In a career that stretched from 1931 to 1977, costume designer Barbara Karinska did it all. She built costumes for the premiere season of the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo. She turned the sketches of Picasso, Matisse, Chagall, and Dali into vivid, functional costumes that dancers could move in. She worked in Hollywood, constructing costumes that were admired as marvels of intricacy and originality. Her designs for the 1948 Joan of Arc won Karinska an Academy Award; only Karinska could win an Oscar for putting a girl in a suit of armor. In New York, Karinska's mastery made hers the go-to shop for theater, opera, burlesque, television — even ice shows.
But the most significant association of Karinska's career was her four-decade collaboration with choreographer George Balanchine. Karinska could turn a tutu into a poetic essay on yearning, and even for Balanchine's most austere abstractions, Karinska's black-and-white rehearsal clothes were as carefully structured as couture. Karinska designed and built costumes for Ballet Theatre, for Ashton, Tudor, Nijinsky, and de Mille, among other choreographers, and for dance companies worldwide. But it was for Balanchine that Karinska designed or constructed the costumes for some 75 ballets; it was for New York City Ballet that her celebrated costume shop worked exclusively starting in 1964; and it was for New York City Ballet that in 1977 she created her last great work, Vienna Waltzes, a virtual apotheosis of the dancer's skirt as spiritual metaphor.
One of the high points of Karinska's art at New York City Ballet is George Balanchine's The Nutcracker, with costumes that range from bourgeois party clothes to extravagant fantasies. Balanchine recalled dancing in The Nutcracker as a student at the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg, and while his recollections informed Karinska's work, the City Ballet Nutcracker is a shining example of the designer's hallmark wit, clarity, and soul. The costumes tell the story, illuminate character, and continue to dazzle and delight.
The Nutcracker was a huge undertaking for New York City Ballet in 1954 (the Company had only been founded in 1948), and Karinska accomplished a miracle: she produced 150 costumes on a budget far below that of the Russian Imperial original. The fact that Karinska and her workers were madly stitching backstage during the first performance just adds to the fun.
Karinska's Nutcracker costumes are acknowledged classics, the model, in this country, for what The Nutcracker is. But what do today's dancers feel about the costumes? How do they help or hinder the people who actually have to perform in them?
The Sugar Plum Fairy
Jennie Somogyi grew up in The Nutcracker. As a student at the School of American Ballet, she performed the role of Marie, as a principal dancer she is the Sugar Plum Fairy, and in between, she's hit just about every role possible. "I've pretty much done everything in Nutcracker," she says with a laugh. "I've done Marzipan, Spanish, Grandma, Snow, Tea, Dewdrop. I was even a mouse. I've experienced nearly all the costumes, and the fantasy of the costumes really helps everyone, especially the kids, get into character. I remember loving the white fur trim on Marie's party scene dress.
"But of course the Sugar Plum costume is stunning, really pretty with all that pink tulle. Although the first variation is complex, the longer tutu gives you a feeling of security. The skirt gives you a tiny bit of leeway in a difficult variation and makes you look delicate." One Karinska mystery: why the change from Sugar Plum's first pink skirt to the dressier green tutu? "A practical reason for the change is that partnering with the long skirt is difficult," Jennie says. "As far as being a different look, I think that the green tutu is Sugar Plum's evening wear. You wear that tutu, everyone can see your legs, and you're going to do some virtuoso dancing. By putting on that green costume, Sugar Plum is announcing that it's back to business."
To help prepare for the iconic role of Herr Drosselmeier, which he has been performing for several seasons now, soloist Adam Hendrickson went to the videotape. "Of course I perform the role as it was taught to me," he says, "but I made sure to study Balanchine's interpretation, figuring he would do it best. It's a surprising characterization — he can be creepy and dark. And it's interesting to see the same costume 50 years ago.
"Drosselmeier is challenging because I really can't get into doing it until I have the costume on. The role feels fake and forced in rehearsal when I'm wearing normal clothing. The costume forces you to feel a certain way. Working with the cape gives you ideas for the character, how he can make himself look bigger or smaller, how he can try to disappear. In the studio mirror, you see what you look like and that makes it much easier to become this magician."
"I always look forward to The Nutcracker," says soloist Sterling Hyltin. "The costumes and sets are beautiful, and it's breathtaking when that curtain comes up in the second act. The variety of the costumes for the divertissements, the different moods and themes, is something I have always loved."
Karinska's design for Dewdrop is one of the great ballet costumes — a flattering wisp of pink that's barely there, less a costume than an idea about glamour and sophistication. "It is such a beautiful costume," Sterling says. "That is the prettiest I've ever felt onstage. From that tiara that's so unique to the boning on the bodice, it makes you feel great. You feel very exposed, since the bodice is practically see-through, but not exposed in the same sense as you do a leotard ballet. You just feel beautiful. The choreography has several grand entrances, so you have to feel like a queen. This costume certainly helps you feel that."
One of the more athletic dances in Nutcracker is Candy Cane, a burst of acrobatics for a dancer in striped satin pajamas strewn with 144 tiny bells. "The costume is heavier than it looks," says corps member Craig Hall. "The dance is fast and fun, but when you put that costume on the first time, it's a surprise. The costume is great, and you have to figure out how to work with it so you can fulfill the choreography."
One of Karinska's more exotic Nutcracker costumes is for Coffee, a solo for a sultry odalisque. "I love how earthy Coffee is, when everything else is so sugary and fluffy," says corps de ballet dancer Faye Arthurs. "The Coffee solo is certainly all about the costume. The dance looks easy, but the costume weighs a ton. You've got cymbals on your fingers and bells on your ankles. And the skirt does what it wants to do. No two performances are the same. You have three full counts to finish a coup_ jet_ en tournant [a combination of a turn and a large jump] in a half-circle because the skirt needs that time to finish its own circle so you can slow your centrifugal force. Without that costume it's not the same dance.
"Karinska's costumes are amazing," Faye continues. "You can always tell when a costume is Karinska's. There's a real depth in quality. And she put in sweet little touches, like the portraits of Lincoln Kirstein and George Balanchine in the cameos for the Spanish dancers in Nutcracker. I wish I could have known her. Still, her legacy endures."
Robert Sandla writes frequently about the performing arts.
Isaac on Karinska
The influence of Karinska's work has been felt beyond the ballet. We asked noted fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi for his opinion of Karinska's Nutcracker costumes:
"Inspiring. I was very young when I saw that ballet the first time, and I've been back a million times. One thing I remember being influenced by was Karinska's use of color combinations. Seeing her Nutcracker recently, I thought, 'Wow, she really went for it.' The costumes are wonderful every minute. She put the Spanish divertissement in dark chocolate-brown costumes trimmed in bright colors — who thinks of putting chocolate brown next to bright pink or bright turquoise or yellow? It's a combination you never forget. Her costumes for the snow scene are incredibly astute — they are the color of a twilight moonlight in a forest. Beyond that, Karinska's designs taught me so much about designing costumes before I even knew I was learning. She taught me how to think as a costume designer."