A Glittering New Look: NYCB Unveils New Costumes for Symphony in C
By Terry Trucco
Symphony in C, the effervescent tutu ballet George Balanchine choreographed in 1947 for the Paris Opéra Ballet, returned to the New York City Ballet repertory at the Company’s Spring Gala on May 10, after an absence of four years.
But when the curtain goes up, audiences are in for a treat. The choreography Balanchine created to a then little-known score by Georges Bizet is, of course, unchanged. But the costumes— sparkling Swarovski crystal encrusted tutus for the women, dashing black velvet tunics for the men—are new, redesigned to the tiniest detail by NYCB Director of Costumes Marc Happel. Even the crowns and earrings twinkling with SWAROVSKI ELEMENTS were fashioned specially for the revival of the ballet.
The new Symphony in C costumes represent one of the biggest undertakings in memory for NYCB’s Costume Shop. The shop has recently rebuilt some of Barbara Karinska’s iconic costumes for George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker and worked with fashion designers Gilles Mendel and Kate and Laura Mulleavy of Rodarte on costumes for the new ballets by NYCB Ballet Master in Chief Peter Martins and former NYCB Principal Dancer Benjamin Millepied that will have their world premieres at the 2012 Spring Gala.
But Symphony in C presented a unique assignment—a complete redesign of one of the Company’s crown jewels and the creation of nearly 50 complex costumes including more than 38 bejeweled tutus, each with a tutu made from 14 layers of netting.
“There were many, many components,” says Happel of the project that took more than a year from its inception to the Spring Gala debut.
On a bright winter day three months before the gala the airy Costume Shop in Lincoln Center’s Rose Building bustled as an 18-member team of drapers, cutters, and seamstresses meticulously worked away in a sea of white fabric. Fluffy tulle skirts hung from racks like gigantic powder puffs. At long tables workers wielding shears cut bodices from shimmering swathes of creamy white duchess satin. A woman stood in a corner patiently steaming and tacking a tutu one layer of netting at a time.
Happel, who has headed the shop for six years, strolled the room’s length, stopping to point out subtle details that make a tutu special, like a ruffle that adds volume near the edge of a tulle skirt and a narrow casing on the skirt for adding a tutu wire if the netting starts to droop.
The story of the new costumes began last year when Martins called Happel to his office to discuss Symphony in C. The gist: the existing costumes were worn out, and rather than make new versions of the mid-century designs, the costumes would be redesigned from bottom to top.
They decided the costumes should honor the original Karinska/ Balanchine color palette with white tutus for the women and classic black tunics worn with black tights for the men. “I was thrilled,” says Happel, who set to work immediately.
As inspiration he looked to a favorite Christian Dior gown from 1949 called “Junon.” Overlapping petal shapes form the skirt, each adorned with beading that goes from barely there to intensely dark at the edge. “My hope was to create something that looks beautiful and classic with a modern edge,” he says. A 21st century tutu, in other words.
Happel spent much of the summer sketching tutus and tunics. When the shop reopened in the fall, members of the costume shop team added ideas. “Rarely does design come from one mind,” he says.
Or from one material. For the redesign Swarovksi has partnered with NYCB, donating crystals to embellish the costumes, a gift that enhanced but also tweaked the designs. The costume eventually took shape as a creamy white satin bodice with a pointed peplum and a fluffy white net tutu topped with a layer of silver lace organza, called a plate.
Crystals dance across the bodice, peplum and plate to create sparkle under the stage lights. In keeping with the ballet’s black and white palette, Happel chose stones in diamond tones, greys, and blacks and added blue “to integrate the production’s blue scrim into the design,” he says.
The men’s tunic is fashioned from light-weight black velvet with a front panel of pleated satin. They have a strong horizontal neckline detailed with a row of Swarovski crystals which emphasizes the men’s broad shoulders, and crystal stones are randomly sewn onto the front panel, mirroring the sparkles on the bodices of the ladies’ costumes.
But here’s where 21st century tutu making diverges from the past. Using a computer, Swarovski’s technical team created plastic transfers that allowed the Costume Shop to affix set patterns of glue-backed crystals to each tutu’s organza plate with a heat setting machine.
Happel also hunted down a company in midtown that used a laser to cut scalloped edges on the thousands of yards of netting used for the tutu skirts. “The scallops make the skirts appear more delicate and feathery,” he says. Laser cutting was a huge savings in time and money over cutting the netting by hand, he adds.
Most facets of the job still required handcrafting. To create glittering headpieces for the women, Happel turned to Robert Sorrell, a jewelry maker in New York who has created crowns for movies and Broadway theater. For the corps de ballet and demi-soloists, Sorrell fashioned a fetching headpiece from rows of crystals set on an angle and attached to a comb. The four principal women wear an updated take on the classic sunray tiara, modernized with square-cut stones instead of traditional round-cut stones in a dark metal setting. “There are over 200 crystals in each tiara,” Sorrell says. “The dark plating creates a contrast and makes the crystals look more flashy.”
The dancers didn’t wear specific earrings in the original Symphony in C. But jewelry designer Jamie Wolf, a former dancer with the Company, seemed a natural candidate to change that. “If you’re going to design a ballet, design it from head to toe,” Happel says. Wolf created sparkling clusters of Swarovski crystals set in contrasting oxidized silver with smaller earrings for the corps de ballet and four larger designs, a different one for each principal. “I danced in all four movements of the ballet,” Wolf says. “I loved it.” Her five earring designs are available for sale on her website (jamiewolf.com) with a portion of the proceeds going to NYCB Turn Out, the Company’s grassroots fundraising initiative.
With ample time for the project, Happel was allowed the ultimate luxury—the opportunity to create full mock-up costumes to make certain everything looked right. On an afternoon well before the opening, Principal Dancers Sara Mearns and Tyler Angle and corps member Meagan Mann put on the costumes and stood on stage while Martins, from a spot in the theater, scrutinized the designs under the stage lights before they were finalized. Every detail was taken into account. Were the stones on the skirts too heavy? Did the bodice have enough definition?
Happel and his team addressed each issue, and the designer is looking forward to sitting in the audience at the gala performance. “I’ll be very excited,’ he says.
Terry Trucco writes frequently about the arts and travel
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