From November 23 through December 30, an expected 90,000 audience members will slide into seats at the Boston Opera House to take in The Nutcracker, a 42-year tradition for Boston Ballet and the result of countless hours of preparation — and not just for the dancers perfecting their moves in rehearsal rooms. Charles Heightchew, the Ballet's costumes and wardrobe manager, has been in overdrive for the last year. And no wonder: he'd been tasked with overseeing the production of a staggering 350 new costumes, the first new Nutcracker looks in 17 years. Last month, as his team finished hems and affixed the final Swarovski crystals, he let us into the workshop for a closer look.
"Mikko [artistic director Mikko Nissinen], who joined the Boston Ballet in 2001, has wanted to have his own costume production since he came here, but at the time, the costumes were fairly new and in good shape," says Heightchew, surrounded by mountains of tulle at the Ballet's South End headquarters. "We are going into our 50th-anniversary season this year, so it was an appropriate time to really launch this next project and have our new production of costumes for Mikko's new choreography."
"It's a whole new ballgame, because I get to do it exactly how I envisioned the whole production," adds Nissinen. "I've been like a kid in a candy store."
The overhaul comes at a time of renewed energy for the Ballet, which has staged a number of modern — and noticeably tutu-free — productions in recent years. Take this season's opener, a program that included Christopher Bruce's Rooster, set to a soundtrack by the Rolling Stones and featuring enough strutting and thrusting to make Mick Jagger feel like a Monkee. (As one industry insider put it, "This is not your grandmother's ballet.") Other works, though, remain deeply rooted in tradition, none more so than its annual production of The Nutcracker, a treasured holiday chestnut and, for many, a gateway drug to the art form. But after many years with same look, it was high time for an update.
Enter designer Robert Perdziola. Tapped by Heightchew, Nissinen, and production manager Ben Phillips to put a fresh spin on the costumes and set, Perdziola is no stranger to major productions. Although this is his first Nutcracker, he has designed for companies around the world, including Opera Boston, the Metropolitan Opera, and Opera Australia, for which he was nominated for a Helpmann Award — the Aussie answer to the Tony — in 2008.
Perdziola and company began with in-depth discussions of the period, style, story, and characters, and he attended several performances with Nissinen to see the existing costumes in action. "It's one thing to see the clothes on a dress form, but it's another to see how it's going to come together on a human," says Heightchew.
Perdziola worked out his first round of sketches last summer. His challenge? To balance the fresh with the familiar, to update the look while staying true to the ballet's traditional historical context. "No 1920s folklore or 1930s futuristic," jokes Heightchew. The previous costumes were based on the showier silhouettes of the mid-1830s; this production dials everything back to the early 1820s. Yet by going back in time just 15 years, the vibe of the costumes changes markedly — think more muted colors and streamlined silhouettes.