Dressing up the holiday season

Artists: Dressing up the holiday season


Dressing up the holiday season

The costumes for the annual production of "The Nutcracker" are a visual treat.

Story: Jodi Heckel

Photos: Robin Scholz

It’s a local holiday tradition: the Champaign Urbana Ballet’s performance of “The Nutcracker” each December at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts. The stage fills with toy soldiers, an army of mice, elegant ice fairies and the magical Sugar Plum Fairy.

The costumes – whether the suit coats and dresses of the men and women in the opening party scene, Herr Drosselmeyer’s dramatic cape and hat, the colorful skirts of the flowers or the shimmering tutu of the Sugar Plum Fairy – are the result of work that began months earlier, with shopping for fabric and hours of sewing in the ballet’s costume shop.

The costume shop, next door to the Champaign Ballet Academy, is filled with tutus, containers of beads and sequins, ribbons and other trim, sewing machines and sewing paraphernalia.

As the artistic director of the Champaign Urbana Ballet, Deanna Doty oversees all the visual elements on stage, including costumes, set, lighting, choreography and the quality of the dancers. She works with a number of artists with expertise in set design, lighting, choreography and other areas.

Doty’s major focus and area of interest, outside of her other duties that include teaching, is costume design. Her interest in costume design evolved partly out of necessity, because the company needed to make rather than buy many of its costumes.

But she also likes the challenge of creating the perfect costume to complement a dancer.

“I like to manipulate the fabric and make it do things. I like the sculptural aspect,” Doty said, describing herself as a visual and tactile person. “There are so many three-dimensional aspects to it. It has to move and portray the character.”

For example, the doll costume in the ballet’s production of “Coppelia” in spring 2012 had to be “somewhat absurd and over the top.”

The costumes for the Russian folk dancers in “The Nutcracker” were changed in the last couple of years and “jazzed up” to create more energy, with the addition of swirling skirts for the women and Cossack costumes with gold trim and fur caps for the men.

“I know in my head the type of silhouette I need, and the movement and the character. And then I go shopping. Sometimes the fabric dictates the design,” Doty said.

Or it might inspire a color scheme. An important consideration is what will look good on a particular dancer – the type of neckline, the length of the tutu and how it hangs, whether or not the costume has a sleeve.

Many of the parts in “The Nutcracker” are dual-cast, and a costume might look completely different on two different dancers. But they must still coordinate with their partners and the other dancers.

Doty grew up in an artistic family – her mother was a ballet dancer and her father was a photographer. Doty studied ballet when she was young, then danced with several companies. When she stopped dancing, she came to the University of Illinois to study graphic design but found she didn’t really like the field all that much. She needed money while a student, so she began teaching dancing, not knowing if she would enjoy it.

“Dancing can be a very selfish thing. I didn’t know if I could get excited about other people’s progress.” But, she said, “I found I really, really liked it, and it was exciting to see students progressing so much.”

She opened a ballet school, Champaign Ballet Academy, and is one of the founders (as well as artistic director) of the Champaign Urbana Ballet, which produces both “The Nutcracker” and a spring ballet, as well as other, smaller productions.

While Doty works on costumes for the major parts in “The Nutcracker” and the ballet company’s other productions, she isn’t trained in the field of costume design. She has learned over the years, though, and works closely with several others on the costumes, including Anne De Velder, the costume director for Krannert Center for the Performing Arts in Urbana.

The ballet company’s costume mistress, Masumi Iriye; the company manager, Julianna Steitz; and a group of volunteers, mainly parents of dancers, sew many of the costumes and do finish work such as adding trim and serging.

For example, new costumes for the Waltz of the Flowers involved lots of tulle that needed to be serged, pleated and sewn – very time-consuming work. One volunteer spent much of the summer in 2012 serging tulle, and Doty pleated all the skirts.

The fabric for the bodices was custom-dyed, and each bodice has two layers of fabric – the exterior fabric and a liner. Volunteers hand-stitched the 18 hooks and eyes that close the back of the bodices and the front inside seams so they lie flat. That works takes “a good hour and a half to two hours” for each bodice, Iriye said.

The Rose Queen and the two Rosebuds, featured in the Waltz of the Flowers, got new costumes in 2011, and new flower costumes for the scene were added last year.

Six new flower costumes are being added this year, so the girls who dance in the corps (which is sometimes double-cast, depending on the number of dancers in a particular year) don’t have to share costumes. The costumes have a pale pink bodice and a skirt that starts with a base layer of tulle. Then several layers of tulle ruffles are added, in progressive shades of dusty rose. Iriye said Doty was looking for something that would make a big impact for the Waltz of the Flowers, which is the grand finale dance just before the dream ends.

“It’s a totally eye-popping finale … all these girls whose skirts just fly up,” Iriye said.

The costume work also involved refitting costumes each year to the dancers in particular parts. There is a lot of tinkering, Iriye said. The volunteer seamstresses make the costumes with generous seam allowances, so they can be let out if a costume fits a dancer too tightly. The seamstresses also have learned to add stretchy panels to the sides of the bodices “without it looking like the seams are coming apart,” Iriye said.

“Costumes have to literally fit like a second skin,” she continued. “They have to move with the dancer, they have to make the dancer look great, they have to fit the vision, they have to look great on stage. There’s a whole other depth that doesn’t go into street clothes.”

Some costumes are used for more than one ballet. For example, the all-white snowflake costumes for “The Nutcracker” were used this past summer in another ballet that required white costumes. But Doty didn’t want the sparkle of the snowflake costumes, so layers of beading were removed from each bodice. It will all be added back again for “The Nutcracker.”

Every costume will also be inspected for any repairs that must be made before it is used again onstage – a torn bit of tulle or a seam that doesn’t lie right or is coming unstitched.

It’s a huge amount of work to get the costumes ready for each production, Iriye said, but it’s worth it. She has watched dancers move from the children’s loosely fitting soldier costumes to tutus. The dancers feel that “now we are ballerinas, not just kids in dress-up costumes,” Iriye said. “It’s really fun to see that.”

“The Nutcracker” has been in production since 1999, and “it’s getting to the point where there is so much repair work that needs to be done (on costumes), we might as well start over,” Doty said.
The main consideration in what costumes to rework each year is which are most in need of repair. Last year, it was the men’s costumes for the opening party scene.

“With the party men, the material in their pants was so thin, every time they went out, we’d just pray they were not going to split them open,” Doty said.

She relied on De Velder – an expert on men’s costumes and historical details – for the work. Doty also sought De Velder’s advice before making a trip last year to the Los Angeles garment district to shop for material.

The bases for the tutus are ordered from companies that specialize in making them, then they are engineered to get the desired shape, Doty said. Costumes are being designed using more stretch materials, to make them sturdy but without looking like a leotard, she said.

“I’m always interested in the challenge of it or the problem-solving aspect of it,” Doty said. “I want a costume that is more beautiful than what we did before, and that fits the dancer better and moves with the dancer better and will last longer.”