Performancing Metrics


The Nutcracker's New Clothes

Note: This post is about the Boston Ballet Nutcracker costumes in 2011. To learn about the new, 2012 Nutcracker costumes at the Boston Ballet, click HERE

Photo credit: Boston Ballet via CityBuzz
Note: This post is about the Boston Ballet Nutcracker costumes in 2011. To learn about the new, 2012 Nutcracker costumes at the Boston Ballet, click HERE

The costume closet at the Boston Ballet is like a passport to another world. A world where Arabian dancers twirl mysteriously, where the Sugar Plum Fairy and her cavalier share a touching pas de deux, and where a young girl is tormented by hideous, red-eyed mice, before being rescued by a toy, magically transformed into a valiant prince.

Detail on Boston Ballet Nutcracker costume, designed by David Walker. Photo Credit: The Boston Fashionista

These other-worldly garments will be dancing their finale this month. Retiring at the end of the season, the current costumes have been in use since 1995 and were designed by the prolific costume designer, David Walker. The tonal set design was actually produced by someone else, so when Walker's vivid costumes, blazing in color, were introduced "they really popped," says Charles Heightchew, Manager of Costumes and Wardrobe for the Boston Ballet. The designs have been part of each Nutcracker performance for the past sixteen years, with the exception of a few areas of edited choreography (Heightchew designed the current Arabian dancer costumes six years ago, carefully staying respectful to Walker's vision).

Charles Heightchew, Manager of Costumes and Wardrobe for Boston Ballet, examines costumes in storage. Photo credit: The Boston Fashionista

Designing ballet costumes is a combination of challenges - costumes must be theatrical, visible from the back row, and - most importantly - they must allow the dancers to engage in complex movements (like dancing!). But they must also reflect the story of the ballet. "The current Nutcracker production is set in 1835 Germany," says Heightchew. "Very high Biedermeier. The costume designs are pretty faithful to those styles." He adds, "Take the Arabian dancers for example. In a story ballet it's not just how we, in 2011, think an Arabian dancer should look. When is the story set? What is the 1835 perception of an Arabian dancer? You have to see it through those eyes."

Charles Heightchew, Manager of Costumes and Wardrobe for Boston Ballet, shows off the costume head for the Nutcracker. Photo credit: The Boston Fashionista

There are a number of hefty, cumbersome costumes in The Nutcracker (think: the bear, the Mouse King, and, of course, the Nutcracker). Topping off at just under two feet, the hero's head is extraordinarily tall. (Imagine doing anything with an extra two feet of height added to your body. Now imagine dancing under those circumstances!) Heightchew explains that the large heads were formerly made from fiberglass, resulting in extremely heavy costumes. Over the years, advancements in materials like thermal plastics have resulted in lighter pieces, easing some of the burden of the dancers. However, no matter how light a costume it is, the "head" needs to be secure on the skull. Extensive framework is built inside to keep costume heads tight and balanced on the dancers. 

A row of costume mice heads at the Boston Ballet. Photo credit: The Boston Fashionista

Dream of dressing like the Sugar Plum Fairy? Be prepared to pay a sweet price -  her costume costs a minimum of $4,000. And the Ballet owns six sets. With so many dancers and performances, "there are multiples of every costume," says Heightchew. "As many as we can afford to make! This way garments can be mixed and matched to a particular dancer." Each costume is equipped with rows of fastenings, so that the costume can hook tighter or looser on individual dancers. During the performance run, the Wardrobe Manager, Assistant Manager and a team of dressers assist the dancers and manage all the rips, tears and loose beadwork. After a production, costumes go to the dry cleaners, and then to storage. Like taking winter clothes out of the back closet, the costume team resurrects the garments from storage in the months prior to the next show to do repairs and alterations. 

Rows of hooks on a Boston Ballet Nutcracker costume, allowing multiple dancers to wear one costume. Photo credit: The Boston Fashionista

There have been wardrobe malfunctions. During Heightchew's first two years with the company he discovered the Sugar Plum Fairy bodices were prone to vertical side seam splits. He chuckles, "The dancer is out on stage and then - pop! You'd stand there and think, 'Please don't keep ripping. Please don't keep ripping.'" He determined the thread the costume team had used to sew the seams was faulty, so they stabilized all the bodices. 

Flower costumes hang in storage at the Boston Ballet. Photo credit: The Boston Fashionista

Even as the Russian dancers kick their way across the stage this week, the design process for the new Nutcracker production is already underway. Boston Ballet Artistic Director, Mikko Nissinen, and the new designer, Robert Perdziola have been meeting to discuss Nissinen's vision. As for the retiring costumes, their theatrical future is uncertain. "There's a lot of life left in them," says Heightchew. "A number of theatres might like to use them, and it would be nice to know that David Walker's work is still living on. At the same time, they're very much a part of Boston's production." He notes that he and the entire costume team are excited to work on the new costumes, though he mentions that the audience response to the garments is not necessarily what drives them. "We may make beautiful things, and they may look extraordinary on a mannequin. But their purpose is something different. Their purpose it the dance. That's the exciting part - you get to see the work come alive. "

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Snowflake costumes hang in storage at the Boston Ballet. Photo credit: The Boston Fashionista