Denver’s “Nutcracker” at Ellie Caulkins Opera House gets new costumes, sets

When “The Nutcracker” needs new clothes, ballet companies turn to pros like Holly Hynes. The New Jersey-based costume designer has emerged as a go-to tutu-maker for the holiday classic.

“I seem to be on this Nutcracker circuit now,” she said in an interview last week from her home studio in the town of Teaneck. “One Nutcracker opens and then the next day you get another phone call.”

Long a part of the design team at the New York City Ballet, Hynes now works on her own, with an associated team of dressers and fitters and connections to fabricators across the country. She was a logical choice for Colorado Ballet when the company decided it was time to debut new outfits for the show’s familiar characters, such as young Clara, her godfather, Drosselmeyer, and the Sugar Plum Fairy.

“We thought (it) was going to be (in) 2020,” said Hynes. “But we all know how that turned out.”

She is referring to the coronavirus pandemic, of course, which forced Colorado Ballet to cancel last year’s performances — and the introduction of its new sets by stage designer Thomas Boyd and Hynes’ costumes. The upcoming slate of performances at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House will be the first time in 16 years the company has refreshed its production so thoroughly.

For Hynes, the pandemic lockdown presented challenges she never might have imagined. Costume designers need to see and feel fabrics, to watch dancers up-close as they move in new creations made of chiffon, taffeta and silk, to push and pull at stretchy materials during multiple fittings. Those are things that Hynes and her team prefer to do in person, traveling to different cities, but were forced to handle locally or through digital screens.

She got by, borrowing neighborhood teens to model lithe ballerina outfits and working through problems via Zoom. When it was possible, she and her assistant Ricky Lurie met in her home.

“One time Ricky brought 7,000 swatches to my house in New Jersey. We sat there for days and went through them,” she said.

That may seem like a lot of samples, but “The Nutcracker” requires more than 125 costumes and some use as many as 15 different fabrics. Many have to be made in duplicate to accommodate the three distinct casts of dancers who will fill roles over the 26 performances running Nov. 27 through Dec. 24.

If you go

Colorado Ballet’s “The Nutcracker” runs from Nov. 27-Dec. 24 at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House. Tickets are $40 to $175. Info at 303-837-8888 ext. 2 or coloradoballet.org.

The were some advantages to the postponement. Hynes and the in-house team at Colorado Ballet who worked closely together got a full extra year to think through their decisions. There was also an excess of fabricators who needed work during the health crisis.

“All these costume-makers were in trouble,” said Hynes. “There was no Broadway, no film, no television, no opera. Everything was shut down.”

She acknowledges there were deals to be had for the ballet company. But there also was work to give out, and they spread it around, contracting companies in 18 different shops, some in New York but also in places like California, Texas, West Virginia and Colorado.

She also tried to keep her workflow as normal as possible. That meant starting with her process of immersing herself, once again, in Tchaikovsky’s beloved music, and then creating sketches for all of the costumes in simple black-and-white — she draws everything by hand — and sending them to the company for revisions. Maybe a hem needed to be lifted or lowered, or a period detail altered to make a production, set in Europe in the 1890s, resonate with contemporary audiences.

After that, she added in colors and sent the drawings back for a second set of approvals. Then came the fabric selections and the arrangements with the folks who cut and sew actual costumes.

The task was completed with final, in-persons fittings on performers in recent weeks, which (due to COVID restrictions) had to be done under controlled conditions — and fast. The cast is massive, and on one day alone, the team fit clothes on 118 of the youth performers who will be featured in the production. Hynes credits a well-organized Colorado Ballet staff, and a determined corps of volunteer stage mothers, for getting things done efficiently.

By and large, the costumes are traditional, but Hynes came at her job with a 2021 perspective. The second half the “The Nutcracker” plays out as a pageant of ethnic and themed dances, as various performers take turns entertaining guests at a party. Over the years, various productions of “The Nutcracker” have been criticized for indulging in offensive stereotypes.

For one scene in particular, in which a Chinese dancer tangles with a pretend dragon, Hynes consulted with Phil Chan, a ballet dancer and founder of the organization Final Bow for Yellowface, which advocates for fair representation of Asians on stage.

The result: She avoided easy ethnic signaling, Iike using red and gold to represent Asians, in favor of a rainbow of costume colors. And her dragon strives for present-day authenticity: Its costume features imagery of contemporary Asian street food.

Minor details like that matter, according to Hynes. Audiences probably won’t notice the smaller moments, but the dancers who wear the costumes will.

“The dancer knows it,” she said. “And that gives the dancer a direction to go in their interpretation of the character.”

There are also subtle touches that spectators — including all those kids squiggling in their seats — may not spot that make the production unique to Colorado. Among Hynes’ custom moves: adding a pattern of marijuana leaves in the costume of the Nutcracker himself.

“From a distance, they look like oak leaves,” she said.

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