When a ballet dancer performs a character – whether it’s a plum fairy or a dying swan or a star-crossed lover – not everything about that character appears in the dance moves.
“Sometimes you can’t make the character choreographically clear enough,” said David Heuvel, longtime costume designer for Ballet West. ” If you want it [or her] being sinister or devilish, you can do that to some extent in motion, but it’ll never give you that total look unless you have a costume.
For 31 years, Heuvel has been designing these costumes for Ballet West. He officially retired last August, but due to a delay induced by the COVID-19 pandemic, the production which he considers “a bit like my swan song” runs from February 11-19 – a production of the tragic romance ‘Romeo and Juliet’.
As Heuvel explains, creating costumes for a ballet is a long process — taking six to eight months under normal conditions, and even longer during the pandemic.
“You usually start with the choreographer or the person staging the ballet and find out what their needs are and what they want it to look like,” he said. “In these great classic ballets, like ‘Romeo and Juliet’, ‘Sleeping Beauty’ and ‘Swan Lake’, there is a defined character and a defined look that the choreographers want for that character.”
The next step, he said, is to dig into period research, to make sure the costumes match the era of the story. He is also looking to see what movement the different fabrics will provide.
“The fabric has to speak to me,” Heuvel said, cautiously. “I need to know the weight, appearance and texture.”
Heuvel said he’s always enjoyed seeing how different fabrics — like leather and lightweight wools — work together.
“I tend to mix fabrics that you wouldn’t normally use together to get the texture I want,” he said. “So there would be an overlay or an underlay or whatever… to push the character forward.”
Purchasing fabrics has been more difficult during the pandemic, Heuvel said. “I couldn’t fly to New York or Los Angeles to shop for fabrics in person, so everything we did was done online,” he said. Buying fabric has become a “two-week process”, he said, because of the problem all online shoppers face: things don’t look the same when they arrive on the website.
Ballet West hasn’t performed ‘Romeo and Juliet’ since 2002 – although Adam Sklute, the company’s artistic director, points out that version, choreographed by Michael Smuin, hasn’t been performed by Ballet West for more than 25 year.
For this production, Heuvel started from scratch; of the 130 to 150 costumes in the show, 80% are new.
“When we decided to revive it, we decided to go with the new design rather than try to recreate something from the 60s,” Heuvel said. “It was sort of from the beginning.”
Suits for Smuin’s job require silks, Heuvel said. The 2002 production suits – which the company sold, then bought some back – all used velvet. There are also many more costumes in the new production than in the 2002 version.
This production is groundbreaking for Ballet West – in that one of the three dancers chosen for Juliet, Katlyn Addison, is black, a first for the company. Addison will alternate with two other principal dancers: Jenna Rae Herrera, who is the first Latin cast in the role for Ballet West, and Beckanne Sisk.
Addison said there have been “a lot of changes within the academy and at Ballet West”, when it comes to diversity.
One of these changes concerns the costumes. In October 2020, Ballet West began allowing dancers to wear tights and pointe shoes to match their skin color. It was a response to a long tradition in ballet towards white tights and shoes – particularly with some of the “white ballet” roles of the classical canon, in works such as “Giselle” and “Swan Lake”. .
Now, says Heuvel, “the color of the legs and shoes is quite natural to their coloring, and most [ballerinas] have their own colors now, but they’ll still wear a leotard or panties or whatever to match the costume.
“Romeo and Juliet” is one of Heuvel’s favorite ballets, in part because it was one of the first he worked on growing up in South Africa. His grandmother was a milliner, made women’s hats, and taught Heuvel the basics of design and fit.
After high school and brief stints in the military and as a banker, he found his way back into the art world.
He joined a fledgling ballet company in South Africa, the Performing Arts Council, and worked under a deceased costume designer during a production of “Sleeping Beauty”. Heuvel was thrown into the deep end, temporarily appointed to run the costume shop and production – which featured Margot Fonteyn, the Royal Ballet’s legendary ballerina.
Heuvel remained in South Africa for the next 10 years, before joining Ballet West in 1979 – where he worked, except for a 10-year spell in Portland – until his retirement.
It’s impossible, Huevel said, to choose a favorite costume over the course of his long career. He joked that his favorites are “finishes”.
Huevel has had several triumphs in his career. In 2017, he oversaw Ballet West’s $3 million costume redesign for the company’s flagship production of “The Nutcracker” — a feat that earned him the then-Governor’s Artist Award. Gary Herbert. In 2014, the costumes he created for “Swan Lake” were rented to pop star Taylor Swift and used in the video for his hit “Shake It Off”.
Now that he’s retired, Huevel said he plans to volunteer and travel when the pandemic allows. He and his partner will remain in Salt Lake City. He said he would always call Ballet West “home”.
“It was a long journey, and it was also exciting and very rewarding,” he said. “I was very lucky to do what I do and what I love to do.”
Why are you, Romeo?
Ballet West will stage “Romeo and Juliet,” choreographed by Michael Smuin, with music by Sergei Prokofiev.
When • From February 11 to 19.
Where • Capitol Theater, 50 W. 200 South, Salt Lake City.
Opening hours • 7:30 pm on February 11, 12, 17, 18 and 19; 2 p.m. Saturday matinees on February 12 and 19.
Tickets • Available at https://boxoffice.balletwest.org/26604.