Dressed to Thrill | Arts & Entertainment | Salt Lake City | Salt Lake City Weekly
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Culture » Arts & Entertainment

Dressed to Thrill

Ballet West prepares to debut a re-designed Nutcracker.


  • Beau Pearson

Creating new costumes for a ballet production is a highly collaborative process. The artistic director develops a vision; he knows what feeling the ballet should produce, as well as specifics such as the time period the costuming should recreate. The job of interpreting that vision, however, is left to the costume designer.

At Ballet West, Artistic Director Adam Sklute and Director of Costume Production David Heuvel have spent the past two years recreating more than 180 costumes for the company's belovedNutcracker performances. Funded through a $3-million grant from the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Foundation, the renovated production includes 24 new colorful sets, nearly 200 polished props and updated special effects, but replacing the costumes, which had become faded and worn after nearly three decades of use, is one project that was undertaken entirely in-house. Together, Sklute and Heuvel worked from concept to costume fitting—"I often do go to the fittings. Making sure the line fits the body is very important," Sklute says—to bring this vision all the way to opening night onDec. 2.

Heuvel, with an accent that to many ears might sound English, actually began his behind-the-scenes theater career in his home country of South Africa. "I worked in the opera house, and I very quickly became head of the ballet shop. Ballet has been my main focus ever since," he told filmmaker Brent Rowland in a RadioWest short film that went inside Heuvel's workshop during preparations for the company's 2013 production of The Firebird.

A large part of Heuvel's professional life has been devoted to Ballet West; he is one of only a handful of the company's employees who has worked with all five artistic directors. Along with his small four-person team, Heuvel creates nearly everything dancers wear on stage.

Costumes have always been an important part of ballet's spectacle, and often no expense is spared. Each new Nutcracker tutu from Heuvel's shop is hand-sewn. If you were to unravel the layers of ruffled and pleated tulle, the fabric of each tutu would stretch 16 yards; the most opulent of them are adorned with 806 Swarovski crystals. With all this hand-stitched detail, each piece represents about 40 hours of work, and $8,000 in materials and accoutrements.

From the early origins of the art—during the Italian and French Renaissance to the performing stages of 17th century Paris, Venice and Hamburg—ballet has always reflected the luxury of royal courts. Research and costume collections from the Victoria & Albert Museum in London shows that the first tutus were modest pieces—calf-length cascades that all but hid a dancer's lower body—but they were often made of silk and other expensive materials. As the 19thcentury progressed, according to the museum's written material, the skirts became shorter, eventually evolving into the classic horizontal tulle plate that shows off dancers' increasingly technical footwork and turns.

Heuvel's creations might at times be detailed and glamorous, but he has a strong philosophy that never puts his own work ahead of the dancers' art. Talking with Rowland, Heuvel recalled a formative moment with Ballet West founder Willam Christensen. "Mr. C said one night, 'We are here to do ballet, not costumes.' He said it to a designer, and that stuck with me. I understood what he was saying. You mustn't encumber the dancer with too much costume because it limits what they can do."

For those who resist change and lament the renovation of this classic production, Sklute points out Ballet West's long-standing tradition of such creative redesigns—a commitment, really, to ensuring the best possible viewer experience. The Nutcracker choreography that Utah audiences are familiar with was first staged by Willam Christensen in San Francisco in 1944. Later, he brought this version to Utah, where he started Ballet West. During Christensen's tenure with the company, he oversaw four different costume and set redesigns.

Interestingly, Sklute's latest artistic modernization of the ballet actually draws the dance closer to its 19th-century roots. Originally a short one-act ballet, The Nutcracker opened in 1892, one week before Christmas, for a sold-out audience at the Maryinsky Theater in St. Petersburg, Russia—where it received terrible reviews. But for the past few decades, most ballet companies—including Ballet West—have used costuming that sets The Nutcracker around the turn of the 20thcentury; think of the opening party scene with men in long coats and women in heavy, long-sleeved dresses.

This production, Sklute says, "will have a much more Victorian feel,down to the waistline of women's dresses. We wanted to be sticklers about the time period, especially during the party scene." But in the second act, when Clara visits the magical dream-world of the nutcracker, Sklute promises that creative fancy is let loose. Costumes from the sugarplum fairies to Spanish dancers to Mother Ginger and her children enhance a fantasy world full of color and delight.