Making Fantasy a Reality at American Ballet Theatre

Classic Arts   Making Fantasy a Reality at American Ballet Theatre The wigs and makeup professionals behind the scenes at ABT talk about achieving big effects without overwhelming the dancers.
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Company Gene Schiavone

Sylphs, princes, fairies, pirates—ballet has more than its fair share of mythological creatures and otherworldly beings. This season at the Metropolitan Opera House, American Ballet Theatre’s seven full-length ballets teem with wizened astronomers, evil sorcerers, an aging, careworn mother, a very confused old knight and more swans than you can count. That’s a lot of fantasy to bring to life on stage, and helping transform ABT’s youthful, vibrant dancers into ancient witches and whimsical sprites is the task of the Company’s makeup and wig staff. Realizing the visions of each ballet’s choreographer and costume and scenic designers, Wig and Makeup Supervisor Rena Most and her team turn today’s performers into elegant courtiers from a lost era, or change a couple of guys into a pair of comically wicked stepsisters. ABT’s wig and makeup staff use time-tested theatrical techniques, hard-won skills, and even some psychological acuity to make the unreal feel real. It’s disciplined artistry in the service of extravagant fantasy.

Wigs and makeup for ballet pose challenges that go far beyond those for most theater or film. The makeup on a dancer’s face must convey character—or just look beautiful—all the way to the last row of the grandest theater, without appearing too overdone from close up. The heavy, sinister makeup for a malicious being like Carabosse in The Sleeping Beauty or the ancient, mysterious Astronomer in The Golden Cockerel must instantly tell the audience all about that character, but without overexaggerating into scary-clown territory. Hairdos, whether indicating 19th-century imperial Russia or sunny Spain, have to look right for the historical period, convey who’s who and—crucially—stay on. Why wigs? Aside from appearance and style—how many men today have hair like Prince Désiré—dancers move with a virtuosity that can make Olympic gold medalists look like slackers, but a wig will keep its shape no matter what. Once dancers don wigs, as the fairies in the Company’s production of The Sleeping Beauty do, they meet the demands of the choreography while capped by coiffures that shimmer like spun sugar.

Rena Most has been ABT’s wig and makeup supervisor since 2015. She and Wig and Makeup Artist Jill Haley work full-time to design, create and maintain the wigs and makeup for the Company, hiring additional hair and makeup artists depending on the needs of each ballet. Those needs vary considerably, from the 200 wigs in The Sleeping Beauty, their biggest production, to a just a few for Giselle, to none at all for contemporary and abstract ballets, where the dancers generally handle their own hair and makeup. Wherever the Company performs, the wig and makeup team sets up highly organized work rooms that can meet any requirement; a warehouse in New Jersey bursts with myriad wigs, fake beards and moustaches, prosthetic noses and chins, raw materials like yak hair, and face paint of every description. Even when the Company is not dancing, Most says, the work never stops; wigs must be sanitized, shampooed, set on rollers and styled. New makeup products must be considered while favored products are kept in stock.

For new works, like this season’s Whipped Cream, choreographed by ABT Artist in Residence Alexei Ratmansky, a key challenge is to realize the vision of painter Mark Ryden. Most’s makeup and hair have to evoke Ryden’s whimsical style for characters with names like Princess Praline and Princess Tea Flower. Once the choreographer and design team determine the appearance of the characters, it’s up to Most to create the makeup, have the wigs made and even figure out whether they should be made of human hair, synthetics or yak hair—each of which has its own quality (silky, sturdy, bouncy, takes dye well). Wigmakers worldwide provide wigs for ABT, and while Haley is an accomplished wigmaker, Most points out “we don’t normally build wigs from scratch for ABT. You really need a wig shop that’s devoted to doing that.”

Most, who at age 29 looks like a dancer herself, brings great passion to the work, and enjoys working on the Company’s richly varied repertory. Given ABT’s broad repertoire, does Most have a favorite character whose look she crafts? “I have several favorites, because they’re all very different,” Most says. “I really enjoy the sorcerer Kaschei in Firebird because I can feel the dancer’s transformation. I paint the dancer’s face layer by layer until it’s where I want it to be. And when he opens his eyes to see the result, you feel him become that character, you sense that evil energy.” Kurt Jooss’ Expressionistic anti-war ballet The Green Table is another standout, but for different reasons. “In The Green Table, one of the dancers plays a sick mother who is going to die, and we make her up. Sometimes the dancers close their eyes while getting made up so they can relax. We tap them when we’re done. When one dancer opened her eyes, she started crying about the tragic situation of the character. She could not believe how sick and sad she looked, just from the makeup. That’s a very powerful moment. We help them bring these characters to life. Of course, the wonderful dancers bring everything else to it.”

Most grew up in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, where she was fixated by makeup. “I was always painting faces and doing make up, learning and looking,” she says. Once her older sister mentioned that makeup artist was actually a job—someone has to put makeup on models in magazines—Most recalls, “It was like a light switch went on. I think I was about 14 when I got paid for my first gig as a makeup artist for a wedding. I loved theater and was a dancer recreationally, but I was most excited about doing the hair and makeup before the dance recital.” Most moved to New York in 2006 to attend the Fashion Institute of Technology. After graduating, she traveled abroad and did makeup at the Tel Aviv Opera House.

Most believes that her training in fine arts—she studied drawing, painting and sculpture—serves her well at ABT. “A strong art background not only trains your hands, but it informs your thinking and broadens your perspective,” says Most. “It teaches you color theory, perspective, line, contouring. Makeup is very similar to painting, and hair and wig styling is very similar to sculpture. All of the basic elements of fine arts I use every day in makeup. When we create a prosthetic nose for a character, I sculpt the nose and cast it—it’s really the same basic concept as any other sculpture. We apply it with different glue that is made for your face, and paint it to match the makeup. But it is all the same basic principles.”

As Most tells it, makeup artists can be as much psychologist as cosmetologist. “This work can be very intimate,” she says. “As a performer, you have somebody in your physical space putting makeup on your face, and you need to feel comfortable. We are the people who are messing with the dancer’s appearance the most. That’s a huge trust. We are enhancing certain things that make them feel better, or we’re helping them with their character. If they look good and feel good, they’re going to have a better outlook.”

Robert Sandla is editor in chief of Symphony, the magazine of the League of American Orchestras.

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