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Robert Abrams
New York City Ballet (NYCB)
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New York City Ballet

An Inside Look at the Costumes of the New York City Ballet

by Robert Abrams
January 23, 2006
Lincoln Center
Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, Inc.
140 West 65th Street
New York, NY 10023

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New York City Ballet
New York City Ballet (office)
New York State Theater
20 Lincoln Center
New York, NY 10023

An Inside Look at the Costumes of the New York City Ballet

Robert Abrams
January 23, 2006

Members of Society in C, the New York City Ballet's young patrons group, got a detailed look at New York City Ballet's costumes recently. Deanna McBrearty, one of ExploreDance.com's favorite dancers who has been reviewed here numerous times, who has danced with the New York City Ballet for 12 years, who is now working for NYCB in their external affairs department and who has starred in ExploreDance.com's still photography ballets AKA fashion shoots, and Deanna Berg, a 11 year member of NYCB's current costume design team who is a wizard with fabric dye and has designed costumes for several shows outside of NYCB, presented inside perspectives on NYCB costumes past and present. This article is a summary of what they had to say. It is obvious from looking at the costumes that NYCB takes great care for them, but you don't realize just how much care until you have heard what they are like from the perspective of a dancer and a member of the costume shop.

The Ford Foundation once asked Balanchine what he most needed to do his work. Balanchine replied, "Karinska." Karinska, a costume designer, was originally trained in embroidery. She came to New York with Balanchine when Balanchine came from Europe to start the New York City Ballet. Balanchine and Karinska were paired for 43 years. Karinska understood that the costumes had to fit for dancing, not just to look pretty. For instance, Deanna McBrearty commented that the dance hall dancers' costumes from Western Symphony are fun to wear because the skirt is attached with elastic and moves with the dancer. Karinska was the first person to cut ballet bodices on the bias, which gives the dancer room to breathe. She invented the powder puff tutu. This tutu has layers of tulle sewn together. It makes the dancer keep her arms up and dance differently than if she were wearing a traditional, stiff tutu. Karinska was creative when it came to materials. One Karinska costume uses real branches she collected from Central Park. Karinska didn't solve every dance related costume challenge though. For instance, there are velvet costumes used in Swan Lake that don't dry out completely from matinee to evening performance. Fortunately, the NYCB dancers are troupers and don't let the audience know that they are dancing in costumes damp with glow.

The New York City Ballet makes a great investment in their costumes. The costumes are used for years. Some of Karinska's original costumes are still in use. Every costume is custom cut. It takes three to four weeks to make a costume. Many of the costumes cost about $5000 each, such as the 25 costumes in Western Symphony. Some, such as the Apollonais costume in Sleeping Beauty which features shoulder to floor silk with a cape, can cost as much as $10,000 each. The costumes may be expensive, but the costume shop puts in extra effort to make sure they don't waste donors' money. For instance, when fabric in a costume wears out and has to be replaced (as it eventually will - imagine wearing a silk dress to the gym for a hard workout several days a week for a year and you can imagine what the NYCB dancers put the costumes through), the sparkles are carefully removed and reused. Some dresses have been worn by many dancers of different heights. Deanna and Deanna showed one party dress where, when looked at up close, you could see multiple hemlines from when the dress was adjusted to the height of each succeeding dancer. This is much less expensive than making multiple dresses, and the hemline holes are too small to be seen from the audience.

Karinska used detailing that you wouldn't see even if you had a seat right on the stage. The inside edges of the costumes' petticoats are carefully hemmed so that they won't fray, and so that they look beautiful even if you lifted up the dress just for the purpose of staring at the hems, a part of the costume the audience never sees. The Spanish costumes in The Nutcracker have pictures of Balanchine or Lincoln Kirstein inside them.

The costumes used in a given ballet don't always stay the same. Especially while the choreographer and costume designer are still alive, the costumes are sometimes revisited. The costumes for some ballets go from simple to complex, such as Jue de Cartes, while others go from complex to simple, such as Concerto Barocco. When costumes are not being revisited, the costume shop makes every effort to keep the costumes used today looking like the costumes that were used in the premiere. Some costumes get redyed each time to make sure the colors stay the same. Sometimes the best way to dye a costume is to heat set the silk pants in the oven (and you probably thought the episode of Seinfeld where Kramer heats his jacket in a pizza oven was completely made up - as is sometimes the case, the truth is stranger than fiction). When new costumes are made to match ones that have worn out beyond repair, the costume shop tries to match the color of the new fabric to the changed color of the aged costumes still in use in that ballet. Not an easy task to be sure.

In addition to Karinska's costumes, Deanna and Deanna presented sketches of the costumes by Jean-Marc Puissant and supervised by Holly Hynes for Christopher Wheeldon's new ballet Klavier. The costumes were still being worked on that night for the premiere the next day. (The costume shop pulled it off and the premiere went on without a hitch.)

Normally the costumes work as intended, but once in a while something goes wrong. Peter Boal once got his wedding ring caught in the hook and eye of his partner's costume. He was stuck to her and had to follow her around (much to her surprise) until the ring flew off his finger. They looked for it after the show, but never found his ring. That means that somewhere in the State Theatre is lodged a physical expression of devotion, which is kind of fitting given the NYCB dancers' devotion to their art. Other mishaps have included a tiara getting caught in netting, and antennae getting caught in the Midsummer Night's Dream set. The costume shop once replaced part of a costume with cheaper fabric, only to discover that the dancers couldn't do a special swirling over the shoulders move with the changed fabric. The costume shop found more of original fabric and everything was fine. Despite much expertise, some costume details you just can't find out until you put the costumes on the stage and have dancers dance in them. Similarly for the dancers, some of what they need to know about dancing they can't know until they put the costume on. For instance, the Marzipan costume in The Nutcracker requires the dancer to use her stomach muscles to get the costume to move. The dancer in Vienna Waltzes develops a noticeable bicep muscle from holding up her heavy satin skirt. She is only going in one direction so this dance and costume only builds up one arm. The dancer's gym should install a special one arm bicep machine so she can keep things even.

The New York City Ballet's costume staff of 20 makes many of its costumes, sometimes on very short notice. Some are farmed out to independent costume houses in New York City. Most of the wedding dresses in Double Feature were obtained from the Goodspeed Opera House's costume archive service.

All in all this was a great event showcasing the history and practice of the New York City Ballet's costumes. Deanna and Deanna were open and informative. Costumes can create an entire mood, and now the attendees know a little about how the magic happens. I am a dancer myself so I can appreciate what it takes to dance well, and through ExploreDance.com and my involvement with Society in C I have gotten to know something of what goes on behind the scenes, but beyond my previous appreciation, this presentation helped to deepen my understanding of the dedication of the costume shop staff as well as that of the dancers. The wine and hummus and crackers provided in the rehearsal studio in which the presentation was held lent a refined touch to the event.

For the next Society in C event, Melissa Barak, NYCB dancer and choreographer will be giving a lecture demonstration of her work on Monday, March 13 at 6:30 pm in the Rose Building at Lincoln Center. Please join them for a little bit of education, a little bit of dancing, a little bit of music, snacks and some laughter! Please rsvp to Anni Luneau at aluneau@nycballet.com or 212-870-4020 by Thursday, March 9 if you wish to attend. If you are not a member of Society in C, you should think about joining. Contact Ms. Luneau for details. For more ExploreDance.com articles on the New York City Ballet, go to www.exploredance.com/nycb-p.php. For NYCB's website or to order tickets, go to www.nycb.org.

Deanna McBrearty and Deanna Berg
Photo courtesy of Robert Abrams

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