noticeably different ones are found in act one on the Party Mothers (no relation to Dina Lohan). "Their silhouette is very Regency, very Pride and Prejudice — it's familiar. Last season's costumes were that high-1830 Biedermeyer that you don't see very often unless you go see a period piece, but this is something that people recognize from PBS specials, so there's a reference there for people to grasp," says Heightchew.
After several rounds of tweaking, Perdziola's finalized designs started coming into the costume department last December while The Nutcracker was still being performed with the old wardrobe. By January, Heightchew and his team were in full swing, turning the sketches into wearable art. The department's 18 staffers, along with nine volunteers, cut, sewed, hand-painted, and finished costumes in-house, while some of the specialized designs, like the ballet's crowd-pleasing animal characters — mice, reindeer, bears — were outsourced to shops across North America, from New York to Ontario to Pittsburgh. They, too, got a new look. The bear, for instance, is a little more realistic-looking now. His face is less cartoonish — his eyes closer together, his snout pointier, the overall effect just a touch less adorable.
New costumes were still trickling in as late as mid-October, just weeks before the production's opening. Each had to be tailored to its wearer. With a nightly changing cast, with two or more dancers often assigned to each of the 182 roles and a minimum of three fittings for all 350 new costumes, it's no surprise that Heightchew and crew were doing fittings from February almost right until opening night.
Once the ballet is underway, the wardrobe needs constant upkeep. The dressers, who help get the dancers into costume each night a half-hour before the curtains rise, keep notes on the state of the costumes, checking for loose hooks, tears, and other damage. After each performance they spend about an hour doing repairs.
They haven't had to deal with any major wardrobe malfunctions yet, but a few ballerinas' bodices were splitting at the front seams, likely due to some dry-rotted thread. Because of the nightly inspections, such issues are handled pretty quickly. Plus, Heightchew points out, "There's a lot going on onstage, so you hope that people don't take notice."
Safe bet, that."Everyone is incredibly elegant in this look," Heightchew says."The men are so handsome, the women are beautiful, the little boys and girls look like miniature versions of the parents. It's much less about contrasty production, so it's become really subtle and mature."
Heightchew, Nissinen, and Phillips hope the change-up will bring in a new audience as well as continue to charm those who keep coming back every year, offering something new and familiar at the same time.
"We really have two audiences: the group that is coming to see The Nutcracker because it's a holiday tradition and the kids want to come see it, and then there's a ballet audience that is also coming to see it. There is something there for both audiences, and it works on a lot of different levels."
As for the old costumes,they have an entire storeroom full of them, which they plan to sell along with the set. They hope to sell it all to other ballet houses, but there's a chance collectors and fans of the ballet could scoop them up too. A Mouse King for Halloween 2013, anyone?
BY THE NUMBERS
350: Approximate number of new costumes created for this production
18: Number of full-time staff in the costumes and wardrobe department for this show
200,000: Number of Swarovski crystals ordered for this production
1400: Number of yards of tulle used in the 26 tutus made for the Waltz of the Flowers
2: Number of women who hand-painted the 1400 yards of tulle