A dot here, a dye job over there at the City Ballet costume shop


All things considered, it might not be one of the biggest crises of 2008. But on Wednesday morning, the New York City Ballet’s costume shop canceled its year-end party. The night before, the store manager, Marc Happel, had learned that a dress rehearsal for the Balanchine “Chaconne” ballet had been called for the following day at noon. The costumes, some of which were being remade (or “rebuilt” in costume designer jargon), were not ready.

For many people, the time between Christmas and New Years is a time of calm, a chance to catch up on unfinished business and maybe quit work a little earlier. But not at the costume store, as last-minute fittings for the new “The Nutcracker” casts coincide with preparations for the company’s season opener on Tuesday.

Here in Lincoln Center’s Rose Building, 17 people perform almost everything City Ballet dancers wear on stage. (Hats are a separate business, and pointes have their own department: the company has a ballet shoe supervisor.) In addition to checking, repairing and reassembling the costumes of the 41 ballets that will be danced during the post-winter winter. “The Nutcracker” season, the seamstresses (the usual name, Mr. Happel said, but that doesn’t do justice to the skill involved) reconstruct much of the costumes for the long “Coppélia”.

They are also in the process of remaking the first part of Balanchine’s “Valses de Vienne” and part of “Chaconne”; create costumes for the two premieres of the season; and redo all of Balanchine’s “Themes and Variations” for the spring season. (“The colors have oxidized,” Mr. Happel reported in horror. “A tutu is bright orange.”)

“Chaconne,” along with Balanchine’s “Four Temperaments” and “Vienna Waltzes,” will be performed on opening night, and the dress rehearsal, Happel explained, would usually take place two or three days before that. But sudden changes of plan are the norm at City Ballet.

Due to its unusual pattern of performing many rotating works over the course of its seasons (no other ballet company in the world does something like this), rehearsal schedules and everything in between – like the fitting of costumes – are updated nightly and delivered via email or recorded voicemail.

It could be the subject of nervous breakdowns, but instead, the company’s employees seem to have acquired a protective patina of calm.

“I’m leaving for the theater in 12 minutes,” Mr. Happel said, just a little bit of noticeable tension in his voice, after answering a question about a “Chaconne” costume. “Just put on the elastic and we’ll tell you it’s not completely done yet.”

The costume shop is a beehive of seductive and calm productivity, filled with long tailoring tables and dressy mannequins, who allow an up-close appreciation of the beautiful details – embroidery, appliqués, lace trims – that adorn the clothes.

The store is run by Mr. Happel and a manager, Dara Faust, who follows everyone’s activities and is responsible for all financial matters. (The annual budget is around $ 1 million, with additional funds allocated to major new projects.) In addition to 13 costume designers, who create patterns and sew, the shop employs two people who are described by Mr. Happel. like the “unsung heroes” of ballet.

It’s a customer, Tracey Herman, who finds everything the store needs for costumes, and a dyer, Sarah Lenigan, who spends her days matching colors – often to old patterns, which are the only indication of the original shade of a faded suit. could have been.

Being true to the original designs is especially important at City Ballet, with its extensive repertoire of Balanchine, as over 70 of his ballets were designed by the famous Varvara Karinska (known professionally by his last name), to whom he attributed formerly 50 percent. of the success of his works.

The costume shop keeps design “bibles” for each ballet and, in the case of a work that is revived after a long time, tries to match every detail as precisely as possible. But the records aren’t always good (“Sometimes we just find a Xeroxed review with only a vague reference to the costumes,” Happel said), in which case some detective work is required.

“We look at photographs, videos, talk to any dancers who might have been part of the work, look at the thread on the old costumes to try to determine the original colors,” Mr. Happel said. “Sometimes it’s just a creative guesswork.”

He can also turn to the memories of some of the biters. One, Fira Sheynerberg, has worked in the store since 1978, and several other women have been there for a decade or more. Most of the embroiderers are of Slavic or Eastern European descent (“Sewing is still a vocation taught in these countries,” Mr. Happel said), and the sounds of Russian and Polish still dominate the great bright room, with its glimpses of the Hudson. , where they work.

“I know a lot of tailoring words in Russian,” said Jason Hadley, the only stitcher and former dancer with the Monte Carlo Ballets Trockadero.

Meanwhile, Mr. Happel flew to the rehearsal of “Chaconne” with the costumes and waited backstage as the dancers performed in front of the chief ballet master, Peter Martins; a ballet mistress, Rosemary Dunleavy; and the musical director of the company, Fayçal Karoui.

“The important thing is that they feel taken care of,” Mr Happel said after discussing a tunic adjustment with Adam Hendrickson, who had just performed a solo. “But when my job is to watch beautiful dancers in a beautiful ballet, that’s not a problem at all.”

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