Dressed for Success

Classic Arts Features   Dressed for Success
Hanna Rubin shows us just how important costumes—and their handlers—are to American Ballet Theatre's ballets.

Racks of chiffon, leather, and netting fill American Ballet Theatre's Studio Three. Though no spring sunshine enters the windowless interior, beading, gilding, and braiding shimmer under the fluorescent lights. Costumes for American Ballet Theatre's opulent new production of Sylvia are being unpacked, and dancers hurry through between rehearsals for quick fittings. Leotards and legwarmers get stripped off, and Maxim Beloserkovsky tries on the tunic of the hunter-hero, Amintas. Paloma Herrera rushes in, and the men are shooed out so she can be fitted for Sylvia's sumptuous Act III tutu.

The Met season looms around the corner, and the company's costume department has gone into high gear. For them, the eight weeks are a frantic numbers game, with more than 1,000 different costumes to juggle for six full-length ballets and eight one-acts. "If I thought about how many, I'd panic," says wardrobe supervisor Bruce Horowitz, who notes that Le Corsaire alone requires 300. While the costumes contribute immeasurably to a ballet's effect, the department's four members rarely see an entire ballet, especially since the company may rehearse one in the afternoon and perform another that night. "We're backstage for every rehearsal and every performance," says Horowitz, "making sure the right costumes ares in the right place at the right time."

Ballet has its own traditions that contribute to the season's challenges. Unlike Broadway performers, dancers may share costumes. This means even more than the usual wear-and-tear. A costume worn by one dancer at a matinee may need to be altered for another that evening. "It's generally minimal, a new row of hooks or tightening straps," notes wardrobe associate Hilarie Jenkins, who oversees the women's costumes for the corps de ballet. "I figure out who shares on the basis of torso length." Some costumes pose more problems than others. "We do a lot on Rothbart's costume in Swan Lake," says Andrew Corbo, Horowitz's assistant, who helps the performers handle the enchanter's cape. "He molts quite a bit in the lakeside scenes, and you have to rake up after him."

Principals sometimes wear costumes that have been onstage longer than they have. Inside the waist of ones from older productions can be found a row of names‹every time a new dancer puts one on, their name is added to it. Angel Corella, for instance, dances in many of Mikhail Baryshnikov's costumes. "We have dancers who love a costume that has a history, especially if it was worn by someone who went somewhere," says wardrobe mistress Caryn Wells, who works with the Principals and Soloists. "You become part of a grand tradition when you put one on," explains Principal Dancer Marcelo Gomes, "and you feel the costume already knows the ballet."

Carla Fracci's first-act costume in Giselle was still in use several years ago, but when the ballet returns to the Met this season, it won't be onstage again. Three years ago ABT trustee Ellen Schiavone established the Costume Fund to help refurbish and restore productions already in the repertory. It has won generous support from Saks Fifth Avenue, and others, and Giselle is among the first to benefit with new Act I costumes for the entire company.

Maintenance between performances means more than dry cleaning, as might be expected with a hand-cut, hand-sewn, hand-beaded tutu that cost $4,000 or more. "Everything we can wash, we will, but you can't throw tutus in the dryer. It would destroy them," says Horowitz. The costume department has its own hybrid equipment to dry them out‹"a Japanese clothes dryer that's attached to a futon warmer and blows hot air on them"‹then they are hung upside down. "Gravity is our enemy," Horowitz says. "You want them to have volume." Even if a costume isn't shared, dancing takes a toll. "We dance full out, and some times things rip," says Gomes. Department members and the team of dressers who assist them during the season routinely touch up a number of costumes between performances.

Pointe shoes, however, may only last a performance. Each dancer is allotted ten pairs a week during the season, and the company has more than forty women between the corps, soloists and principals. "It's a number to be reckoned with," says Corbo. "Basically, one woman equals 80 pairs of shoes." Some principals will wear several pairs during a ballet, preferring, say, a firmer shoe for a solo, or a softer one for a pas de deux. Corbo also handles the male dancers' ballet slippers, which he often must hand-color to blend with a costume's tights. "There's nothing worse than slippers that don't match," says Gomes, noting that it distracts from the dancer's line.

On top of the fittings, maintenance and repairs, the costume department tries to accommodate the Principal Dancers, each of whom has his or her own routine before going onstage. Herrera, for instance, gets to the theater very early, so she can warm up without feeling rushed. "Caryn is very patient," Herrera says. "She knows I like have my crowns out, that I don't want to do anything at the last minute, that I don't want to be distracted worrying about my costume, so I can just go on stage and be free."

The dancers depend completely on costume department members and dressers during the quick changes in the wings between scenes. The men often work in the dark with just a flashlight, while the women make quick changes in a temporary booth in the wings. "I always make sure everything's ready the way they like it," says Wells. "Say they're coming off Swan Lake Act III. They've just been the Black Swan, which is so athletic and emotional and 'other' from the rest of the ballet. They don't want to think about anything. They need to breathe, and start being the white swan."

The effort doesn't go unnoticed. "Caryn goes out of her way for us," says Herrera, who always likes to have Wells check her costume before she goes on. The appreciation is reciprocated. "I always watch from the wings‹I would never miss a step," says Wells. But the real rewards are in the thank-yous that the dancers gasp back in their dressing rooms after a performance. "The costumers are so sensitive to what we need, even though the season is so demanding for them," says Gomes gratefully. "I'm on three nights a week‹they're on every performance."

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